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Millennials

How one Meredith researcher is shaping the way we talk about (and to) the most misunderstood generation
By Suzanne Stanard

Meredith Students Taking Photos During Commencement

A quick Google search on millennials reveals that they are the most-watched generation in history. 

The avalanche of headlines also brings to light many critics who blast millennials for being narcissistic, lazy, irresponsible, and entitled. 

But Meredith Professor Deborah Tippett disagrees. 

In fact, she believes that millennials not only possess admirable core values, but also that they’ll employ those beliefs to make the world a better place. 

Tippett, professor of human environmental sciences who served as longtime department head, has conducted years of research to make a new case for this oft-maligned generation.

Why Make the Case?  Chart showing Generation, Years, Population

“Because millennials are an international phenomenon, the largest generation, the most diverse, and the most connected,” she said. “Millennials are going to be our leaders. They are going to change the world.” 

Tippett’s studies on the millennial generation – defined by researchers William Strauss and Neil Howe as those born between 1982 and 2002 – began in 2008 with her Faculty Distinguished Lecture on the topic. 

“I became very interested in millennials because I had noticed that this cohort is exceptionally different from previous generations,” said Tippett, who teaches in family studies and development. “There’s a lot written about how the cohort in which you grew up and were raised influences your life decisions. It’s fascinating.” 

And much of what Tippett has discovered through her research – as well as her personal experience on a college campus – debunks millennial stereotypes. 

“What I’ve tried to do is present a very holistic overview of what the researchers are saying,” Tippett said. “I really do see both the good and the bad. I happen to think there’s more good than bad.”

For starters, she has found that millennials are much more aware of the world than previous generations, and one in five has immigrant parents.

With that expanded worldview, Tippett said, comes a deep concern for those in need and a strong desire to make the world a better place. 

“I had one student who spent a summer working in an AIDS hospital in the largest slum in Nairobi, Africa,” Tippett said. “She was living in the slums, helping these babies with AIDS, and she was only 20 years old. I remember thinking, how did she get the confidence to do that?”

Another one of Tippett’s students spent her summers in Uganda working in an orphanage. A child development major, this particular student documented the children’s health and development through a blog that now serves as a valuable resource for the parents who ended up adopting those children. 

“This is the first generation that is actually, in large numbers, studying abroad, doing mission work, wanting to make their mark,” Tippett said. “While millennials are more connected through technology, they are also more connected through travel, service, and knowledge.” 

Tippett was asked once by a reporter for her thoughts on a negative study that declared millennials to be overly confident and narcissistic. The crux of her response? That very confidence allows them to do amazing things.

“Some people stereotype millennials as narcissistic because it’s the easy thing to do,” she said. “But I’ve found the opposite to be true, and not just here at Meredith. Millennials are a very kind, caring generation.”

Her research shows that millennials are more tolerant of diversity, they care about justice and problems faced by society, and they are engaged in civic activity at school, work, and in their communities. 

Tippett said she has learned much from the work of psychologist and author Martin Seligman, who believes that when you use your strengths in service of others, you’ll have a meaningful life. 

“That is what I really want to help our students with,” she said. “They want to have meaningful lives, so how do we take it to the next level? It’s not just about getting a job or being a good leader, but how do you do those things to serve other people? Then I really do think millennials can change the world.”

Family Ties

Many people believe one of the reasons millennials are so different is that they experienced 9/11 as young people, according to Tippett. The events of that day – and their myriad repercussions – generated within millennials an increased need to stay in touch, especially with their parents, and to have cell phones. The sale of cell phones was actually on the decline before 9/11, Tippett said. 

“Millennials are very close to their parents,” she said. “One student told me that she talked to or texted her mother every hour about what she did in class, what she ate for lunch, and what she was thinking about. They want to be in constant contact with their parents.”

The phenomenon goes both ways. 

“Parents are definitely more involved in college,” Tippett said. “They’re more likely to want to talk and negotiate and tell their child’s point of view, and as a department head, I’ll see them come in if they think their child has been treated unjustly. In previous generations, college students would have been embarrassed if their parents interfered.”

This sort of extreme parental attention in which millennials are constantly validated and having their needs met can make entry into college difficult because it sets up unrealistic expectations, Tippett said. 

“I think when this generation comes to college, it can be a really hard reality,” she said. “College campuses are trying to be more responsive to the millennial generation and to help these students recognize that they are capable and can do better.” 

At Meredith, Tippett leads the Strengths Initiative to support the College’s StrongPoints® program. All new students at Meredith are assessed through the Clifton Strengths Finder™ model which reveals for each of them a set of five signature strengths. Throughout their college careers, students learn ways to maximize and apply those strengths.  StrongPoints definition

“When I first heard about the strengths approach, my response was, they already think they’re strong enough. Why would we want to add to that?” Tippett said. “And now I’ve come full circle because I believe that when students have an honest conversation with an adult who’s important to them about how to use these signature talent themes to grow into strengths, to be the best person you can be, it’s very effective.” 

Just as millennials value their families of origin, they place primary importance on building their own families. 

“This generation has consistently said that raising a family is their most important value, whereas in past years, it may have been success at work or making a lot of money.” 

While millennials are eager to marry, they’re in no rush. The average age for first marriages continues to rise, Tippett said, indicating many things: deliberate and optimistic thought about the future and a desire to travel and have other adventures before settling down. Students are also more cautious about marriage and want to make sure that they are making a good decision.  

Digital Natives

Millennials have never lived in a world without computers. 

“Technology is like electricity was to our generation. We always had it,” said Tippett.  

They experienced the digital revolution during their formative years, and as a result, research indicates that their preferred methods of communication are text message and social media – almost always with mobile devices. 

Multi-tasking is a way of life for millennials, she said. They get bored easily and may appear rude to others. On the web, they operate at “twitch speed,” bouncing from site to site, expecting instant results and service any hour of the day.  

“I do think the lack of face-to-face contact may stunt interpersonal skills,” Tippett said. “I always tell students never resign or break up on a text message or email. You don’t want to burn bridges.”

As a teacher, she has witnessed students’ obsession with technology firsthand. 

“I’ve had to set rules in my classroom on the proper use of technology,” she said. “If we’re having discussions, their laptops must be closed and phones put away. There are other times when we use technology for research and sharing data.” 

Once, while observing a class being taught by one of her colleagues, Tippett sat beside a student who clicked through 27 different applications on her computer, oblivious to the instruction taking place in the room or the fact that a department head was watching her.  Dr. Deborah Tippett at table with two students

Tippett also is concerned about the distorted body images promoted by social media. 

“We live in a selfie world,” she said. “And I think the reliance on social media and reality TV and the obsession with appearance and consumption can have dangerous consequences.”   

Other issues of concern for Tippett are “cut-and-paste” plagiarism, a dearth of critical thinking skills, a false sense of security (and related lack of concern for privacy), cyber-bullying, and the insistent need for validation through social media “likes” and comments. 

Despite all this, she said, technology has proven to have vast positive impact on millennials, enabling them to communicate, make important connections, pursue opportunities, and expand their global awareness. 

Also significant, Tippett said, is the fact that technology has been credited with saving lives. 

“Millennials are considered to be healthier and commit fewer suicides than prior generations,” Tippett said. “When I’ve worked with the Raleigh Police Leadership Institute, the officers have told me is that it’s not that they don’t attempt suicide, it’s that they’re not successful because they might post something on Facebook or text it, and first responders can track them down through that technology.” 

The Cheapest Generation  Dollar Sign with spending details of Millennials in 2017 and over lifetime

Millennials are on the cusp of becoming the largest spending population in the world. 

According to a recent article in Forbes, it’s estimated they’ll be spending $200 billion annually by 2017 and $10 trillion over their lifetimes as consumers, in the U.S. alone.

The business world is paying attention, Tippett said, and the concept of millennials as consumers dominates current headlines about the generation. 

“Millennials are being called the cheapest generation, but it’s because they’re not buying the big-ticket items that previous generations did,” she said. “They’re funding their own passions, using crowd-sourcing technology to make their dreams a reality.”

According to a March 2016 Washington Post article, new studies show that not only are millennials carrying less debt than they did in previous years, but also they are saving more aggressively than they have in the past (sometimes more than their older counterparts). 

“Millennials are much more likely to live with groups of friends, to live in town, and to use public transportation,” she said. “They’re more interested in having experiences, so they’re spending money paying a lot back to debt, but they’re also going to places like Africa to do service work. Millennials are very intentional about what they do and how they spend their money.” 

Millennials in the Workplace

More than one in three American workers today are millennials, and in 2015 they surpassed Generation X to become the largest share of the American workforce, according to a Pew Research Center study. 

Millennials get a bad rap for being difficult to manage and unmotivated, but Tippett said it’s because they have to believe in what they’re doing. 

“To me, millennials care deeply about their communities and making a difference, about changing the world,” Tippett said. “And as a result, they’re not interested in working for an organization or being part of a group that is not addressing that.” 

As she travels to speak about millennials to organizations all over the U.S. and abroad, Tippett also makes a point to talk to millennials. 

“I’m finding this research that talks about issues and problems they’re having as professionals, so I thought why don’t I just go to the millennials and tell them?” Tippett said. “I thought if they could know what is being said about them, and if they could gain that extra edge, they could be successful in the workplace.”

In a presentation titled “How to Stand Out as a Millennial,” Tippett shares important advice. 

And her audiences listen. 

Her nuggets of wisdom focus on leadership, communication, critical thinking, gratitude, and pursuing dreams. 

“Because millennials are going to be our leaders, and because they are so different, with their technology, their knowledge of the world, and their respect of diversity, they’re going to change the way our world works,” Tippett said. “They’re going to change the way offices are run, the way schools are run, and they are going to change government at some point. I do think it’s exciting.

“My favorite quote is by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: ‘The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason to hope.’ That’s what I believe about millennials.” 


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