It's not shocking that a magazine called Time would be interested in the march of human generations. But the weekly's much-discussed cover story on the late-'80s to mid-'90s "millennials," Generation Me Me Me glossed past (as do the inevitable retorts) the possibility that the year of one's birth just isn't very important. A broad study three years ago, based on perhaps the largest available data sets measuring American youth, was skeptical that "generational" cohesion—of the sort we obsess over—exists at all.
In 2010 psychologists Kali H. Trzesniewski of the University of Western Ontario and M. Brent Donnellan of Michigan State took data from the Monitoring the Future project, and looked at whether they could find any unified "generational" character traits in the responses. The MtF is a massive annual survey of 50,000 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and in part by various anti-drug policy initiatives. It's designed to measure trends and incentives to youth drug abuse, but also seeks "to study changes in the beliefs, attitudes, and behavior of young people in the United States." Questions on the survey include employment goals, attitudes toward marriage, race relations, religion, and so forth. Roughly 50,000 American school kids have filled out the survey every year since 1976.
Using that huge data set, the study didn't find anything like the degree of generational character consistency the Time story implies. Here's the conclusion from the resulting paper, Rethinking ‘‘Generation Me’’: A Study of Cohort Effects From 1976–2006 (PDF):
We found little evidence of meaningful change in egotism, self-enhancement, individualism, self-esteem, locus of control, hopelessness, happiness, life satisfaction, loneliness, antisocial behavior, time spent working or watching television, political activity, the importance of religion, and the importance of social status over the last 30 years. Today’s youth are less fearful of social problems than previous generations and they are also more cynical and less trusting. In addition, today’s youth have higher educational expectations than previous generations. However, an inspection of effect sizes provided little evidence for strong or widespread cohort-linked changes.
The two psychologists' findings seem common sense. A woman born in Boston, raised in a bilingual environment, with two siblings; who served in Iraq with the Air Force; is married with two children; subscribes to HBO; and earns $52,000 a year working in commercial property administration, is supposed to share primary character traits with a man from a fourth-generation Wyoming family, monolingual, single, no kids, earning $24,000 as a painter, so long as they were both born in 1991, and are Facebook friends?
Back to the shrinks. Their number crunching from the MtF found some consistent traits. But nothing that suggests generational character traits trump any other kind of demographic commonality:
Today’s youth seem to have psychological profiles that are remarkably similar to youth from the past 30 years. However, we did find that more recent generations have higher expectations for their educational careers and are more cynical and distrusting than previous generations. Nonetheless, using the MTF data sets, we found little evidence to support deep concerns about the current generation of youth, especially in terms of their feelings of self-worth, egotism, and rates of misery.
Later, they summarize their findings as, essentially, the kids are alright:
Individuals mis-attribute changes that have occurred within themselves to changes in the world. Thus, the new parent may begin to believe that drivers are objectively more dangerous and careless when all that has really happened is that the individual assumed a new role which entails a different set of concerns, responsibilities, and perceptions related to the safety and security of his or her child. The world did not change.