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The Millennial Generation

Active, Engaged & Connected

By Shanta Bryant Gyan

Watch the continuing conversation backstage at Assembly in St. Louis between Erica Williams, Judy Woodruff and Harriett Olson.


The Millennial Generation  -- 18 to 29 year olds -- are often discounted as being apathetic, self-indulgent and hostile to civic institutions, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, said veteran broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff and activist/commentator Erica Williams in their onstage dialog about today’s youth during the morning plenary of United Methodist Women’s Assembly in St. Louis, Mo., May 1.

With some 50 million “millennials” nationwide, a recent Pew Research Center national study found people under 30 to be more active, engaged and connected than any other generation in history.

Ms. Woodruff, a senior correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," tapped into the pulse of the Millennial Generation when she produced two hour-long documentaries exploring the views of U.S. youth called "Generation Next: Speak Up. Be Heard" in 1997. The documentaries aired on Public Broadcast System (PBS) stations in addition to a series of reports on the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," National Public Radio and in USA Today.

As mother of three millennial generation children, she increasingly wanted to learn more about what made this age-group tick.

The women’s eye-opening dialog touched on a range of critical issues that impact and define young people of this generation. First, millennials are the most diverse generation in U.S. history, Ms. Woodruff said. A Pew Research Center study found 19 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are black, and a significant number identify themselves as mixed race. Ms. Williams, a dynamic 26-year-old who is part of the millennial generation, noted that by 2050 there will be no single majority ethnic group in the United States.

“Millennials value differences and celebrate them,” said Ms. Williams, who is African-American. As deputy director of Campus Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress, Ms. Williams leads a network of nearly 50,000 young people and encourages them to be involved in civic affairs and national campaigns on progressive policy issues.

Since this generation is growing up in an increasingly diverse and inclusive society, young people are more open and accepting of people who are different from themselves, particularly people from different backgrounds and religious faiths, Ms. Woodruff said.

And the millennial generation is less homophobic than previous generations. “Homosexuality is not a big deal to them,” Ms. Woodruff said. While older generations engage in polarizing debates on homosexuality, she said young people just shrug their shoulders and say, “What’s the big deal?”

Ms. Woodruff said young people of the millennial generation are also more receptive to comprehensive immigration reform and believe immigration makes the United States a richer country.

Members of the millennial generation are more likely to identify themselves politically as liberals than previous generations -- even when compared to “baby boomers,” who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Yet, millennials are as disenchanted with the political process in Washington, D.C., as other generations, Ms. Woodruff noted.

The willingness to serve is another characteristic of the millennial generation. “Right now, the best way to make a difference is to volunteer,” Ms. Woodruff said of that generation. She said young people are actively volunteering and serving in their communities and in impoverished countries around the world.

Ms. Williams agreed: “To make the world what we want it to be, we have to be involved.” A daughter of nondenominational ministers, Ms. Williams said her interest in civic engagement was greatly influenced by her church’s work in the community.

While some political commentators noted the millennial generation did not attend town hall meetings during the health care debate, Ms. Williams said young people were indeed engaged in the process, but they organized and weighed in on the debate through the use of new technologies such as social networking sites.

In fact, the Pew Research Center study revealed millennials were the only generation for which a majority of respondents said government should do more, rather than less.

Ms. Woodruff said millennials are avid users of new technologies and connect with others online through social networking. People of this generation are likely to have a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The Pew Research Center study also found 8-of-10 sleep with their cell phone in bed or nearby it, she said.

The millennial generation is considerably less religious than older generations, the Pew Research Center study revealed. However, the study also found millennials have a strong spirituality and pray about as often as older generations did when they were young.

Despite the fact that many young people under 30 are not affiliated with a particular faith or denomination, they recognize the importance of houses of worship in creating social change in communities, Ms. Woodruff said.

“This generation believes that places of worship speak to social and political issues,” Ms. Williams echoed.

Overall, millennials tend to be close to their parents and even consider them as friends. Four-in-10 children born into this generation have been reared by a single parent, while 6-in-10 lived in a two-parent household.

In an interview with Response magazine, Ms. Woodruff and Ms. Williams both appreciated the opportunity to participate in the United Methodist Women’s Assembly.

“I’ve been deeply inspired by the women gathered here today,” Ms. Woodruff said. “These women are a powerful force for change in the world.”

“I’ve seen such incredible energy, kindness and excitement,” Ms. Williams said after the dialog. “United Methodist Women are doing such important work in the community.”

In reaching out to the millennial generation, Ms. Williams suggested that United Methodist Women ensure that young people are part of the process, not relegated to a separate space. “This generation wants to be part of the dialog to shape institutions.”

Shanta Bryant Gyan is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Response.

Last Updated: 05/02/2010

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