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Now it’s optimistic Millennials’ turn

In addition to creaky knees and a tendency to fret about the younger generation, here’s another sign you’re probably a Baby Boomer or older: You do not sleep with your cell phone.
That’s one of the interesting conclusions to be gleaned from the Pew Center’s ongoing study on the lifestyles and attitudes of so-called Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2002. In demographic terms, the Millennials followed Generation X, those born from 1965 through 1980. Although Generation X didn’t have to endure the Great Depression or defeat totalitarian forces in a world war, it performed another invaluable service for civilization: It finally gave media culture mavens something to write about besides the Baby Boomers.
Now, it’s the Millennials’ turn to undergo sociological scrutiny. With the oldest of this group now hitting their mid-30s, they’re establishing themselves in careers, running businesses, raising families and — let’s hope — moving into leadership positions in the community.

They’re the future, or at least a big part of it, and they’re an interesting bunch. Some broad-brush traits are well known, and a new Pew report on Millennial attitudes supports that. The Millennial generation is more tolerant than previous ones, especially those of its grandparents or great-grandparents. According to the Pew study, 68 percent of Millennials support same-sex marriage, while support among Baby Boomers and older is less than 50 percent. Almost 70 percent of Millennials support marijuana legalization, and 55 percent favor creating pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Yet while those attitudes may make them more liberal than conservative, they’re less attached to specific political parties or religious institutions than previous generations. They’re more interested in co-existing rather than fighting culture wars — which could be bad news for right-wing ideologues as well as talk radio rabble-rousers.
But back to that cell phone. A spirit of tolerance is a pervasive trait for Millennials, but it’s not the primary one by which they define themselves. As a demographic cohort, Pew said in an previous report, “They are history’s first ‘always connected’ generation. Steeped in digital technology and social media, they treat their multi-tasking hand-held gadgets almost like a body part — for better and worse. More than eight-in-10 (83 percent) say they sleep with a cell phone glowing by the bed, poised to disgorge texts, phone calls, emails, songs, news, videos, games and wake-up jingles.”
The “… almost like a body part” sounds like hyperbole. But when asked what sets their generation apart, 24 percent of Millennials cited technology (while only about 7 percent mention tolerance and liberalism). If 24 percent doesn’t sound like much of a generational sign post, consider that it’s double the 12 percent of Gen Xers who identified technology use as their primary defining characteristic.
The connectedness theme is even more striking when you dig down into the phenomenal growth of social networking. In 2005, only about 5 percent of the public reported using social networking sites. Now, only eight years later, at least 41 percent of the public has created a profile on a site such as Facebook or LinkedIn. Millennials account for a huge hunk of that growth. Three-fourths (75 percent) of Millennials have created a social networking profile, compared with 50 percent of Gen Xers and 30 percent of baby boomers.

Along with their hunger for connection, here’s another striking trait of the Millennials that turned up in the new report — one that surprised me. They’re far more optimistic about the future than you might think, given the dour headlines about high debt loads and high unemployment rates among young adults. Asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with the nation’s direction, only 23 percent of baby boomers and 14 percent of those older than 65 say they’re satisfied. Millennials are far sunnier, with 41 percent expressing satisfaction. Pew notes the young always tend to be more optimistic than their elders — a genetic survival trait? — but the satisfaction gap is wider now than in times past. Are they discounting domestic and global problems — or do they perceive potentials older generations simply can’t fathom?
A desire for connection and a resolute confidence in the future are invaluable characteristics — characteristics that are essential not just for one particular age group or community, but for all. Studying the Pew findings, I was struck by how the Millennials’ desire for connection mirrored one of the major themes emerging from our recent community forum here in Rowan County — a desire for more collaboration and less conflict. In that regard, the Millennials have something to teach us. Their embrace of technology isn’t just changing the way people communicate. It’s also changing the concept of community itself. The past looks at community as an entity primarily defined by jurisdictional lines and geographic boundaries, or by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or income levels. The past talks in terms of limitations, liabilities and constraints. The future — the Millennial mindset — sees community as something more malleable, free-flowing and people-centered. The future talks in terms of possibilities, collaboration and connection.
Or, to put it in technological terms, communities trapped in old paradigms and false dichotomies are tethered to their landlines. Communities of the future are sleeping with their smart phones.
Which would you prefer to call home?
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post. You can find the most recent Pew report, “Millennials in Adulthood,” at http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/03/07/millennials-in-adulthood/

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