What About the Millennial Generation?

John ArmstrongEmergent Church

Some call them "Gen Y" because they are younger than "Gen X." Others call them the Millennials, or even the post-9/11 generation. They are Millennials because they came of age in 2000. They are one of the most discussed and debated generation since the Boomers came along. Whether you like the discussion, or find it boring and pointless, it continues. Who are these young adults, between the age of 18 and 24?

This generation should be considered socially, politically and spiritually. I am most interested in the latter but all three categories interest me. Here is what we do know about Millennials. They worry a lot more about Iraq than older adults. They think America is on the wrong track but they are not generally sure why or how to fix it. They are liberal, but not always or consistently. They most likely come from broken homes thus they are longing for deeper relationships that can help them cope with the world. But they do not marry as previous generations and they are not having many children at all. They are spiritually hungry, religiously clueless, and simply do not learn and process information as we did.

How will this group vote in 2008? Democrats court them because they believe they can make a difference to their party. But polling is very uncertain since many in this generation are reachable only by cell phones. But they can be reached on the Internet and they do respond via this medium. Democrats have presumed that this generation belongs to them for some years now even though there is only slight evidence that they really do and that they will make any real difference in forthcoming elections. In the 2004 election this group share of the total electorate was 17%, unchanged from 2000. They voted at a 47% rate, up from 36% in 2000. The youth vote is just not there in the large numbers that many hoped for in courting them politically. Might this change in 2008? For whatever reasons (apathy, lack of sensing the importance of voting, etc.) the youth vote has generally not been that important in the outcome of elections. (The female vote is very important, in contrast. This bodes well, many believe, for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.)

A recent Pew Research Center survey shows an apparent lack of political and social knowledge among Millennials. The 18-29 year old group did far worse in understanding important public issues than any other group. (So much for a college education actually educating people.) Only 15% of this generation had a "high knowledge" of current affairs, while 59% had "low knowledge." The other 29% were in the middle. And the survey had no trick questions at all. For example, only 26% of those surveyed knew that the Sunnis were one of the two main branches of Islam. In fact, on all questions that remotely touched on religion this generation showed a remarkable lack of knowledge, thus my earlier comment about being "religiously clueless."

Only 15% of this group of adults 18-29 read a daily newspaper and  26% get their news from Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show" or the "Colbert Report." Only 17% listen to NPR. A Harvard Institute of Politics study found that 35% of this age group identified themselves as Democrats, while 25% were Republicans and 40% were neither. This tells me that the distrust and disinterest in the major political parties is pretty high among the Millennials.

More interesting, at least to my mind, was the fact that 61% felt health insurance was a basic right. This is the generation that will be required to bear the burden created by mine thus I wonder how long this will last? Only 23% of this age group want religious values to play a strong role in government. (This number is higher than I actually thought it would be based upon anecdotal research of my own. Only about 5% of this generation attends church, thus most think religious values have no place in public life.)

As Froma Harrop, a syndicated columnist, put it: "The Millennials sound liberal but feel independent. If push comes to shove, they would probably be Democratic voters, were they to vote."

Will the Boomers still drive the future? Not for ever since they will decrease in size in the coming decades. Will this generation become the next leaders? Yes, for sure. But what can we expect? History tells us that their knowledge will increase for sure. But optimism is not high that this will be the generation that counters the consumptive, self-centered lifestyle of my own. There is an idealism among the young that appeals to me. My generation had it too in the 1960s but Vietnam drove it out of many of us. Iraq may do the same for the Millennials, only time will tell. I rather think the one "wild-card" here is the spiritual make-up of this generation. This is why I welcome the input of all the strands of the Emergent movement and Christians of all types who care deeply about the Church at all. These Emergent Christians understand the people they are talking to much better than I do. I respect this knowledge very deeply. My primary concern is that the spiritual leaders in the Emergent group will turn away from the input of those of us who are much older and who also deeply care, with them, about the Church, the gospel and its real impact on America and beyond.

When older ministers and authors write attack books against these Emergent writers and speakers they not only fail the love test but they also fail the missional test. We must begin by cultivating a respectful dialog that treats others as our brothers and sisters, equally loved by Christ. Sadly, the considerable heat against this rising generation is increasing every day. This only serves to drive Millennials further away from the gifts of both older and younger Christians. I have my own concerns about Emergent books and churches. I, however, sincerely believe that this rising generation will grow in knowledge, love and wisdom. My confidence is rooted in the faithfulness of God to lead his own people, even through mistakes. The Lord knows I made lots of them. We can do better by listening to the Millennials and by showing them personal respect. I believe that they would do better if they sought out some of us older men and women who went before them and who now want to spread the good news with them. We are brothers and sisters and the world needs us to demonstrate this in powerful and creative ways.