Who Trusts You, Baby? Not Millennials, Evidently

Updated: Mar 17, 2020

A new study by Pew Research (Social & Demographic Trends) released on March 7, 2014, revealed the ways Millennials—emerging adults, age 18 to 33—see and respond to the world around them. Pew Research has been following this age group for over a decade and while the results of the surveys are relatively consistent over time, they differ in some surprising ways from previous generations, Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation.

Overall, Millennials are significantly less connected to traditional social institutions (such as marriage and religion), more connected to each other via digital media—often placing themselves at the photographic center of their universes by use of the “selfie”—and are much more racially diverse than previous generations. Despite their “unmooring” from religion and marriage—and an uncertain sense of what their futures will bring—they remain highly optimistic about their possible futures, enthusiastically collaborative, and just about as trustful as other generations about the role of government and big business in their lives. What seemed surprising to many was the survey result that Millennials were much less trusting of others than previous generations.

Why? This is an incredibly complex question and you'll be seeing pundits of all ilk trying to figure this out over the next few months. I think it would help to look at the results of other Pew studies, as well as other survey instruments like the MTF (Monitoring the Future) study out of the University of Michigan. In the meantime, it's time to jump into the fray and suggest some ideas for the Pew finding about mistrust.

As most of us know, the answers to survey questions are highly conditioned by the way the questions are worded. The survey question we're considering was: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” Millennials said that most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

The Pew Research study authors suggested that the high levels of racial diversity among Millennial was playing a role in the ever-increasing levels of social mistrust among Millennial. They noted that this finding was replicated in other sociological studies and that “... sociologists have theorized that people who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged for whatever reason find it riskier to trust because they’re less well-fortified to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust.”

But if the vulnerability sociologists say appears to accrue within highly diverse populations, why do Millennials have just about the same level of trust in big business and the positive or progressive role that should be played by government as do their older counterparts?

According to the same study, Millennials supposedly are more likely than older generations to have faith in government as a primary actor in the world of making things better. Millennials played a huge role in electing Barack Obama and their so-called “pragmatic idealism” lends itself to collaboration and a willingness to form new associations and institutions. The argument seems to be about a new kind of civic-mindedness, not a lack thereof. So from whence the trust problem?

Point One: The Linguistic/Postmodern Answer

I think it partly turns upon how the respondent defines “trust” for themselves. I sent out a host of emails this morning after reading the Pew study and asked the Millennials I knew to respond to the issue of trusting others and to comment on whether or not they agreed with the Pew study results. Most of them took the time to respond and most of them said something like, “The question of whether I trust others or not is too general a question; I don't even know how to respond and responding too much would be a disservice. I need to know more about what you're asking to be making blanket statements about a study that revealed a blanket statement about an entire generation.” In other words, most of the responses were thoughtful, wary, somewhat critical of the premise and validity of the question. Deconstruction lives. Since we're in any era of Truthiness, rather than Truth, it makes sense to respond by problematizing the question and refusing (or avoiding) an answer...especially since “Answers” can be constricting, oppressive and oh-so-binary.

Point Two: The Economic Answer

Some have said that the lack of social trust stems from the economic realities now facing all members of the Millennial generation, but having hit hard the youngest members of that group. It is now much harder than it has been in a while to find and hold work, and recent surveys show that most young people do not expect to get and hold a single job—to be an “IBM-er” for example—for the rest of their lives. Most folks in this generation and older change jobs every 3-4 years and expect to do so. Their job loyalties are more about themselves and their families, not to the “company” and much, but not all business has been fairly agreeable about the expectation of turnover. The narrative of the American Dream is very much alive fueled by the twin dreams of Democracy and Capitalism. Opportunity exists for everyone in America, because: a) We are all created equal and can participate in our own governance (Democracy) and b) Because we live in a free market meritocracy, so that if you work hard you will be rewarded with the spoils of the system (money, status, fame/celebrity, the best chances for the best relationship partners, etc.). But Millennials have figured out, especially since 2007, that they're going to have to come up with new ways into the Dream and to adjust and redefine their expectations about what constitutes being successful. They've been watching the older adults. They know its not as easy to find and keep work. They know its harder for all but a few at the very top to amass the kind of wealth associated with the “upper middle class” or upper classes of previous generations. They've seen scandal after scandal reveal that the game can be rigged. Which games? You name it. Voting, the revolving door of politics between lobbyists, legislature, cabinet and big business; getting elected and how money influences the election process; influence of money and power in the drafting, dissemination and passage of legislation and statute; abuses of power in the federal and state judiciaries; falsification of data reported to Congress and the nation's security sectors (CIA, FBI, NSA) to justify foreign intervention; rendition of American citizens in the name of national security and electronic eavesdropping on citizens, corporations and governments around the world, by other corporations and governments; changing utility commodity rates and availability of that commodity, starting a business, owning a home; massive income inequality; lying and cheating scandals involving high stakes testing for college and the broader college admissions process, military promotions, the Catholic Church child sexual abuse scandals; the “War on Terror;” Stop me, please. Or rather...let's dovetail into....

Point 3: The James Baldwin Answer

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they never failed to imitate them” (Author James Baldwin)

I'm 53. So, my child is a Millennial and his friends (and many of my friends and psychotherapy clients are in that group). Do we actually think that our kids are not watching these things unfold? Why would we think that this generation would have record-levels of trust rather than mistrust of others? If Millennials (like generations before them) are watching what we've done with the world in the last 30 years and are, in some ways, repeating our mistakes, in order to learn from them (at least that's how I, as a psychotherapist see it), then they'd have to be exaggerating and repeating the mistake of operating in the world with a fundamental lack of trust in others. You know, the sort of mistrust that led to and was an effect of the explosion of the military-industrial complex, domestic surveillance, the War on Terror, the Cold War, corporate espionage, and the like. So, the Millennials don't trust others (if that's even accurate) because they shouldn't trust others, given what they see...and while they might be replicating forms of mistrust in order to solve the problems of living cooperatively in an increasingly globalized world, they too need to keep a healthy distance from others at all times. Technological mediation is one tool in the toolbox of staying close and distant at the same time.

Point 4: The Father John Culkin Answer or...the “Fish” Answer

“Whomever discovered water, you can be certain it wasn’t a fish” (Father John Culkin)

The quote can be used to illustrate the inexorable and mutually influencing links between adolescent development, identity, status, and digital media. The quote today would read, “Whomever discovered the ongoing, mutually reinforcing effects of digital media on teens, you can be certain it wasn’t a teen.” This is why media literacy is the most important kind of education you could possibly give your child if they live in the United States in the 21st century. And who was doing media education...who did media education with Millennials, in real time, where it was needed (online, in the schools, at home, etc.) so that teens could develop a sense of trust in themselves and each other within this new context of identity development? The answer is it didn't happen. Not very much.

So another factor, in the levels of mistrust of others, I think, doesn't have to do so much with the vulnerability rooted in the diversity that characterizes Millennials. It has more to do with the fact that Millennials live online, connected via cellphone and social media. And despite the still-present gap in digital media access that breaks down by race and socioeconomic categories, the digital world defines what counts as the lifeworld for the teenager and young adult.

Every year since 1990 Pew Research has been conducting surveys to identify social and demographic trends. One important result of this year's survey is that it doesn't differ all that much from previous surveys of the “millennial” generation. The Millenials, identified primarily by this moniker because it speaks about those people who came of age during the turn of the millennium, is woefully but ironically misnamed. The name loosely binds a generation of 18 to 33-year-olds into a group based primarily upon a slice of chronology, a loose signifier coined by William Strauss and Neil Howe in the late 1980s. It's catchy and it helped sell books. But it was also prescient in the sense that a great sound-bite moniker became the identifier for what was to become the digital media-soaked generation. A much more useful way of understanding the generation of folks born between 1980 and 1996 is that they all experienced their adolescences—the most formative time period for personal and social identity—in the age of digital media and the ascendancy of the Internet. I think this helps explain, in part, the relatively consistent (and strengthening) finding among “Millennials” that despite having a fairly high degree of trust in their elders, they continue to have a lower degree of trust in others when compared to previous generations. Previous generations knew more easily, I believe how to determine trustworthiness.

We need to remember that we're dealing with an age group that is still developing, from a human development/brain development perspective. The latest research on adolescent brain development strongly suggests that brain development is incomplete for most until the late 20s (although women develop faster than men, in general). This has important implications for the question of “trust” among Millennials. I'm going to be obnoxious here and quote myself at length, because I hope its helpful and makes the important point. This excerpt below is from a chapter in The Approximate Parent on the effects of digital media on adolescent development. In this section I'm writing about how incomplete brain development (in the form of immature executive functioning) changes the way adolescents and young adults experience things online.

Highlight 4: Many teens do not yet have fully developed “executive functioning”capacities (long-term planning, exercise of empathy, impulse control, priority setting, gratification delay, organizational acumen).

These executive functions form a significant baseline of cognitive skills necessary for the full development of an ethical framework for living. Research demonstrates rather pronounced ethical “fault lines” among those growing up with the new digital media. Consensus on norms of self-representation and self-expression has not yet developed among youth online around five crucial areas: identity, privacy, ownership, authorship, credibility, and participation. And these areas are rich for the kind of unethical behaviors the 2009 MacArthur Foundation report called “bad play.”

The report suggests new, more troublesome norms are emerging among online youth, in which unethical, dangerous, and otherwise hurtful behaviors are not only tolerated but encouraged because of the difficulty of controlling the behavior or identifying the “sources” of “bad play.” While the report does not suggest that “bad play” is becoming the norm online, it does beg the question of how and whether teens themselves are thinking about their ethical responsibilities, given the characteristics of new digital media and its high participation factor AND how and to whom teens are looking for mentoring, guidance, and support around questions of ethicality online. Are we, as parents or as educators, thinking deeply about forms of media literacies and offering the possibility of developing these literacies at home, at school, or in wider community institutions?

While most teenagers may be able to negotiate the development of these new norms just fine, there is even more recent evidence that teens are not as good at this as we might think, and can often be incredibly cruel “digital citizens.”[33] Amanda Lenhart—one of the country’s most important researchers on teens and social media—works for the Pew Internet & American Life Project, and recently conducted a study on how youth behave on social networking sites. Many teens report having good experiences online, but harassment, cyberbullying, and misuse of personal material (including sexual photographs) is clearly also occurring. The anonymity and rapid dissemination of information via digital media often leads to risk-taking that might be mitigated in person. As with most risk-taking phenomena in teen lives, risky or cruel teen behaviors are significantly mitigated by parent involvement—including conversations about what can go wrong when we don’t treat one another well online. Teenagers, who tend to be impulsive or have difficulty focusing on one thing at a time, can also just make mistakes that they later regret but are hard to “take back.” For example, there’s a new Facebook application that efficiently and quickly lets a group of people in your Facebook circle know that you have a sexually transmitted infection (STI). What if your daughter and her boyfriend are fighting, and her boyfriend (who knows her Facebook password) impulsively decides to tell 150 of her closest friends that she’s contracted chlamydia? If they patch things up later, that’s a mistake that’s hard to take back.

It’s not just a question of “bad play” or the lack of normative consensus online. Teens (and adults) now regularly text or access digital media during meals, during religious services, during psychotherapy sessions, and at weddings and funerals. The electronic devices that we have play to our deepest emotional, psychological, and physiological needs to belong and connect. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are wired to respond to things that psychologically “tap us on the shoulder”—things like message-waiting beeps, email-received notices, and all kinds of “pop-up” reminders—because we need to know if the thing that popped up is a danger or an opportunity for pleasure. Neither teens nor adults have developed norms about when the time is right to respond to these digital cues. (pp. 168-69, The Approximate Parent)

In Summary: It's About Connecting Online

So by now you get the point. The Millennial Generation grew up online. It might be changing, but 81% of Millennials are on Facebook. If identity development is taking place (and I argue that it is) in the context in which a “consensus on norms of self-representation and self-expression has not relation to identity, privacy, ownership, authorship, credibility and participation,” it stands to reason that there will be major and ongoing issues of mistrust of others until those norms become more established.

Author Jean Twenge in Generation Me saw some of the common attributes of the Millennials as entitled, narcissistic, over-confident and under-prepared for the kind of future that would come to pass only a year after the release of her book. This was decidedly not “The Greatest Generation,” able and willing to work hard, to sacrifice longterm for a virtuous cause. I don't think these are simply low-self-esteem having, unable to handle loss/losing bubble-wrapped kids raised by helicopter parents. The narrative only fits a small segment of white, privileged, highly-stressed teens. I think the more salient point is that Millennials are operating in a theatre of operations (and I use the word purposely) where they are on-stage (and online), and the norms, standards, goals, strategies and methods for identity development and play are not solidified by strong consensus the way it was for older generations. The anxiety caused by this, perhaps combined with a lack of ongoing practice with doing this kind of identity exploration and play without the advantages (and disadvantages) of digital mediation, naturally leads to distrust—as well it should. Combine that with the real mess that Millennials see with the world and how relationships can be easily steered (by the media, by the priorities of a market logic which emphasizes profit and instrumentality over the personal relationship for its own sake, etc.) and it would be hard to imagine a generation without high levels of mistrust in others,combined with a kind of idealistic desire to continue collaborating and seeking solutions. Seems right (and hopeful) to me, if not a bit sad.


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