CHICAGO — They’re often pegged as the civic-minded, do-gooding generation. But while they’re still optimistic about their own personal prospects, a new study finds that today’s youth are often more skeptical of the country’s institutions than the young generations that preceded them.
The Millennials also are as mistrusting of other people as the gloomy “slackers” of Generation X were 20 years ago — or even more so.
Jean Twenge, lead author of the study that will be published early this month in the online edition of the journal Psychological Science, says the current atmosphere — fed by the Great Recession, mass shootings, and everything from church sex abuse scandals and racial strife to the endless parade of publicly shamed politicians, athletes and celebrities — may help explain why this young generation’s trust levels hit an all-time low in 2012, the most recent data available.
In the mid-1970s, when baby boomers were coming of age, about a third of high school seniors agreed that “most people can be trusted.”
That dropped to 18 percent in the early 1990s for Gen Xers — and then, in 2012, to just 16 percent of Millennials.
The researchers also found that Millennials’ approval of major institutions — from Congress and corporations to the news media and educational and religious institutions — dropped more sharply than other generations in the decade that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Young people today feel disconnected and alienated,” says Twenge, a psychologist and professor at San Diego State University, who wrote a book on Millennials called “Generation Me.” She finds these outcomes “especially distressing” for a generation that had been expected to be more trusting of government.
Young people, even those from differing backgrounds, say the findings ring true.
“I do not trust the government as far I can throw a car, which is not very far at all,” says Steve McGlinchey, a 21-year-old who lives in Burton, Michigan, outside Flint, and works for a company that installs industrial furnaces for auto companies and other businesses.
Like a lot of young people, he says he’s been disappointed by people in positions of power who’ve abused that power or seem to have forgotten about the little guy.
That includes Wall Street. “All they think about is making their own wallets bigger,” he says, noting that he doesn’t trust other people to handle his money, “especially people who don’t know my name.”
Erin Nwachukwu, a 16-year-old high school student who lives on Chicago’s South Side, says she’s felt mistrustful of authority figures, too, including the police. She also has doubts about her city’s leaders, having watched them close dozens of public schools in low-income neighborhoods, even as they pour millions of dollars into flashy downtown parks and other projects.
“They don’t seem like they have our best interest at heart,” Nwachukwu says. “It seems like it’s about the money.”
Twenge and her co-authors at the University of Georgia based their study’s findings on data from two major long-standing surveys of Americans — the General Social Survey and the University of Michigan’s annual “Monitoring the Future” survey of 12th graders, with nearly 140,000 participants in total.
While Americans of all ages had growing trust issues in recent years, the researchers found that young people’s trust dropped more steeply in several categories.
For instance, in 2000-2002, 49 percent of 12th graders who were surveyed said Congress was doing a “good” or “very good” job, compared with just 22 percent who said the same in 2010-12. Thirty percent of young boomers were approving in the mid-1970s, and 33 percent of Gen Xers in early 1990s.
The researchers used these figures in three-year blocks to assure they were comparing consistent trends. The margin of error is plus or minus 1 percentage point.
In 2000-2002, 54 percent of 12th graders approved of the job large corporations were doing. That fell to 33 percent by 2010-12. Forty percent of boomers approved in the mid-1970s, and 48 percent of Gen Xers in the early 1990s.
During that decade, Millennials also had notable drops in approval of colleges and universities, the news media, public schools and religious institutions.
Because the study found that people of all age groups have trust and confidence issues, Twenge notes that the results are more likely tied to current events than the generation itself.
Last year, an AP-GfK poll also found that only a third of all Americans said they trusted most people, compared with about half who said the same the early 1970s, according to the General Social Survey.
But the survey also showed that each generation has started off adulthood less trusting than the previous one, a trend that would likely have to be reversed for the nation’s overall mistrust to change.
Katherine Vining, a 25-year-old graduate student in San Francisco, says that may be difficult to do in an age when news and information are readily accessible at any hour.
“The more information you have, the more opportunity there is to be disappointed and disillusioned by the people and institutions in the world that are repeatedly acting unethically and taking advantage of individuals and communities,” says Vining, who’s studying sustainable management at the Presidio Graduate School.
But, she adds, being more connected also makes it easier to find others “who are equally disheartened with the status quo.” And with that, she and others say, comes empowerment to do something about it.
That’s what some experts find so interesting about this generation. They may be disillusioned by the powers that be. Yet so far, they’ve continued to vote in larger percentages than previous young generations, even after some concede that they’ve failed to see the “change” that President Barack Obama first promised in 2008.
And despite their skepticism, they also continue to be a largely optimistic lot.
A Pew Research Center survey done in 2012 found that 73 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds were optimistic that they would eventually achieve their life goals, or had already achieved them.
Jon Rogowski, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, has worried that, given these findings about trust, some young people will tire and “turn inwards” and away from civic engagement. He’s particularly concerned about black youth.
A recent survey by the University of Chicago’s Black Youth Project, to which Rogowski contributes, found that nearly 46 percent of black youth believe everyone has an equal chance to succeed in the United States, compared with 51 percent of white youth and about 58 percent of Hispanic youth.
Nwachukwu, the 16-year-old Chicagoan, who is African-American, understands that concern, yet still feels hopeful.
“Maybe it’s my faith in other kids my age to step up to the challenge and change our system,” says Nwachukwu, who traveled this summer to the Middle East to meet young people there with the nonprofit Qatar Foundation International. She says it was the type of experience that helps bolster her faith in people and her future.
Gary Rudman, a California consultant who tracks youth trends, also suspects that this generation’s personal optimism comes from their upbringing — and the “you do anything” mantra.
“Perhaps we have set them up for ultimate failure, or maybe they will make the situation work for them,” Rudman says. “Only time will tell.”