Millennials: Should we be worried?

According to recent Pew research Millennials, those aged 18 to 33, are “relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry— and optimistic about the future. They are also America’s most racially diverse generation.”

Should we be worried? Millennials themselves seem to be optimistic about their future, so perhaps we should be as well? I think not.

There are some big themes in these findings, such as the increasing diversification of America and the growing disconnect between young people and our venerated and historical institutions. The loosening of the bonds to institutions is a concern not only for traditional churches, but also for other established social organizations of people.

The trends suggest two things. First, they raises questions about authority. Our institutions have accrued over time a degree of authority by virtue of their longevity, prominence and added value in society. Second, they raises questions about social cohesion. These institutions were not placed on earth out of nowhere, they evolved over time by people joining together in community. Institutions are a reflection of our social bonds.

We need to spend some time reflecting on this social change, and understand what constitutes authority for this generation, and how they socialize in this increasingly globalized and wired world of ours. These are questions for another time, however, but what we can immediately reflect on is how the big themes frame these significant findings.

To frame this thought a little further, let us consider Adam Smith. Most folks are familiar with “The Wealth of Nations,” and even if they’ve never read it they know he explains how wealth and Capitalism work. The catalyst for wealth creation is, he famously tells us, self-interest. However, less well known is his book “Moral Sentiments” in which he explains what self-interest means. What is in our self-interest is not the selfish thing, it is what is best for us, and there are many things we do that we don’t want to do, but know we have to do them in our own interests. Equally, as any losing gamble learns eventually, selfishly gambling or wasting away your money, family and friends is not economically in your self-interest.

This said, let’s look at the Pew findings and more precisely two of their findings.

First, Pew reports that just over half of Millennials (51%) say they do not believe there will be any money for them in the Social Security system by the time they are ready to retire, and an additional 39% say the system will only be able to provide them with retirement benefits at reduced levels. Just 6% expect to receive Social Security benefits at levels enjoyed by current retirees. Yet, about six-in-ten Millennials (61%) oppose benefit cuts as a way to address the long-term funding problems of Social Security, a view held by about seven-in-ten older adults.

So, where’s the money coming from to pay for this? This prompts us to wonder what the wealth of the nation means to the Millennials. Which brings us to the second finding. Pew reports that Millennials have emerged into adulthood with low levels of social trust. In response to a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

This raises the specter of Smith’s complementary point, namely the moral sentiment. We can only wonder, what is the moral sentiment of the Millennials? After all, can you really have a social system rooted in a culture where fellow citizens are not trusted, or is it a case that as a society we don’t trust each other so we place trust in the government or state instead? There is a connection to be understood between the economic goals of society and the social bonds that bind us together, and it connects us back to the goals and responsibilities of individuals as part of a social community rather than a state.

The trends Pew reports are a concern, and suggest that Millennials are ill-prepared for the future both financially and in terms of social bonds. The institutions they might build or reinvent to address their problems leave Millennials cast adrift, increasingly isolationist and while they may have an ethic of “live and let live” the resulting moral and spiritual vacuum is something we need to be worried about.

This brings to mind Isaiah 58:6-10, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” The Church, unlike other social organizations, was instituted directly by Christ and as church we need to equip our institutions to help Millennials to look beyond human fault to the divine source, to help loosen their yoke and shine a light.

David Cowan, Ph.D. is Visiting Scholar, The Boisi Center for Religion & American Public Life, Boston College, and author of Economic Parables: The Monetary Teachings of Jesus Christ (IVP, 2nd Edition)  He can reached at