For four years now, I’ve written on the second half of Generation Y (aka “Millennials”), the young adults who are just now entering adulthood. Sociologists have attempted to help the rest of us understand this new breed of digital natives who are the first generation to grow up online and not have to adapt to technology. I’ve mentioned a variety of paradoxes they embrace, but today, I have a new one: They are connected in so many ways, yet disconnected in so many, too.
According to a study conducted last month by Pew Research, these young adults have a unique set of character traits:
- They are relatively unattached to organized politics or religion.
- They are burdened by debt
- They are distrustful of people
- They are linked by social media
- They are in no rush to get married
- They are optimistic about their own future.
In an interesting sort of way, this demographic is basically saying: I want to stay connected to people, but I have a quiet distrust and suspicion of them. So many want a life that’s connected but disconnected. They want others to trust them enough to help them…but they may not trust those same people. When I first began working with college students in 1979, I began to see a similar cynicism toward institutions. But this time around, it’s more well-informed. Thanks to Twitter, SnapChat and Instagram, word travels faster now and expands distrust more quickly and deeply. All our heroes have flaws… and we know them well. Marriage licenses should involve a pre-nuptial agreement, in case it doesn’t work out. Pro athletes are all about the money, not the team. Working relationships need a contract with a clause, to protect your interests in case you get sued.
Their New Path
How low are the levels of social trust in this generation? In response to a long-standing survey question that asked, “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 Generation Y said most people can be trusted, compared to much higher percentages for Generation X and Baby Boomers.
It seems that Generation Y is forging a new, distinctive path into adulthood. How will this affect their adult life? We can only guess, but if trends continue this way, look for possible attitude shifts in how young people view current institutions:
- Marriage – I’ll wait and perhaps never get married. I don’t see many working.
- Voting – I may not bother to vote. The whole system is corrupt anyway.
- Faith – I’ll find my spirituality apart from an organized religious community.
- Business – I won’t join an existing corporation, I will start my own company.
- Friends – I’ll form many of my relationships virtually so I am safe from harm.
Their racial diversity may partly explain Millennials’ low levels of social trust. A 2007 Pew Research Center analysis found that minorities and low-income adults had lower levels of social trust than other groups. Based on similar findings over many years from other surveys, sociologists have theorized that people who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged find it riskier to trust others because they’re less fortified to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust.
What We Can Do
Here’s the challenge we must help them navigate. So much of our happiness, satisfaction and success is built upon trust. Research shows that the happiest people are trusting of others. They believe the best about others and forgive easily. They keep short accounts. They take risks. If we cannot help them begin to trust people and organizations, we’ll have a lonely world on our hands in the future. We must be trustworthy and help them build trust. Here are some steps to take:
- Be consistent and keep your word. Leadership operates on the basis of trust.
- Relay what’s good about your institution and help them see the positive.
- Don’t pretend life is perfect. Model how to work in a flawed organization.
- Equip them to resolve conflict instead of running from hard relationships.
- Enable them to be a “good-finder” rather than a fault-finder.
- Mentor them beyond an attitude of entitlement: happiness is a by-product of work and trust, not something that’s given away freely.
Here’s to building trust in this new generation. What would you add to the list?