Who's narcissistic? Millennials outdo parents in volunteering and charity

The 2015 Money Mindset Report overturns assumptions about selfish, 'me-obsessed' Millennials, adding to growing studies that say this is a generation of givers. 

(Sean D. Elliot/The Day via AP)
Staff and volunteers with the Mystic Aquarium's Animal Rescue Team prepare to release four rehabilitated harbor seal pups at Blue Shutters Beach in Charlestown, R.I., Friday, Oct. 9, 2015.

Twenty-four years after William Strauss and Neil Howe coined a term for those born between 1980-2000, or thereabouts, the media still loves to debate just what it means to belong to America's largest, and most diverse, generation

In general, older Americans aren't impressed: 70 percent say Millennials are selfish — as do Millennials themselves. 

And Millennials are a favorite scapegoat for a measurable, if perhaps over-hyped, trend away from faith: 35 percent of American young people do not identify with an organized religion

Among the other stereotypes: They don't have jobs; they live with their parents; they're blamed for everything from decreasing patriotism to potholes: little wonder that 60 percent of them refuse to be called "Millennial" at all

But the 2015 Money Mindset Report, released by Thrivent Financial, suggests that we may be getting Millennials all wrong, at least when it comes to greed – and maybe God. 

It's part of a growing recognition that Millennials' money troubles may be shaping their values differently than their parents,' but not erasing them. 

Thrivent, a member-owned financial services organization for Christians, interviewed 1,001 Americans about their finances and generosity. (Another 1,000 self-identified Christians were analyzed in a separate report.) 

There's no doubt that young workers have been hard hit by the Great Recession, which coincided with many of their college graduations: more than 40 percent of B.A. holders between the ages of 22 and 27 are caught in "underemployed" jobs, where a degree hasn't traditionally been required. 

Thrivent's poll reflects those struggles: only 26 percent say money hasn't been a problem, and 37 percent have debt, although that doesn't set them far apart from older Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers. 

Despite such financial obstacles, more than three quarters of those interviewed report donating to a nonprofit in the past year, and 70 percent regularly volunteer for a nonprofit, higher than the all-ages average.

To top it off, 79 percent say they're more generous than average. Is that just Millennials' suspected narcissism? Maybe, maybe not: according to a Pew survey, Millennials are their own toughest critics, admitting that they feel "self-absorbed."

Young workers need advice for their unique economic predicament, and the Thrivent survey reveals that nearly 40 percent have turned to their faith community, religious leaderm or faith-based financial education for financial advice – a far higher percentage than Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers. 

And as for God? Millennials may not be filling pews the way their parents did, but 86 percent still believe in God, although only 58 percent say they're "absolutely certain." 

As The Washington Post reported, Millennials certainly are giving, but they're also changing what philanthropy looks like. They're not interested in workplace-based charity, but perk up at opportunities to use their skills or knowledge for good. 

“I personally refer to millennials as the next ‘Great Generation’ because the degree of generosity that we’re seeing from them is quite impressive,” Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation, told the Washington Post. “One common theme among all young people, it was true of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers at this age – they’re idealistic. The big difference, when we began looking at millennials, is that they’re turning their idealism into action in a very real way."

Twenty-somethings's falling fertility rates could be linked to idealism as well, not egotism. Prof. Stewart Friedman, of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, interviewed business grads in 1992 and 2012 and compared generational differences. As the Huffington Post reports, Dr. Friedman found that many female students "expressed motivation to help others and solve social problems, but the desired route was through business, corporate social responsibility, and social impact organizations" more than motherhood. 

Those born in the 1980s and '90s are enacting their values in new ways, from all-organic chicken to Tab for a Cause. It's Millennials' turn to redefine American values, and they may just prove a hard act to follow. Are you ready, Generation Z?

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