We are told that there are three basic questions to pose when confronted by a situation in need of change. “Where are we?” “Where do we want to be?” And, “How do we get there?” If a recent article on the latest Pew Research Center’s study of Millennials is any indication, the path of the last question will be difficult to navigate.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, has addressed the data from the study in an article entitled What Could Go Wrong?, he draws two observations.

The first, that despite the talents of the Millennial generation, they are poorly equipped to contribute in the rigors of a democratic society. He writes:

Sure, compared with earlier generations, Millennial (now aged 18 to 33) are exceptionally tolerant, optimistic about their economic futures, and connected to friends, family, and colleagues on the ‘new platforms of the digital era’- from Facebook to Twitter. But this report makes clear that Millennial ties to the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment- work, marriage, and civil society- are worringly weak.

These observations are not new. Charles Murray, in his 2012 book, Coming Apart, tracked a growing bifurcation of the nation along a similar four lines, Marriage, Industriousness, Honesty, and Religiosity. Christian Smith, in a longitudinal study of who he calls emerging adults, found similar erosion of cultural virtues.

Wilcox gives the raw percentages in the categories studied and some telling charts as he compares four generations; the Silent; Boomer; Gen X; and Millennial. He then notes that this is not just simply a corporate problem. It has personal repercussions.

Why does this matter? Historically, these core institutions have furnished meaning, money, and social support to generation after generation of Americans. Even today, data from the 2006–2012 General Social Survey suggest that, taken together, these institutions remain strongly linked to a sense of happiness among today’s Millennials. For instance, 58 percent of Millennial men who were married, employed full-time, and regular religious attendees reported that they are very happy in life; by contrast, only 25 percent of Millennial men who were unmarried, not working full-time, and religiously disengaged reported that they are very happy in life.

His second observation is to be found in his final paragraph.

If today’s events in Europe, not to mention of the last century, tell us anything, it is that a generation of young adults “unmoored” from the institutions of work, family, and civil society, and distrustful of their fellow citizens, can end up succumbing to the siren song of demagogues, especially if the economy dips into a depression. It’s for that reason, among others, that policymakers, civic leaders, and business executives, not to mention young adults themselves, need to redouble their efforts to revive the American economy (emphasis mine) and better integrate today’s Millennials into the nation’s economic, familial, and civic fabric.”

I think two charts that are to be found in his article point to another, if not at least a different order, of solution.


He implies that the weakened economy is the problem and therefore its invigoration will be the solution. I believe he has reversed the corrective order. As can be seen, the generational cascade away from these core values did not start with the recent economic collapse. Indeed, the declension of these foundational institutions started in a time of great economic growth, and has continued downward through four generations.

Thoughtful minds from many aspects of society have seen the dangers that lie in these trends. They know that they are corrosive and they agree that it essential to reverse them. But if we are going to chart a course to where we want to be, we must recognize that there is more of an erosion of morals, than a lack of money, to these ills.

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