The Life Goals of Kids These Days

The folks at the Language Log did a nice job of considering some recent claims about the narcissism and delusions of today’s young people. I want to piggy-back on that post with an illustration from another dataset based on work I have done with some colleagues.

We considered a JPSP paper by a group I will just refer to as Drs. Smith and colleagues. Smith et al. used data from the Monitoring the Future Study from 1976 to 2008 to evaluate possible changes in the life goals of high school seniors. They classified high school seniors from 1976 to 1978 as Baby Boomers (N = 10,167) and those from 2000 to 2008 as Millennials (N= 20,684). Those in-between were Gen Xers but I will not talk about them in the interest of simplifying the presentation.

Students were asked about 14 goals and could answer on a 1 to 4 point scale (1=Not Important to 4=Extremely Important). Smith et al. used a centering procedure to report the goals but I think the raw numbers are as enlightening.  Below are the 14 goals ranked by the average level of endorsement for the Millennials.

Mean Level

% Reporting Extremely Important

Goal

Millennials

Boomers

SD

Millennials

Boomers

Having a good marriage and family life

3.64

3.57

.76

76.1%

73.3%

Being able to find steady work

3.59

3.54

.66

67.2%

63.4%

Having strong friendships

3.57

3.49

.70

66.5%

60.8%

Being able to give my children better opportunities than I‘ve had

3.54

3.30

.78

66.7%

50.5%

Being successful in my line of work

3.53

3.40

.72

63.5%

54.2%

Finding purpose and meaning in my life

3.41

3.52

.80

59.8%

64.3%

Having plenty of time for recreation and hobbies

3.10

2.88

.79

33.3%

24.5%

Having lots of money

2.83

2.54

.89

25.9%

16.5%

Making a contribution to society

2.81

2.63

.87

24.0%

18.0%

Discovering new ways to experience things

2.80

2.70

.88

24.0%

20.0%

Living close to parents and relatives

2.50

2.04

.97

17.5%

8.3%

Being a leader in my community

2.38

1.91

.98

15.7%

6.8%

Working to correct social and economic inequalities

2.30

2.22

.92

12.4%

10.0%

Getting away from this area of the country

1.98

1.80

1.08

14.5%

11.4%

Overall Goal Rating

3.00

2.82

.40

What do I make of this?  Not surprisingly, I see more similarities than big differences.  Marriage and family life are important to students as is having a steady job. So high school students want it all – success in love and work.  I do not see “alarming” trends in these results but this is my subjective interpretation.

As I said, Smith et al. used a centering approach with the data.  I think they computed a grand mean across the 14 goals for each respondent and then centered each individual’s response to the 14 goals around that grand mean.  Such a strategy might be a fine approach but it seems to make things look “worse” for the Millennials in comparison to Boomers.  I will let others judge as to which analytic approach is better but I do worry about researcher degrees of freedom here.  I also just like raw descriptive statistics.

[The Monitoring the Future Data are available through ICPSR. My standard $20 contribution to the charity of choice for the first person who emails me with any reporting errors holds.  I really do hope others look at the data themselves.]

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Author: mbdonnellan

Professor Social and Personality Psychology Texas A &M University

1 thought on “The Life Goals of Kids These Days”

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