Millennials 101

Paul Taylor: So millennials are a generation, we define them as having been born after 1980.  So the oldest of them is in his or her early thirties.  The youngest is mid teenagers.  Typically generations last about 20 years or so.  We don’t really know when the back half of this generation ends.  There’s probably a 12 or 13 year old who’s somebody different.  But he or she hasn’t quite come of age yet.  It’s a very distinctive generation and the oldest of them has now made the passage into adulthood so we know a little bit more about them than we did eight or ten years ago when they first came on the scene.  Distinctive.  They’re a very large generation.  By the time the 20 year cycle is done there’ll probably be 80 million strong, the largest generation since the baby boomers.  They are very distinctive racially and ethnically.  They are the transitional generation in an America that in the middle of the last century was about 85 percent white.  By the middle of this century will be only a little more than 40 percent white.

Millennials are the most nonwhite generation.  They’re more than four in ten are nonwhite.  This is driven by the great modern immigration wave that’s now about four or five decades old.  Like our earlier immigration waves which are almost entirely from Europe, this immigration wave is mostly from Latin America and Asia.  And it’s the immigrants themselves but more so now it’s the children of the immigrants, the U.S. born children of the immigrants who make up a very heavy portion of this millennial generation.  They’re distinctive politically.  They’re now old enough to have voted in two or three presidential elections and they were a very big part of both of President Obama’s victories.  By our calculation at the Pew Research Center where I work and did a lot of the research that led to this book, they are the most democratic voting generation of young adults of any we have seen in 50 or 60 years of tracking voting patterns.

They’re very liberal in their social and cultural values so some of the changes that are going on in the country on issues like same sex marriage, marijuana legalization – we see pretty dramatic changes in a fairly short period of time in terms of public attitudes.  It’s the millennials, it’s the young adults who are leading the way.  Despite their distinctive political and social views and voting behaviors, however, they’re not terribly attached to the Democratic Party even though they gave big votes to democratic presidential candidates.  When we asked adults of all ages are you a democrat or republican or an independent, millennials – 50 percent of millennials say I’m independent.  We’ve never seen that high a share from any age cohort.  We see a similar thing when we ask about their religion.  I mean, what are you?  Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish?  A record share of millennials say I’m nothing in particular.

And there’s a third anchor institution of society, if you will, that millennials are not attached to and that’s a little old 5,000 year old institution called marriage.  So of today’s 18 to 33 year olds only about a quarter are married.  If you go back to older generations when they were the same age, five in ten, six in ten of the older generation, more than six in ten were married.  I think the slow walk toward marriage and the disassociation from anchor institutions, I think, are explained by first their economic circumstances.  Another distinctive thing about this generation is they’re the first in modern American history and perhaps the first in American history that at least so far – we don’t know how their story ends but we know how the story of their economic lives have begun and at least so far they are the first generation in modern times that is doing less well economically than their parents’ generation on any way you measure it.

Whether it’s income, whether it’s wealth, whether it’s poverty, whether it’s employment, unemployment – all the classic measures.  And you correct for inflation and you make it an apples to apples comparison, they’re doing less well.  The fact that they’re doing less well means a lot of them when we asked them those who aren’t married, would you like to marry?  Almost seven out of ten say yes.  Why haven’t you gotten married?  Well, look at me, you know, I don’t have a job.  I don’t have a career. I don’t have the economic foundation to get married.  And that will reverberate in interesting ways as they mature into middle age and beyond.  And then finally perhaps if not the most distinctive thing about this generation – certainly one of the most distinctive things is they are a first generation of digital natives.  So they are the only age group of adults now for whom these amazing gadgets we now all hold in our hand and we all take for granted that with three click you can access the sum of all human knowledge.

And frankly, these days if it takes you a third click you’re wondering what takes so long.  So somebody my age this is jaw dropping.  It’s still jaw dropping every time I access these information platforms and do it in mobile sites and I’m just amazed.  These young adults are not amazed.  It’s the only world they’ve ever known and they are carnivores in terms of their habits with these information systems.  Not just for information acquisition but for the creation of networks.  They organize their social lives around these networks.  They can build their own tribes.  Somebody more clever than me described them as a pre-Copernican generation.  The universe really does revolve around them because they can build their social networks and they can place themselves at the center of their social networks because their social networks are built around the things they care the most about whether it’s their hobbies, whether it’s their work, whether it’s the games they like to play, whether it’s information seeking and all the rest.

This behavior has led some to suggest that it’s a narcissistic generation.  My own view is that that’s a bum rap.  I think it’s all about the new platforms and it’s all about the human condition.  And if you have the ability to kind of place yourself at the center of the universe you will take it.  I think it’s empowering.  It may lead to another – a trait of the millennials.  They’re somewhat distrustful of other people, and it may be because as they navigate the online world it turns out not everybody is exactly who they say they are and there’s a certain wariness about this generation.

And I think there’s an interesting question about whether the networks that they build online with their the median millennial has 250 “friends” on Facebook.  Somebody my age or older has only one-fifth that amount of friends.  And many fewer of us are on Facebook so, you know, discuss among yourselves – has there been a quantum leap in human friendliness over the past few generations or is it simply that the new platforms create new behaviors and new ways of organizing your social life.  It’s clearly the latter.  I think an interesting question I don’t think we know the answer to it yet is as millennials age more into middle age, as they probably age into some of the more traditional anchor institutions of society – marriage, children, home ownership and all the rest.  And these things are all happening more slowly for millennials.  Will they establish a more of an offline network that begins to resemble the networks and the affiliations and associations that their parents and grandparents built.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

 

Paul Taylor, the executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and author of The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown, on what makes Millennials a "very distinctive" generation.

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

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Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.

Lapses

Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.