En español | Young people today are often criticized for falling short of the admirable standard set by young people of yesteryear. Somehow, today's young adults have acquired a reputation as exceptionally selfish generation. Again and again, they've been ridiculed as coddled, overindulged and over-praised from birth, so that by the time they reach their teens they expect the world to be laid at their feet with no special effort on their part.
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Sounds grim, but is it true? Actually, the evidence is quite contrary to this negative portrayal of today's young adults. Consider:
- Rates of volunteerism in high school and college are at all-time highs. According to the annual national survey of college freshman by the Higher Education Research Institute, over 80 percent of college freshmen have done volunteer work in the past year. In their twenties, emerging adults are applying in record numbers to serve in organizations such as the Peace Corps, Americorps and Teach for America.
- Today's college students are more likely than in the past to participate in organized political demonstrations, even compared to the generation that came of age in the political upheaval of the 1960s, according to the Higher Education Research Institute. Their voting rates are low, which has been true for decades, but many of them are active in organizations that focus on issues such as environmental protection, poverty or international refugees.
- Today's young adults are more inclusive and more tolerant than any previous generation. Their acceptance of diversity extends across boundaries of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic group and religion. According to the General Social Survey conducted annually by the University of Chicago, they are nearly unanimous in believing that women should have equal opportunities with men, and they reject gender stereotypes such as "men are better politicians than women are." The Higher Education Research Institute's survey of college freshmen reports that two-thirds of them believe that same-sex marriage should be legal, a far higher proportion than in surveys of older age groups. Interethnic friendships and romantic relationships are no longer novel; the same survey reports that 70 percent have socialized with someone of a different ethnic group in the past year. With regard to religion, even highly religious emerging adults share an accepting attitude toward people who believe differently, according to the National Survey on Youth and Religion.
Put all these findings together and you get a much different portrayal of this generation of emerging adults than we are used to hearing — not a generation of selfish slackers but, rather, a generous generation with a big heart.
This may be just what the world needs to face the challenges that lie ahead. The biggest problems of the present and the future are mostly global problems, not just local ones. Financial meltdowns, terrorism and climate change are challenges that cross borders, and no part of the world is invulnerable to their consequences. With their sense of empathy for people who are different than they are, and with the direct experience many of them will have from traveling or working with people in other parts of the world, they will be well-prepared to work on global solutions to global issues.
Even their much-derided absorption in new technologies promotes this generous and interconnected view of the world. Today's young adults have grown up playing electronic games and talking in chat rooms via the Internet with "friends" they will never see, who could live anywhere, and this global awareness prepares them for later international contacts and connections. New technologies have given them a sense of being citizens of the world, part of a great global family, and have promoted their sense of empathy and generosity toward people all over the world.
So next time you hear someone belittling this generation, remind them of the other side of the story. Despite all the criticism, they may be actually the most generous generation we've seen to date.
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is a research professor of psychology at Clark University and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties. Elizabeth Fishel is a widely published writer on family issues and the author of four nonfiction books, including Sisters and Reunion.
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