School & District Management

Millennials: A Generation of Cynics, Survey Says

By Ross Brenneman — November 27, 2012 3 min read
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Only one of every two dogs actually ate a students’ homework, according to a new installment of a biennial study of student character.

Every two years, the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics surveys thousands of high school students nationwide to examine youth attitudes toward ethics and principles. This year, the organization questioned over 23,000 pupils and found that while student honesty improved over the last decade, males remain more interested in wealth and accepting of cheating than females.

Teenagers have made some definite strides over the past two decades. Whereas 69 percent of students lied to a teacher at least once in 1992, only 55 percent reported doing so in 2012. Here it is in chart form, because everyone loves a line graph:

That’s a 23 percentage-point drop overall since 2000 in the number of students who lied to a teacher. (And/or a 23 percentage-point increase in the number of students who lie on surveys?)

Yet again, however, students lied to parents at a rate far exceeding lying to teachers; 76 percent of students lied to a parent at least once. That’s a decrease of six percentage points over four years, even as student awareness of parent values increased only slightly. And what’s more, fewer students this year felt they had consistent adult role models than in 2010, meaning that, overall, students lied less to adults, but ostensibly not because of adult influence alone, and perhaps even in spite of it.

Not that the data should be read as students favoring teachers to parents.

“Children have many more opportunities and incentives to lie to parents,” said Michael Josephson, president and founder of the Josephson Institute, via email. “This large differential has remained relatively constant for more than a decade.”

The survey fluctuations since 2010 transpired fairly evenly across gender, and most all in a direction that showed positive character growth, although significant gender gaps remained. Males, quel surprise, reported being less ethical than females. Males are less likely to value charity and more likely to steal and plagiarize, according to the findings. Fourteen percent of males disagreed with the idea that being a good person outweighs the importance of being rich, compared to only five percent of women. Males also disagreed more with the idea that people should play by the rules even if it means they lose. (Moral: Never trust a male financial manager?)

“I think that males in general regard winning as much more important than females,” Josephson said. “They tend to associate all outcomes as a validation or attack on their ego.”

Across gender, cynicism abounds. A majority of respondents, including 51 percent of females and 64 percent of males, felt that successful people do what they have to to win, even if others consider it cheating. While 91 percent of respondents valued moral character, more than those who valued popularity, attractiveness, wealth, and fame, reconciling principle with the moral ambiguity required for success may become a tricky life obstacle. Those students uninvolved in youth activities skewed most heavily toward negative character traits, more so than when students were categorized by those taking honors/AP classes or as athletes.

To be sure, the millennial generation (those born between 1980-2000) indeed values money—71 percent of respondents held wealth as an important value, with a 77-65 male/female split.

What, then, to make of an increasingly honest generation that remains skeptical of how best to make an honest buck? The study doesn’t necessarily dovetail with the notion of a selfish “Generation Me” derided by some critics as spoiled. Rather, it may play into the notion that this generation prioritizes long-term security, cognizant of a stagnant middle class and endangered retirement safety net, but unwilling to settle.

Of course, approximately 30 percent of respondents said they lied in answering at least one of the survey questions, so who really knows.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.