Come back with me 40 years to the rabid spring of 1970. President Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, and campuses exploded. Kids who had never picked up a rock in their lives were occupying the classrooms they used to study in. When National Guardsmen shot four unarmed students at Kent State, virtually the entire system of higher education shuddered and stopped. The fabric of the country seemed to be tearing; everything about the older generation was contaminated, corrupt. Asked in a Gallup poll if there was a generation gap, 74% of the young people of that era said yes.
And now? Today's kids aren't taking up arms against their parents; they're too busy texting them. The members of the millennial generation, ages 18 to 29, are so close to their parents that college students typically check in about 10 times a week, and they are all Facebook friends. Kids and parents dress alike, listen to the same music and fight less than previous generations, and millennials assert that older people's moral values are generally superior to their own.
Yet even more young people perceive a gap. According to a recently released Pew Research Center report, 79% of millennials say there is a major difference in the point of view of younger and older people today. Young Americans are now more educated, more diverse, more optimistic and less likely to have a job than previous generations. But it is in their use of technology that millennials see the greatest difference, starting perhaps with the fact that 83% of them sleep with their cell phones. Change now comes so strong and fast that it pulls apart even those who wish to hang together--and the future belongs to the strong of thumb.
But we miss the point, warns social historian Neil Howe, if we weigh only how technology shapes a generation and not the other way around. The millennials were raised in a cocoon, their anxious parents afraid to let them go out in the park to play. So should we be surprised that they learned to leverage technology to build community, tweeting and texting and friending while their elders were still dialing long-distance? They are the most likely of any generation to think technology unites people rather than isolates them, that it is primarily a means of connection, not competition.
That hunger for community further distinguishes them from the radical individualists of the baby-boom years. In fact, in some respects the millennials emerge as radically conventional. Asked about their life goals, 52% say being a good parent is most important to them, followed by having a successful marriage; 59% think that the trend of more single women having children is bad for society. While more tolerant than older generations, they are still more likely to disapprove of than support the trend of unmarried couples living together. While they're more politically progressive than their elders, you could argue that their strong support for gay marriage and interracial marriage reflects their desire to extend traditional institutions as widely as possible. If boomers were always looking to shock, millennials are eager to share.