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Students of millennial generation seek meaning, purpose

In light of a recent New York Times op-ed piece contending that the millennial generation defines success less in terms of materialistic gains and more in terms of purpose, Boston University students and professors agree that young people today are searching for fulfillment in ways different from earlier generations.

“Earlier generations were more materialistic,” said Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences freshman Taylor Juretic. “I know personally, as a student, I’ve talked to way more people who are searching for a bigger purpose … I don’t care if I’m rich. I care if I’m happy and helping other people.”

After facing economic challenges brought on by the Great Recession of 2008, members of Generation Y, or those born after 1980, have become less focused on money and more focused on meaning and happiness than prior generations, the writers argued in the Nov. 30 op-ed titled “Millennial Searchers.”

A July 2013 study by Sage Publications, which intended to examine the recession’s influence on the attitudes of high school students, supports this claim.

Students surveyed after 2008 rated material concerns such as having a significant amount of money less importantly than they did in the ‘70s and early ‘00s, according to the study. Students also rated their levels of concern for others in different areas such as social issues and inequality at higher levels than in prior time periods.

“After the last decade, there was a trend of rising concern for others, and some of the materialistic values were becoming less important,” said co-author of the study Heejung Park, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of California-Los Angeles’s psychology department.

BU psychology professor Catherine Caldwell-Harris said the millennial generation’s search for happiness and purpose reflects the outlook of young people in the ‘60s.

“[In] the late ‘60s, because of the openness of society, anti-Vietnam [War] and the sexual revolution, there was a huge emphasis on trying to find meaning in life,” she said. “This was a time of getting rid of older values … That was supposed to be the height of young people’s search for meaning.”

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, materialism was a major focus, Harris said. The millennial generation’s lesser emphasis on monetary gains is likely the result of today’s young people simply getting tired of society’s material obsession.

“When anything is an extreme for a while, then there’s a backlash against it,” she said. “The backlash against materialism has showed up in a lot of television shows, movies [and] songs.”

Sociology professor Nancy Ammerman said Generation Y seeks fulfillment differently from prior generations, because the American notion of success and settling are less defined than they once were.

“Those norms about what constitutes settling down have been really challenged, because people are waiting to marry much longer, waiting to have children or not having children at all, living alone more often or living with roommates and changing jobs much more frequently in the early adult years,” she said.

Liah Greenfeld, another sociology professor, said millennials collectively face a tough decision in deciding how to define themselves, particularly in the United States, where young people have so many options and opportunities.

“Unlike societies that are rigid and stratified and have very clear norms that you really cannot transgress against, our society doesn’t provide us with specific structure,” she said. “It leaves us free to choose … It is this very freedom, which is a very good thing, being in control of our own destiny, that also burdens us.”

Karli Abshier, a School of Management senior, said while she agrees that millennials are more concerned with living purposeful lives, society continues to overvalue tangible success.

“I agree with the fact that they [millennials] may search for more meaning and purpose than our earlier generations, but the world is getting more materialistic,” she said.

CAS junior Caroline Birsner said while money is still a factor in determining her future career, happiness is the ultimate success.

“For me personally, money is definitely still a consideration in determining my future career options, but it’s not the prime determinant,” she said. “…We [the millennial generation] are a little bit more idealistic and driven by our hopes and dreams versus more pragmatic things.”

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