Millennium Morals

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Call them Generation Goody Two Shoes. Study after poll after survey has told us how good Gen Ys are — morally upright, socially conscious, devoutly religious and financially on track. They're much more scrupulous than many people imagined the offspring of decadent Baby Boomers would be. Or are they?

A closer look at Echo Boomer values reveals that this group's reputation may, in fact, be too good to be true. For example, 77 percent consider tossing trash out the car window morally wrong, but only 8 percent think it's wrong to flout the law by exceeding the speed limit, according to a study by Harris Interactive conducted for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. The study, based on an extensive phone survey of 2,001 members of this year's college graduates, demonstrates that while the current generation clings to most traditional mores, they are selective in their appraisal of right and wrong.

On the bright side, Gen Ys only slightly trail the general population in their belief that littering, lying to the IRS and exaggerating on one's résumé are absolutely morally wrong. Yet for transgressions where the chances of discovery, rebuke and punishment are distinctly lower, Gen Y scruples are decidedly less strict. Echo Boomers are half as likely to disapprove of stealing office supplies for personal use (23 percent versus 52 percent of the total population) or telling white lies on occasion (13 percent versus 29 percent). Only 39 percent frown on keeping excess change given at a store, compared with 66 percent of the national population.

Female members of the generation display relatively more virtue than their male counterparts. For instance, 65 percent of the women feel that not being completely open and honest with the IRS is wrong compared with 59 percent of men. And 42 percent of this year's female grads think that keeping excess change given to them at a store is wrong, versus 35 percent of this year's male grads.

They may not hold themselves to high standards, but when it comes to the rest of the country, Gen Y is much more austere. Whereas 65 percent of the general population thinks America is headed in the right direction, only 53 percent of Gen Ys agree, and 83 percent of them are concerned about the country's political leadership. While the general public is pretty suspicious of government — only 18 percent of the total population trusts Congress, and 21 percent trust the White House — Echo Boomers put even less stock in political institutions. Just 4 percent of them trust Congress, 7 percent the White House and 7 percent their local government. When forced to name an institution they do trust, Gen Ys most frequently name the medical field (23 percent).

Without faith in public institutions, Gen Ys seem to place their trust in individual action. To their credit, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) say they have volunteered in the past year and 9 out of 10 expect to do so in the future. But, when it comes to other saintly behaviors, Gen Y, once again, doesn't always practice what it preaches. While 86 percent say they believe in God, only 48 percent regularly attend religious services. And when asked whom they most admire or respect, 50 percent dutifully name their mother or father, yet when asked which generation they trust most, 82 percent name their grandparents' generation over that of their parents' (68 percent). Underneath their model citizen veneer, it seems Gen Ys harbor a rebellious streak after all.

For more information, contact Deanna L. Tillisch at Northwestern Mutual at (414) 665-2705.

From Black and White to Gray

Gen Y is much less likely than the general public to think that taking office supplies from work for personal use is wrong (23 percent vs. 52 percent).


Source: Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company/Harris Interactive

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