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Millennial mythbusters: Investigating these five myths

A lot of words have been spilled trying to nail down millennials — those who were born roughly between 1980 and 2000.

They're lazy and creative. Individualistic, yet hopelessly dependent. Incredibly self-absorbed, but also concerned with social change. It can't all be true, can it?

Juice set its sights on five myths about millenials. We then tracked down who is pushing those myths and sought out data and young professionals' feedback. Are millennials a unique generation beset by the economy and blessed by the Internet? Or just the next round of 20somethings?

The claim: Millennials take longer to 'grow up' than generations before them

Who's said it: "Breaking News," read a headline last month on Jezebel, a feminist culture blog. "Millennials Still Living at Home, Still Cool with It"

The piece was one of many to focus on an August study by the real estate firm Coldwell Banker in which 70 percent of Americans said too many adult children are living at home in order to avoid responsibility.

Clark University psychologist Jeffrey Arnett brought forth the idea of young people encountering an "emerging adulthood" more than a decade ago, a period of in-betweenness in one's 20s marked by self-exploration, uncertainty and the perception of possibilities.

It's why millennials in industrial societies are marrying later, starting families later and generally postponing adulthood's definitive markers, according to Arnett. His work inspired a viral New York Times Magazine piece in 2010 called "What is it about 20-somethings" which, in turn, inspired a book called "Twenty Something: Why do young adults seem stuck?"

The book's co-author, Robin Marantz Henig, elaborated on Arnett's scholarship to suggest that a barren job market has eased expectations on when and how young people should settle down.

What's more, a Pew Research study released last month found 36 percent of millennials (ages 18-31) lived with their parents in 2012, including 29 percent of employed millennials.

You say: At 33 years old, Shawn Bash is on the upper end of what's considered a millennial. Yet the software designer from Grimes said he saw a prolonged road to adulthood in his own life and sees it in 20somethings he knows.

"Our parents' generation, they graduated high school, graduated college and wanted to start a family immediately. Then build that and then do things later in life," Bash said. "Our perception is have fun early."

Bash abandoned his first undergraduate experience for a season of travel and self-reflection. He lived in Europe, Hawaii, Kansas and California before he married his high school sweetheart and started a family. His parents were largely supportive of the venture, he said: "They said, 'Find your way,' and eventually I did."

Matt Cowger, 30, once wanted to be a teacher before deciding the career wasn't a good fit. He's working a temporary office job downtown as he decides his steps. While Cowger definitely sees a sour economy encouraging slower transitions among himself and his peers, he also suggested that millennials' slower move may be a reaction to parents' set-in-stone career paths.

"I think we've maybe seen parents who've stayed in their jobs 20, 30 years and maybe it wasn't their passion," said Cowger, who's living in Ankeny. "I think we as a generation do want to find our passion and make that a part of our daily lives."

The claim: Millennials are lazy workers

Who's said it: Millennials themselves, sort of. In a 2010 Pew Research study, millennials were the only generation out of the last four to not list "work ethic" as a defining trait. That characteristic topped the lists of baby boomers, came second for Gen Xers and fourth for the those of the Silent Generation. Instead, millennials surveyed identified their generation first by "technology use," then "music/pop culture" and "liberal/tolerant." "Clothes" came in at five.

That same year, CNN published an article by Patricia Sellers titled "Who cares about jobs? Not Gen Y" In it, Sellers reported that workers in their mid-20s stayed at jobs for an average of 16 months before leaving as opposed to the decades of corporate loyalty shown to employers by baby boomers.

"It makes you wonder: Will this emerging generation of leaders ever care as much as we did about building careers?" Sellers wrote.

You say: Logan Clement, a 23-year-old freelance photographer and barista at Mars Cafe, said millennials don't work less than generations past. They just work differently.

"People my age, more or less, look for a lot of alternative routes to working or making money. I think sometimes, from an older generation, that comes across as being lazy," he said. "My parents always had a job, always worked 40 hours a week — always working, working, working. Because the world has become a lot smaller, we have way more opportunities to do new entrepreneurial things."

Clement said the limited job market for young people has forced a wave of creative entrepreneurship among people he knows in Des Moines. A lot of his friends in Central Iowa have found more success and freedom doing freelance creative work at their own pace than they have seeking jobs in traditional office environments.

Bonstetter, the 28-year-old English instructor at DMACC, thinks this myth is false for a different reason. If young people are lazy, it's not because they're millennials; it's because they're young people who'll eventually shape up out of financial self-interest.

The claim: Millennials are more focused on social issues

Who's said it: UCLA researchers reported in a July study that high schoolers showed more concern for social and environmental issues following the financial meltdown of 2008 than those before the recession or during the late 1970s.

Students' measured concern for others declined starkly between the study's surveyed ranges of 1976-1978 until 2004-2006, researchers found, before bumping up during the post-recession range studied from 2008-2010.

Compared to pre-recession counterparts, post-recession high school millennials were more likely to conserve energy, reflect on social problems, and use bikes or mass transit by a relatively slim average of 6.5 percent. Researchers theorized that the fewer economic resources left to millennials in the wake of the recession resulted in heightened concern for others, a trend which could reverse itself as the economy improves.

What you say: Matt Cowger, a 30-year-old temp worker, said he's unsure whether millennials do more for social causes than previous generations, but he does see a concerted focus on local on the community level.

"Whether it's a community garden, hanging out, I'm more interested in seeing changes in our neighborhood. … being present in the space where you're living," Cowger said. "Maybe I can't control what's going on in Washington, D.C., but I can play a part where I live."

Jessup Bonnstetter, a 28-year-old English instructor, said that while both he and his students at DMACC's Urban Campus are all considered millennials, he wonders whether their life stage as students makes them more idealistic toward social causes.

"It's easy when you're a student to feel political and that certain changes in society need to occur, but I don't know if we're even talking about a generation as much as a life stage," said Bonnstetter, comparing his generation's activism to that of his father's in the late sixties. "Social media makes it easier to jump on-board and be part of something in 5 minutes, but that doesn't necessarily mean as much."

The claim: Millennials overwhelmingly vote Democratic

Who's said it: It's a bit of conventional wisdom that the young vote left. In the days following Barack Obama's re-election defeat over Mitt Romney in Iowa and elsewhere, Republican strategist Margaret Hoover worried in a column that the GOP had lost millennials for good.

"That's because partisan self-identification forms in new generations like cement — setting softly and hardening over time," she said, noting millennials voted for the Democratic candidate in 2004, 2008 and 2012.

She also pointed to that 2010 Pew Research study — the same one where millennials self-identified as "liberal/tolerant" — to support her fears. The study claims that millennials' support of Obama in the 2008 election marked the largest disparity between older and younger voters in 40 years. Yet even by 2010, the study noted that about half of millennials said Obama failed to bring change to Washington.

What you say: Erin Rapp, 26, is a young Republican operative who most recently directed communications for Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz and former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh.

She doesn't doubt that Republicans have to rethink the way they reach out to young people, but believes there's a latent crop of economically-weary millennials who would latch onto conservative policies if the pitch were right.

"It can be frustrating being 26," she said. "A lot of issues — the economy, Obamacare and unemployment — continue to hit this generation hardest. … There's not a lot of good news coming out about what it's like to be a young 20-something in America."

Emily Sexton, a 25-year-old pre-law student at Des Moines' Drake University, describes herself as "absolutely liberal, on almost every issue," and believes millennials are in fact more open to social causes like same-sex marriage than generations past. She perceives that most of her peers at Drake lean left, too, but not all. "Just because you're my age you're not necessarily going to become this bleeding heart liberal," she said.

As for the numbers? A 2013 poll by the Harvard Institute of politics found 37 percent of millennials ages 18-29 consider themselves Democrats, with another 37 percent calling themselves independent and 25 percent identifying as Republicans.

Numbers released last fall by the Iowa Secretary of State's office showed overall voter registration among Republicans and Democrats to be effectively even. Republicans accounted for 32.4 percent of registered voters with Democrats at 32.3. About 35.7 percent listed no political party affiliation.

The claim: Millennials are narcissists

Who's said it: A Time Magazine cover story last spring proclaimed millennials' narcissism the loudest with a photo illustration of a young woman snapping a cellphone selfie with the headline "The Me Me Me Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents." In the story, writer Joel Stein reported that narcissistic personality disorder occurs three times as often among 20-somethings today as for those ages 65 and above, per the National Institutes of Health. He also noted that 58 percent of college students scored higher than those in 1982 on a narcissism scale.

Critics of Stein's story, like The Atlantic Wire, claimed that narcissism was a trait among all 20-somethings, not simply today's 20-somethings. "It's like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are Generation Sociopath: Kids These Days Will Pull Your Hair, Pee On Walls, Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences," Elispeth Reeve wrote in the Atlantic piece.

You say: Clement, the photographer and barista, said he thinks the advent of social media has allowed today's 20-somethings to put more thought into constructing their personal image than any generation before. "There's definitely a huge stress (about) how to present yourself in all fashions," he said.

Sexton, the pre-law student, agrees that her generation is generally narcissistic — and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"We grew up our whole lives being told, 'You can be anything. You can have everything.' I think with having that instilled and repeated by teachers, we became conditioned," she said. "I don't think it makes you a bad person, (but) I think you can take it too far. Selfishness is good for yourself — in a lot of aspects you need to be selfish to take care of yourself."

Bonnstetter, the 28-year-old DMACC instructor, sides with critics who say his generation isn't any more self-loving than the ones before.

"I think narcissism is a completely human, normal thing to do, but we just have a more accessible platform to do that on," he said. "You know 'Animal House,' I would imagine their Facebook (walls) would look typical to the South Carolina University frat boy."