An emerging portrait of emerging adults in the news, part 2

In recent weeks, a number of studies have been reported on that discuss the beliefs and behaviors of the younger generation, those who are now between high school and age 30 (an age group that could also be labeled “emerging adults”). In a three-part series, I want to highlight three of these studies because they not only suggest what this group is doing but also hints at the consequences. (Find part one here.)

In Sunday’s edition of the Chicago Tribune, there was a story citing research that shows emerging adults are more tolerant than previous generations on issues like intermarriage, gay marriage, other races, and immigration. Yet, at the same time, there is also research suggesting levels of empathy among college students are down about 40% compared to the 1970s:

“Millennials, A Portrait of Generation Next,” an extensive study of teens and 20-somethings released earlier this year, showed that members of the Millennial Generation, generally born between 1981 and 2000, are “more racially tolerant than their elders.”

More than two decades of Pew Research surveys confirm that assessment.

“In their views about interracial dating, for example, Millennials are the most open to change of any generation,” the report states.

The study goes on to report that nearly 6 in 10 Millennials say immigrants strengthen the country, compared with 43 percent of adults ages 30 and older…

The problem is that tolerance doesn’t necessarily mean understanding, researchers say. Adults working with teens say they see an unsettling strain of desensitivity among young people.

In May, University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research issued a report on an analysis of 72 studies on the empathy of nearly 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009. The result: Today’s college students are about 40 percent lower in empathy than students two or three decades earlier.

The researchers suggested that disheartening trend may have to do with numbness created by violent video games, an abundance of online friends and an intensely competitive emphasis on success, among other factors.

This is a very interesting conclusion: the younger generation is more tolerant but less understanding and empathetic. So what exactly does this tolerance look like? The lack of empathy, in particular, is interesting as it is another step beyond tolerance. Empathy is the ability to understand and take on the feelings and perspectives of others. Is tolerance the end goal or is there more that we should be striving for as a society?

This conundrum reminds me of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the current topic of our Sunday School class. In verse after verse, Jesus suggests that Christians aren’t just supposed to put up with people: “loving your neighbor” means taking an extra step toward people, bringing reconciliation, peace, and blessings to other rather than just letting them be or letting them pursue their rights in their own space. Loving people means putting them above yourself, something beyond both tolerance and empathy.

One outcome suggested by this story is a meanness or harshness among high schools. Teenagers understand about respecting difference but this doesn’t translate as well into personal interactions where being mean is seen as being cool.

Another possible outcome is living alone, keeping people at a distance. I will consider this in part three of this series.

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