Generational Group Think

Is Millennial “Group Think” an example of how they are the Dumbest Generation?

Millennial blogger Rebecca Thorman at Modite recently put up an interesting post about Millennials and Community. There is one aspect I find particularly interesting:

Our friends “move in the same circles we do and are exposed to the same information. To get new information we have to activate our weak ties,” Albert-Laszlo Barabasi explains in his book Linked (via Valeria Maltoni).

This is a key aspect of how Millennials approach community. They may have strong ties to their classmates in both high school and college, and may join civic organizations to band together. But when it comes to online interactions there is a strong sentiment of “group-think” because the technology makes it so easy to filter out ideas to just the ones that match your bias.

This is a surprisingly powerful force, as Barabasi pointed out in his book (I read it a few years back). I think there are many Boomers (born 1943-1960) and Gen X’ers (born 1961-1981) feel that this dynamic will lead to the Millennials (born 1982-200?) will be the “Dumbest Generation“.  I don’t agree, but I do feel that the Millennial generation will be much more unified in their thinking. As an independent Gen X’er, I chafe at the idea of succumbing to group-think, but that does not mean that it is inherently dumb. Gen X’ers and Boomers are known for independent thought, and (particularly for Booomers) deep, introspective thought. This can be a wonderful characteristic, but can also lead to navel gazing. Millennials are more likely to piece together their ideas from multiple sources (the post on Modite contains 25 links!) that mostly agree with their ideas. Is it a more shallow approach than Gen X and Boomers take? Yes. Is it dumber? No.

The generation that the Millennials are most similar to (in recent history) it is the GI Generation (born 1901-1924). They, like the Millennials were subject to group think. Consider the society that they built in the 1950’s: a single American Dream that everyone was expected to buy into. There were few dissenters in the 1950’s when the GI’s were in power, but once their kids (Baby Boomers) came of age and the Silents (born 1925-1942) were there to lead them, there was a massive rebellion (the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960’s).

The way that Millennials work together, both online and offline, is a critical component in the society that they will help build (or rebuild, depending on how you look at it). The Millennials, as a generation, will NOT be deep thinkers. But I think it is valid to argue that we have had enough deep thought over the last 20-30 years. The challenges that face our society today will require resolute action, not more long-winded debate. And Millennials, like the GI’s before them, are nothing if not Do’ers. As an independent-minded Gen X’er I know that I will probably find much of the society that Millennials create in 20-30 years to be dangerously shallow, but by then I will just be another crotchety old man from a different age 🙂

21 thoughts on “Generational Group Think”

  1. Hey I’m no expert on generations but what you said about the internet leading to ‘group thinking’ would actually make a lot more sense if it were applied to television or newspapers. It’s easier to be bias when your choices of information are limited.

    1. @anon – Television and newspapers were the last “civic” generation’s group-think: the GI’s born between 1901-1924. I agree that the Internet can be used for more diversity of thought and I believe that is how Gen X’ers (born 1961-1981) have used it. My point is that the WAY that Millennials are using the Internet, with more skimming of information and grouping based on beliefs will lead to more group-think. I will do another post on this soon that explains the concept further.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree that Millennials are not deep thinkers. I think it requires too much from them (I happen to be a Millennial, but I do like being challenged and having challenging conversations). The world is going to be a scary place in a few years if the Millennials don’t get out of the group-think mentality.
    Thanks for a great article!

    1. @Rachel – I think the world will be a scary place in a few years regardless of whether the Millennials are deep thinkers or not (see my post on the crisis for why). But the group-think of the Millennials will likely prove extremely useful in the culmination of the crisis, as long as that group-think is of a positive nature. Consider the GI’s (born 1901-1924) who also had a strong case of group-think back in the 1930’s, leading up to WWII. Because of how they were worked together as a team, not asking deep questions of their leaders, they were able to win the War for the Allies. Because that was a good outcome, we excused the group-think of the generation (until the 1960’s when the Boomers questions the GI’s values). The real risk is if the Millennials go with a mob-mentality, deciding to attack and persecute our enemies. Think of the young Nazi’s in WWII or the folks in charge of the Japanese Internment camps in the US. Group-think is a somewhat required quality for a crisis period, but the outcome depends on the qualities of that thinking…

  3. I disagree that the Millennials are shallow thinkers.

    I will admit my bias upfront; I am a Millenial myself. Part of what charaterises my generation is that they grew up with Television and Computers being a normal and natural part of our lives. You argue that the result of this is that we are apt at filtering out what we don’t agree with. I would argue that it was necessary for my generation to get proficient at filtering information because we are the first generation to have watched live feeds of war, poverty, violence, uprising, Hollywood glamour every day of our lives from the day we were born. We have been taught to participate, that it is our responsibility to be informed. We have had the weight of the information age placed on our shoulders since before Highschool. I personally pas punished in year 6 for using the plight of Saudi Arabian women as my show-&-tell piece.

    Accessing and filtering information, deciding where we can best serve and taking action is what we have been groomed for. We have been taught that information, awareness and action will change the things you are so upset that we are not thinking deeply enough about. Its not shallow its effective and doesn’t preclude us from understanding and ‘thinking’ about issues in a deep fashion.

    1. @Rachael Stott (two Rachaels from the same generation with opposite takes? What are the chances!) – I agree that the approach taken by Millennials to process information is efficient and even effective. And there are undoubtedly MANY in the Millennial generation that are, or will be, deep-thinkers. But my argument is that overall the generation tends to think more about the surface than the depth of issues (but I don’t see that as entirely a bad thing).
      The word “shallow” is a loaded one – because to our current thinking it implies ignorance or stupidity. But I think the meaning of that word has changed over the last 80 years or so. The Baby Boomers (born 1943-1960) were all about “deep thinking”, considering the internal meaning of every ideology. The Silents (born 1925-1942) were also careful thinkers, often getting stuck in “analysis paralysis” as result of their ruminations. But the generation before them, the GI’s (born 1901-1924) were not nearly as deep in their thinking. The ideals of the current “American Dream” came from the GI generation and looking back at it now it seems rather short-sighted (two cars, two kids, white picket fence? Women and people of color as second-class citizens?). The GI’s might have been considered shallow but they used that group-think to pull us out of the Great Depression and win WWII.
      I agree that the information overload that the Millennials have been subjected to requires a different approach to processing. The sheer volume of information requires skimming and capturing what you feel is important. One useful strategy is to consider what your circle of friends values in determining what to give credence to, and that can lead to group-think. It’s not that Millennials are uniformed, they are over-informed which leads to different ways of thinking (notice I did not say poorer ways of thinking, just different).
      What I am trying to say is that getting group consensus and then TAKING ACTION is what is required during a time of crisis. I don’t think that more deep thought will be particularly helpful right now if it is not coupled with direct action. Baby Boomers like to think and debate, Gen X’ers like to do for themselves and, hopefully, Millennials will try to think and DO.

  4. I think it will be interesting to see how Millenials evolve with their “group-think”. You can definitely see this in the way that they use twitter and other resources. So far, they seem to lack discernment between gossip and fact, but perhaps this is something that they will learn with age or perhaps it is Gen X’s job to teach them. I agree that they are not necessarily “dumber” just different – like the mutants in the Chrysalids or the “Borg” (resistance is futile).

  5. Yo.. As an X’er that has been in the computer biz since 1986 I think I have had a great experiencing with both the Boomers, and the Y’s. I do think the Y generation is a bit vapid right now.. They understand tech, but not the making and keeping. They have great attitudes and like to have fun, but, from a herd point… Raves, even young coffee shop kids have a ‘uniform’. Their children will not. The Y’s may be a bit shallow, but the knowledge is broad… they ARE, like everyone, capable of thinking and acquiring intelligence…. That being said, they too, will venture toward spiritual knowledge… It’s a process that expands as you use it, and, most kids don’t feel like using it yet. The shiny eyes of their EV Free Boomer Parents frightened them and Y’s still haven’t figured out the spirit thing, BUT, they will… That will be fun, maybe look allot like the spiritual strangeness of the 19 teens and twenties… ghost, seances and after life communications intertwined with deep Christian ethos. That is where X’ers fit in. Show them real, but let them choose. Funny, I had a great moment with my nieces and nephews last year… a group firmly Y.. We were sitting around the deck and it was brought up that their Uncle plays the Flamenco guitar (a vaste amount of X’ers play an instrument it seems).. I was shocked when they exclaimed surprise… I had played the guitar in public and thought they knew. Well, after much clamoring I was convinced to ‘share the gift’ as one nephew put it. So I play… I am not bad… never boo’d of a stage so to speak. When I was done I put the guitar down and looked up. All of those ‘Y’ faces had ‘O’ for mouths… When I made a joke about it, they started talking about the fact that their peers are WAY behind my generation in music. When I asked what my nieces and nephews meant by that I was informed quite quickly… “your generation…Uncle, what was it? Grunge?” I sit mortified at the ‘G’ word… thoughts of flannel and hiking boots fill my head, I silently scream NOOOO… “Were forced to actually play music, we play Guitar Hero… that’s why everyone sings and musicals are popular… we can’t play anything.” I had too laugh… Maybe it has a bit of truth, but at the same time… Two of my nephews are taking guitar lessons, with the real instruments, now. That is the ONE, over-looked asset of the Y’s. They are curious, very curious… Too many older brothers played guitar and went to Tibet for them not to have gotten a little shine from the X’ers.. That curiosity will take them from the shallow, Guitar Hero, phase to the ‘Real’ playing of an instrument… If you will, the spiritual and deep. I wouldn’t count the shallow too hang on the shoulders of the ‘Y’s… I DO count on the ‘Y’ eventually coming back because they live up to their name as they ask Why? Hopefully us X’ers won’t turn bitter and poison the well, instead, guide. We had the hard knocks, we have the grit. The Y’s love the WWII vets, the Greatest Generation because they had those same qualities. Let’s not alienate those young hearts. As some have notice the X’ers have allot in common with the Greatest. That is the bridge, use it, don’t burn it when it comes to X’ers and Y’s.

    1. @Dell – thanks for the insightful comment. I agree that X definitely needs to be a bridge. And I meant no offense by saying that Millennials are not deep-thinkers. It is a sign of the generation in control (Boomers) that “deep thought” is directly correlated with intelligence and “broad thought” is correlated with shallowness or even stupidity. I hold to my belief that Millennials, as a generation, will be more broad thinkers, which will probably be judged as shallow by both Boomers and Gen X’ers. I also believe that the thinking style of Millennials will be judged harshly by their kids (the next “Prophet” generation, similar in character to the Boomers). As an example, I can see Millennials instituting “green” policies such as carbon counters on every house, requirements for electric cars, and social status for how green you are. Their kids will then question these norms by asking “does that put us more in tune with nature? what is the point of being sustainable if we can’t work well with nature?” and off we go into the next cultural revolution (50 years from now).
      So I don’t mean to belittle Millennials or how they think. It is critical they limit the depth of their thinking if we are to work effectively as a team during this long crisis. There will be time for more deep thought soon enough (in relative terms).

  6. Dave.

    Excellent thoughts, they give me pause to contemplate… of which I enjoy. I did not me to say you belittled. In fact, though I have been on and in the Internet since 1995, I rarely comment… the proverbial lurker. However, I really enjoyed reading this blog, and did not mean to imply harsh treatment of your assessment. That was where I failed to quantify myself in that I too do not feel ‘shallow’ is a detriment; anymore than being Twenty is a detriment. In fact, in a way, I feel it must be a requirement to get through the time of being Twenty-something. One more leg on the journey, one more revolution of the wheel. For myself, being twenty-ish was a very mercurial time – a time of “you miss too much these days if you stop too think “, (I know, I know – quoting U2 – I show my vapidness).

    You mentioned the the children, and the questioning. This makes me wonder what it will truly be like. I know we are painting with broad brushes here, and too an extent this conversation couldn’t take place without doing so, but, as I reach an older age I realize that there were a fair amount of Boomer’s that behave more like X-ers than I had believed when I was younger. I see the same in the X-ers as well… more like Y’s and so on… Which brings me to this paragraphs belabored point. Currently, there is a literal grass roots movement of X’ers – and Boomers (limited but there) getting ‘into’ the earth. Small farms and cooperatives are blooming like mushrooms on a log, and this, seems to be the first attempts at what the ‘millennials’ may seek in mass – to get further in touch with the green movement. These small, early, endeavors are in fact the seeds to germinate the further wish too get in touch with nature… That being said, I think this early on exposure is, no pun intended, the X=? factor. How will this change, or influence, the minds of the millenials-to-be-children? Their X’er grandparents and parents will be on the farm, literally, again… Who knows, but I hope it is pure, knowledgeable, and further enhances passed on understanding, the ‘bones’ if you will, of our ancestors already formidable legacies in getting to know this amazing world we have, and how to be it’s caretaker. What do you think when this bit is added too your earlier thoughts?

    1. @Dell – Quoting U2 is not a sign of vapidness, it is a sign of good taste :-). Glad to have you commenting rather than just lurking!

      The green movement may end up being a good example of the Millennial shallowness. The reasons why many Boomers got into organic foods and small farms was because of an ideal they were seeking. For X’ers it is about making sure our kids don’t eat poisons. But for the Millennials I think it will be much more shallow than that. For example I could see people in 20 years being judged for choosing non-organic as people are today for smoking. But I think a greater connection to nature is exactly what will be missing from the culture that Millennials create. It will likely be their children (the next “prophets” similar to the Boomers) who will point out this disconnect in distinctly revolutionary tones. But that is probably 40 or more years from now. It will be interesting to see how it all progresses.

      That said, I am hopeful that the local farming, coops and other ways of getting closer to nature through are food persist. And, like you, I really do see it as an antidote for the disconnect of modern life. It just may be a while before the mainstream culture really embraces that ideal.

      1. Dave: I love how it’s taken a GenXer to point out the shortcomings of some of the Millennials ideas. There is nothing deep about Millennial culture, social networking, music, shows all bland and light plots.

  7. I think the main issue we face is that information is so accessible no-one remembers things anymore.
    We simply google it, rather than try and remember/figure it out.

    1. @toxic brit – I agree that our memories and expectations have been changed by the Internet. Does that make us dumber? I am not sure. But it definitely depends on how you use the technology. The approach taken by much of the Millennial generation leads to more shallow thinking (although it may also may be “wider” as well).

  8. David, How refreshing it is to read the thoughts of one so very knowledgeable of generational theory. And how I do agree with what you say and write here. I would add to this conversation regarding Millennials being “shallow” and “oriented to group think” that, each gen has its strengths and weaknesses. The ability to rally around a few large goals and DO them is a hallmark of the Hero gen, today’s Millennials.

    As an Xer, I’ll add that our strength is to scatter, go to the extremes, find the niches and gaps, come together for purpose-function-tribe and then disband once the mission is accomplished. The whole collegial, chummy thing just ain’t our schtick. Even when Xers agree on principles, getting them to work together collectively is a challenge. (Working collaboratively is a different story and one we excel at, I do believe.)

    Imagine if Xers were introspective, navel-gazers like Boomers. Society would come to a stand still. No, the Xers naturally orient to an opposite realm: function, pragmatism … oh, and a little personal style and branding. Imagine if Millennials also scattered, went to the extremes and could only work in groups for short periods of time on mission-specific goals. Aaaah! Society would explode from the fragmentation with two generations expressing the same orientation. Millennials have to be collective and “group thinkers.” It’s the natural order of the archetypes.

    Anyhoo, keep up the good work …

    1. @JessieX – thanks for the compliment – I really enjoy writing on these topics.

      I agree that each generation has their strengths and weaknesses and your example of putting Boomer's in X'ers time and X'ers in Millennial's time makes the point very well indeed. As long as we play to our strengths and are willing to let others fill in for our weaknesses, then we will do fine. It's when we get hung up on our weaknesses that we end up in a downward spiral. There is no reason for the Millennials to obsess over being deep thinkers any more than X'ers should try to work collectively. We all have our path.

  9. I don’t know man. This seems a little shady. If the Boomers are deep thinkers, and deep thinking leads to navel-gazing and analysis paralysis, as this article claims in a general way but does not prove, what do we say about the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the consciousness revolution that this article itself mentions? Where is it written, except here, that deep thinking and decisive action are mutually exclusive? where is that correlation played out in real life? can you really claim that an entire generation, if we can say that the concept of a generation means all that much at all, is prone to pointless brooding? isn’t our current president, elected with the overwhelming support of the American youth, known for both his introspective nature as well as the promise of change amidst the fierce urgency of now? I hope that man takes a stroll around the Rose Garden before he drops some bombs from the next drone he sends abroad. guided by a pure heart, connected with genuine spirit, ferociously independent thinking will never interfere with committed collaboration. and it needn’t be any more time consuming then taking a shower.it’s not about how many mental minutes we have in the day, it’s how we use them. You write, “But I think it is valid to argue that we have had enough deep thought over the last 20-30 years.” I don’t think this is the case at all, although I’d be curious to hear your reasoning behind the claim. it is not deep thought and long-winded debate that is driving the destruction of the environment. It is corporate power, greed, propaganda, government corruption, and the nexus that connects these forces and spreads them out into society to create drowning waves of brainwashing. it wasn’t detached, beard stroking philosophers that drove the Reagan Revolution. it was, once again, creed, greed, paranoia, vicious nationalism and insecurity that led us to where we find ourselves today. cultivating a mature habit of personal reflection that brings about insights and the ability to communicate them will in no way make the glaciers melt faster. inaction on these issues is not caused by too much thought. it is the direction, not the depth, of our thinking that is the problem. anyway, sorry my stance has been so adversarial. I just don’t agree on this particular point, but it is definitely a thought-provoking topic.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      The Boomers were not just deep thinkers, but in their youth they were also very action oriented (in contrast to the Silent generation who mainly just did what they were told in their youth). And I do believe that the Boomers accomplished a great deal especially around the areas you point out. But note that the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution and the consciousness revolution were mainly about tearing down the edifice of an “old” way of thinking (from the GI Generation) not necessarily about effectively building something new. The Boomer generation was never focused on “getting along” or civic duty, and because of it their deep thinking led to deep divides in society.

      As for President Obama, he is a Gen X’er not a Boomer. You can see it in the way he behaves: he is more focused on marketing and pragmatic action than on ideology (although he will use ideology in his marketing). This is not a criticism, just an observation and I believe it is one of the reasons many Boomer’s have become so disenchanted with his leadership. He will likely continue to upset Boomers of all political stripes because they just won’t see him as ideologically pure.

      The reason I think we have had enough “deep thought” for the last 20-30 years is because Silents and Boomers did a great job of defining what a more ideal society would look like during the 60’s and 70’s. Now it is time to take action on building some part of that new society and that is a job for the Millennials (with a few Boomer/X’er leaders). Inaction on the problems facing our society is caused by too much debate, often by Boomers who are inflexible in their ideology (hence why congress, dominated by Boomers, is unable to take effective action).

      But, inevitably, the new society that Millennials construct will fall far short of the ideals of the Boomers (regardless of their politics) and we will have to wait until the next cycle (another 80-100 years) to see even more of those ideals put into action.

  10. Exceptionally insightful analysis, thank you. It is good to read this after having a ‘Stop the planet, I want to get off’ day yesterday; it is somewhat comforting to know that what feels to me like a flat, spiritless age, where outside-the-box thinking is the exception to the norm, is actually an organic ebb and flow. I’m just a little disappointed – from the passion of the early 80s, it was a clumsy and spectacular fall from grace into the 90s, through the rabbit hole of the early millenia into the ‘Logan’s Run’ complacency of this era and it promised to be so much more. I’d love to be here to see a resurgence of that Gen X energy in future generations, but fear it’s too far away until that cycle comes back full circle for me to witness it. For my son and niece and their generation of Millenials, I wish every imaginable wonder and opportunity and am certain that they will imprint culture with their own particular sophistication, in their natural born affinity with the world technological. I just miss the fire of the touch-paper. Jackie Robinson MA (Anthropology) – B: 1963 [Late Baby Boomer/Cusp Gen X]

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