Today's young adults see new discoveries both as a source of awe and a means for innovation.
The wildly successful web publication "I F*cking Love Science" currently has over 18 million likes on Facebook. For context, Popular Science has 2.8 million likes, and Scientific American magazine has about 2 million. The publication’s founder, 25-year-old Elise Andrew, has never been affiliated with any mainstream media outlet. She launched her page in 2012, filling it with beautiful scientific images, web comics, and even original articles about the latest scientific news. "IFLS declared, with no hint of irony, that science was amazing," wrote Alexis Sobel Fitts in a recent profile in the Columbia Journalism Review," and in desperate need of a digital-age evangelist to spread the word." Andrew describes her role in a lower-key way: "I’m just telling people things I think are cool."
This is how most Millennials feel about science—curious and awestruck. And they can’t get enough of it. They’re reading about science at their jobs and in their free time, in peer-reviewed journals or on Wikipedia. But what makes Millennials’ interests different from the scientific interests of every previous generation?
By most definitions, a millennial is a person bornbetween 1982 and 2004. And even though we may be reluctant to generalize a generation of about 80 million, Millennials share some common traits that may seem contradictory to their elders. They want their work to be their passion, even though the recession has drastically reduced their job prospects for years to come. They are intricately and consistently connected via social media. They’re less likely to be affiliated with a religious institution than previous generations, but they pray just as often.
Millennials are also attending college, and planning to attend graduate school, in unprecedented numbers; a 2010 Pew Research Center survey states that "Millennials may be on track to emerge as the most educated generation ever." They came of age watching Bill Nye the Science Guy, and their highly involved parents (and a sluggish economy with no jobs) inspired them to pursue higher education. For people curious about the world, and with access to a lot of information, that often leads them to scientific fields. "If you see the nation’s report card and the change in scores, Millennials have much greater improvement in science in math than in reading and writing," said Neil Howe, a historian and economist who has published extensively on generational shifts and society.
The last generation to make a disproportionate number of scientific discoveries was the G.I. generation, born between 1901 and 1924. From events like the 1939 World’s Fair and the Manhattan Project, science quickly entered the social consciousness as the best way to make life better overall. Young people in the late 1940s and 1950s were "really good at solving big things," says Howe. "They thought they could make a better world because they were optimistic, community minded, and cooperative among peers. They had a vision of the future that can be proved through science."
This comparison between the G.I. generation and Millennials is apt, Howe said, because of the two groups’ shared conviction that science is the way to improve the world. "What Millennials really like about science is its ability to take an innovation and make the whole world, or community, a better place," Howe said. It’s a logic that’s hard to dispute: By its nature, science holds some of the only solutions that are applicable across national, religious and cultural boundaries.
For Millennials, technology is simultaneously an inspiration and a medium for innovation. "Through technology, students are getting exposed to scientific ideas and concepts that 30 years ago would have required a visit the research university or reading a journal. And that early exposure makes [the ideas] more accessible," said Kristine Johnson, a professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan who has published several articles about Millennials as teachers and students. That doesn’t mean Millennials are necessarily delving into this information very deeply, she noted. "It’s easy to learn about these things on a shallow level, it inspires admiration for some scientific discoveries and may do so for Millennials in the future."
Because of the generation’s global reach, Millennials have a greater need for things that transcend old boundaries and ideologies. Science has become a universal language, a form of information that is available almost instantly and can be shared among people who have nothing else in common. The rise of social media has also blurred the line between high-brow and low-brow, professional pursuits and personal interests. When Millennials get excited about science, they post it on Facebook—and when they see a gorgeous photo of deep space on Twitter, it can open a new avenue of scientific exploration.
Most Millennials are still early in their careers, so it remains to be seen how this fascination with science will manifest itself. Howe has a few ideas. "Obviously one issue that Millennials will put their talents toward solving is climate change," Howe said. "But it could be some other issue, something that comes up overnight." As an analog from the G.I. Generation, Howe referenced the Manhattan project as the "one thing the best and brightest worked on that no one knew we would need until 1941 [the start of World War II]."
Whatever Millennials decide to do, sites like IFLS show that they’re already changing the way Americans look at science. As Howe puts it, "These generations are different, and they take society in different directions."