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What’s Behind Millennials’ Trust Issues?


A new study shows Millennials trust people less than any generation before them: “In the mid-1980s, when baby boomers were coming of age, about a third of high school seniors agreed that ‘most people can be trusted.’ That dropped to 18 percent in the early 1990s for Gen Xers—and then, in 2012, to just 16 percent of Millennials.”

“The researchers also found that Millennials’ approval of major institutions — from Congress and corporations to the news media and educational and religious institutions — dropped more sharply than other generations in the decade that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”

Why is this, and what does it say about this “civic-minded, do-gooding” generation?

“Jean Twenge, lead author of the study that will be published early this month in the online edition of the journal Psychological Science, says the current atmosphere—fed by the Great Recession, mass shootings, and everything from church sex abuse scandals and racial strife to the endless parade of publicly shamed politicians, athletes and celebrities—may help explain why this young generation’s trust levels hit an all-time low in 2012, the most recent data available.”

If violence is the problem, then it seems Millennials today should be more trusting than those in the 1970s.

Could it really be, as Twenge says, that a bad economy, violence, scandals, and strife have caused this deep-seated skepticism among Millennials? It doesn’t seem so when you consider life wasn’t much different—and was probably a lot worse in some respects—in the 1970s, including a bad economy, a higher violent crime rate, conflicts over the Vietnam War, the impeachment of a president, an increase in drug use compared to previous generations, and a decline in the standard of living. The 1970s have been described as a decade of anger, disillusionment, bitterness, and cynicism. Yet, a third of those young people thought most people could be trusted.

If violence is the problem, then it seems Millennials today should be more trusting than those in the 1970s. Of course, one of the problems could be that Millennials perceive there is more violence because of the 24-hour news cycle and the exaggerating effect of the Internet, as people think bad things are happening all the time even though they don’t see it themselves. This is certainly part of the perception, but I think there’s more going on here than just violence—real or perceived.

The Nature of Trust

The answer to why high numbers of Millennials don’t trust other people lies in understanding the nature of trust itself and the social context in which Millennials find themselves.

At best, we’re ambivalent. Ambivalence is not a civic virtue.

To trust someone, you need to share common bonds of affection, values, and even speech. You need to understand one another. And while you might not be equal in kind, you need to be equal in purpose and values. This doesn’t mean you can only trust people who are exactly like you, but it means you can only build trust when you have a common bond of knowledge with another and a sense of shared goals. While we might not distrust someone we don’t know, we certainly don’t trust them, either. At best, we’re ambivalent. Ambivalence is not a civic virtue. Trust is.

People who say the economy is creating a sense of distrust among Millennials—because it fosters inequality—touch on something true, but they’re missing the bigger picture. The point of distrust is not economic, because anyone can attest through common sense that a rich person and a poor person can trust each other. The point of distrust is the nature of human relations as people are affected by globalization and technology.

Trust is built when you know someone, when you have mutual understanding, a kind of civic love, if you will, that undergirds all other aspects of life. The economic dimension comes into play regarding trust only after there are no common bonds holding people together. All people see are the differences, and equality becomes the driving force in society—not liberty and civic cooperation.

The Overconnected Disconnect

The reason Millennials, who are so positive about themselves as individuals, do not trust others is because they are disconnected from other people on a personal, local level. They are disconnected from their families because of high divorce rates, and they are disconnected from the community at large because they don’t participate in civic associations like people once did—even though many interpret social media participation as a civic association when it really isn’t, not compared to associations in the past where people actually came together to be active in their community.

You can’t trust people who are totally different or removed from your own personal experience.

By nature, people don’t trust those who are different from themselves. This doesn’t mean trust can’t be built between people who are different from one another, but you have to get to know other people to trust them, spend time with them, talk to them. You can’t trust those whom you don’t know and can’t identity with or who have different values than you. You can’t trust people who are totally different or removed from your own personal experience. You can’t trust those for whom you don’t share a sense of loyalty and friendship. (We’d like to think we can, but that’s a pipe dream.)

The Millennial generation has had a cosmopolitan, multicultural, global paradigm superimposed on their personal social sensibilities, and it has left them grasping for intimacy, friendship, and affection. Even worse, it has left them not free to be themselves, but thinking they need to be more like all the “others” if they are to be happy.

Millennials have been raised to think well of themselves and of other people, to be tolerant and open, but they have not been raised (generally speaking) to think in terms of serving and loving, or even spending time with, those who are closest to them—their families and their local communities, friends at school notwithstanding. If anything, they have been pushed by the media and educators (eased through using the Internet) to think bigger and broader, and to be more knowledgeable of what is happening to distant people with whom they have no intimate connection instead of developing the cherished bonds of local associations.

The Anonymous Global Hive

How many Millennials know who Jennifer Lawrence is dating but don’t know who their brother or sister likes at school? How many people know that an African-American got shot by a white cop in Missouri, but don’t know their neighbor down the street just lost his son to cancer? How many know Barack Obama likes to play golf and basketball, but don’t even know the names of their local representatives—representatives they could go talk to if they wanted, something that will never happen with Obama?

Millennials know a lot about people they don’t know and never will.

Millennials know a lot about people they don’t know and never will. They know a lot about people who don’t know them—people who don’t care about them and never will. Outside of a few friends, they’re more occupied by people who are nothing like them and have nothing to do with them than with those who do. Is it any wonder they don’t trust anyone?

Aristotle understood that for individuals to thrive, to be happy, they need to experience the virtues of love, mutual support, and affection, all of which are born of loyalty and trust. He knew these virtues are fostered in the community and that trust is built when people freely choose to come together, everyone bringing their unique views and abilities to serve others, giving and receiving with mutual respect. Only then would the bonds of society be strong.

These bonds cannot be strengthened in a global society where people are so different that they can’t form the foundations of trust necessary to foster a good life. They might want to, but human nature is what it is. The bonds of trust are most secure when we know and are known. They are created mostly among those who are like us, with whom we share common values and experiences—even common geography—than those we don’t.

We live in a society where we don’t really know one another. While we want to be “civic minded” and participate in government, and while we think we’re “socially aware” because we have a lot of information about the world, we too often don’t know other people, and they don’t know us.

Social Media-Level Interaction

All we know is what is on the surface. We know what people own, what cars they drive, who they date, who has lived, and who has died. But we don’t know others in relation to ourselves on an intimate level, and because of that ignorance we can’t enter into their lives and participate alongside them in the civic sphere.

We imagine we live sophisticated, civic-minded, evolved lives, but we are disconnected at our deepest levels.

We play at being engaged in society, but we really aren’t. We are actors on the grand stage that is cosmopolitan America, each of us wearing masks. We imagine we live sophisticated, civic-minded, evolved lives, but we are disconnected at our deepest levels. We are isolated, alone, surrounded by billions of others, all sharing information that does nothing to enliven the soul or develop bonds of real affection.

What is the answer? Do we scurry back to the caves and live in tribes, caring only about those who are exactly like us? Of course not, although I can already hear my critics accusing me of naive provincialism as if I think people are too afraid or too intolerant to live in the global sphere, embracing the diversity that is America. But I am not advocating anything of the sort.

Diversity is best celebrated in America when it is respected, loved, empowered, and trusted. But this cannot happen when people don’t know one another and when they are not truly participating in the community through civic involvement—not through hashtag campaigns on Twitter, but by touching other people, getting to know them, and coming together to figure out how best to solve the ills of society.

Live Local

This can only happen when people think in more local terms, when families are honored, when local communities once again are proud of their distinctiveness (their diversity!), and when government is decentralized. People cannot participate in their government when it is centralized in Washington. All people—Millennials, Latinos, African-Americans, women, and even “white dudes” as they’re so often called these days—cannot participate in society and build the foundations of trust if all the decision-making is done in some distant place.

People cannot participate in their government when it is centralized in Washington.

The virtues of friendship, loyalty, personal responsibility, affection, and trust are best nourished at the local level (and can occur among people of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds as long as they’re living together with common goals and values), where people know one another and where they can actually participate in the community together.

Aristotle said, “If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost.” You cannot share in the government to the utmost if it is so big and so far away that your voice is silenced.

You cannot participate in your community if everything is controlled by some bureaucrat in Washington—a bureaucrat who is more concerned with getting financed by a fat cat on Wall Street than doing what is best for the people he is supposed to serve. Aristotle, who understood the longings of the human soul to be happy and the need for all men to participate in government, would have been the greatest advocate of local governance if he lived today.

It is impossible, by the very nature of humanity and interpersonal relationships, to build trust with distant entities, whether they be a president, a congressman, an actor or actress, a musician, or an online friend. You can only build trust with people you know and who know you. They are the ones who see you, not as a special interest group in which your individuality is absorbed into a “voting block” to be manipulated. They see you for you. That’s why you trust them. If no one really “sees” you, they don’t know you, and trust can’t be built.

Put Down the Screens

Knowledge of the world is important and necessary, especially in the highly technological times in which we live, and getting to know other cultures and discovering different ways of life is a beautiful endeavor. But we must not think that because we are globally aware that we are, as individuals, somehow bigger and more expansive—and, therefore, better.

It’s time to talk to our neighbors instead of chatting with friends on Facebook.

Knowing about the world is not the same thing as knowing the world, which can’t really be done—you can really only know individual people. And the world certainly can’t know you. The human mind has the capacity to gather a great deal of information, but the human heart can only be intimate, can only trust, that which it connects with, and knows—and that can only happen in the small, local spheres in which we live.

If we want to rebuild trust in our society, and if we truly want America to be good again where the pursuit of happiness is not a fading dream but has meaning and significance for every individual, then we need to get to know one another, build common bonds of intimacy, and share in one another’s lives. This can only happen when we put down the remote control and go help our neighbor, when we join the local school board instead of sending out meaningless tweets about situations across the globe we know nothing about, and when we spend more time looking into the faces of our moms and dads, our sisters and brothers, the elderly in our churches, and the widow up the street who just moved here from another country. It’s time to talk to our neighbors instead of chatting with friends on Facebook or, worse, with faceless “friends” who really aren’t friends at all.

It can only happen when people start participating in local governments instead of putting their hopes in Washington and being continually disappointed. It can only happen when we stop sending most of our tax money to the federal government and, instead, put it to work in our local communities and states, where we can actually have a voice in how it’s spent—and if we don’t have that voice, if our local communities don’t listen, we can vote with our feet and move.

When we rebuild the foundations of society of trust, on mutual affection and civic love, participating in society at the local level within a government framework that is limited in power and scope, then maybe we will find that the overarching bond of the American ideal—that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—has not been lost, only forgotten.