In the recent referendum in the United Kingdom, older generations voted “Leave” whereas younger voters strongly favored remaining in the European Union. Baby boomers, it seems, are more nationalist and nostalgic for independence. Younger people consider themselves citizens of the global village. At least this is how we generally view millennials the world over: they are postmaterialist, favor collaboration over competition, and are democratic, cosmopolitan, and progressive.

For example, whereas Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ruling clique might still extol nineteenth-century values, young Russians (exemplified by the band Pussy Riot) hope for a different future. They went out in large numbers to protest Putin in 2012. They want democracy and are opposed to the conservative patriarchal policies of their government. Observers’ initial optimism about the Arab Spring also centered on young, tech-savvy Arabs who used social media to further their protest. And in Turkey, the young Gezi Park protesters acted as a counterforce to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly conservative and authoritarian politics. Young, tech-savvy Chinese middle classes also seem to aspire to a more open regime.

But the truth about the world’s younger generations is more complicated. As protest movements rocked the world in the last few years, it always seemed that democratic revolutions were around the corner. But they never happened. That was surprising only because we have a biased view of the world’s millennials. They are two billion strong, and the large majority live in developing economies. Their values are much more diverse than we think. We have analyzed survey data on millennials in several western European countries, the United States, China, Russia, and Turkey from the Glocalities survey that was held in 24 countries early this year. We found that in emerging markets, their dreams, ambitions, and outlook on life are different from those of their peers in the West.

Devon Slack, 16, waits for U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to speak in Santa Monica, California, U.S., May 23, 2016.
Devon Slack, 16, waits for U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to speak in Santa Monica, California, U.S., May 23, 2016.
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
There are a few values that millennials around the world do share. They like adventure, glamour, innovation, and ambition more than older generations, partly because of their current life stage. These aspects are major drivers of change in the marketplace and workplace globally. Similarly, more than older generations, millennials consider themselves world citizens, and on average, they score lower than the previous generation on traditional values and national pride.

But to understand cultural change, we have to dig deeper. We found, for example, that the values of millennials in the United States are converging with those of their counterparts in rich Europe. The overall U.S. population is still more conservative than Europe’s, but young Americans are rapidly moving toward the European perspective on secularism, gender equality, and sexual diversity.

Such convergence, however, is rare in the rest of the world. For a look at how and why, it is worth dispelling some myths about the world’s millennials.

Myth One: Millennials seek freedom and self-realization.

U.S. and Chinese millennials are more likely to agree with the statement “My most important aims are to have fun and enjoy myself” than millennials from Russia, Turkey, and Europe. Russian youth, meanwhile, mostly disagree with the statement. Russians are more likely to agree that “living a sober life makes me feel fulfilled.” Russian youth also tend to agree more with the statement “If you give people too much freedom, they abuse it.” Russian youth, it seems, are culturally much less inclined toward individual freedom and hedonism than their counterparts in other countries.

Millennial Russians still adhere to values that have long characterized Russia. Throughout the country’s history, centrifugal forces have time and again unraveled the Russian state, from the Time of Troubles in the seventeenth century to the end of the Romanov dynasty and the swift dissolution of the Soviet Union. The experience of the chaotic 1990s and the rise of oligarchs and the mafia showed Russians that too much individual liberty was dangerous and that societies need powerful rulers. The survey shows that young Russians also fear disorder and too much freedom more than their peers in China, Europe, and the United States.

There is another implication. Western sanctions are meant to put pressure on the Russian regime. Even the country’s millennials, however, value a frugal life. They seem to share the famous Russian capacity for suffering, which is glorified in the country’s literature from Pushkin to Dostoevsky.

Myth Two: Millennials are postmaterialist and prefer cooperation over competition.

U.S. and European youth indeed tend to “prefer free time over more money.” The young in China, Russia, and Turkey don’t. Millennials from Turkey and China identify more than their counterparts from the West with the statement “My work is my life.” The difference can be explained by the material aspirations, culture, and stage of development of emerging markets.

Notably, young Turks agree much less than young Americans and Europeans with the statement that cooperation works better than competition. Chinese and Russian millennials likewise agree less with the statement. Here they diverge strongly from the emphasis that young people across the world put on collaboration. This finding points to a stronger honor ethic in Turkish and to a lesser extent also in Chinese and Russian culture.

Participants line up as they take part in an annual rescuers' and firefighters' competition among school teams in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, May 15, 2012.
Participants line up as they take part in an annual rescuers' and firefighters' competition among school teams in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, May 15, 2012.
Ilya Naymushin / Reuters

Myth Three: Millennials are opposed to patriarchal values.

To gauge agreement with patriarchal values, respondents were asked their views on the role of the father as head of the household, the extent to which they believe men should show their feminine side, and gay rights. Western youth clearly oppose conservative views on these topics. Like older generations however, millennials in Turkey and Russia mostly adhere to patriarchal values. Acceptance of homosexuality is especially low in both countries.

Chinese youth, meanwhile, stand closer to their Western counterparts. It could be that communist doctrine and increasing wealth have, to a large extent, undermined paternal authority in the generation of the “little emperors.” In the future, weakening respect for authority could create a clash of values between generations.

Myth Four: All millennials are cosmopolitan.

On average, millennials are more likely to consider themselves world citizens than citizens of the country they live in than are people from older generations. Millennials grew up in an age of increasing global digital interconnectedness, global consumer markets, and cheap airline tickets. But when we dig deeper, it becomes clear that many millennials are actually quite nationalistic. Pride in the national flag, for example, is higher in the three emerging markets we analyzed than in Europe or even the United States.

Furthermore, Russian millennials are far more likely than their counterparts from the other regions to disagree with the statement “I consider myself more a world citizen than of the country I live in.” Chinese and Turkish youth also rate nationalism highly, but it goes hand in hand with an interest in surrounding oneself with things from different countries. Russia’s youth are less likely share this interest. In Turkey and China, in short, there seems to be a more affirmative nationalism, a pride in their country’s growing importance in global affairs and the marketplace that does not necessarily entail hostility toward others. In Russia, nationalism goes together with a more zero-sum mentality toward the rest of the world.

So how different are millennials worldwide? We clustered the response to statements to distinguish values-based population segments: Creatives, Conservatives, Challengers, Achievers, and Socializers. Creatives are open-minded idealists who strongly value self-development and cultural expression. Conservatives are family oriented and value tradition, etiquette, and living an organized life. Challengers are competitive careerists with a strong fascination for money, risk taking, and adventure. Achievers are entrepreneurial networkers with a strong focus on family and community. Socializers are sociability seekers who love entertainment, freedom, and family values.

Millennials are typically thought to be Creatives: open-minded, cosmopolitan, and collaborative. And in Europe, Creatives are indeed the leading category among millennials (27 percent). They also make up a large portion of U.S. millennials (24 percent). Their presence, however, is much smaller in China (12 percent), Russia (11 percent), and Turkey (11 percent).

Socializers, who cherish individual freedom but avoid taking risks and focus on security, also make up a substantial part of the West’s millennials (15 percent in the United States and 19 percent in Europe). They are scarce in emerging markets, however (five percent in Russia, three percent in China, and one percent in Turkey).

Many millennials are Conservatives in Turkey (32 percent) and Russia (28 percent). They make up only 15 percent of their generation in the United States and 11 percent in Europe. The Conservatives are much smaller in China, too, where the ambitious Challengers (32 percent) and Achievers (39 percent) dominate.

Challengers make up 31 percent of millennials in Russia, 27 percent in the United States, 26 percent in Europe, and 21 percent in Turkey. Achievers are the largest group in Turkey (34 percent) but make up only 25 percent in Russia, 19 percent in the United States, and 14 percent in Europe.

Creatives, of courses, are the most visible group around the world and are often more prominently covered by Western media. We see them turning to the streets in protest and using social media platforms for their cause. Their values differ from those of their rulers, and they share a global mentality. They are, however, not everywhere representative of their generation. In many developing economies, the Achievers represent the lion’s share of the millennials, and they are the ones driving change in their respective societies, which means a much stronger focus on wealth, ambition, and status, as well as on family and community. The values of conservative middle classes will become more prominent in global affairs.

The values of the young in Europe and the United States are still fundamentally different from those of their peers in emerging markets. The latter are more materialistic, competitive, and nationalistic. And they share values that are typical of their country. A fear of chaos, an emphasis on competition, and patriarchal values persist.

Interestingly enough, the largest gap between the values of millennials and those of the older generations exists in the United States and in China. Both countries can thus expect increasing generational tension. Meanwhile, even in a globalized world, national differences persist, even among the young. Modernization does not mean Westernization, and the global village will remain fraught with tension. It is time to start taking values and cultural differences more seriously.

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  • MARTIJN LAMPERT is Research Director Glocalities at Motivaction, a Netherlands-based international research firm specializing in values-based research and social intelligence.
  • HAROON SHEIKH teaches philosophy at VU University Amsterdam and is head of the Strategy Team at the investment firm Dasym, which focuses on global shifts in consumer behavior.
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