Millennials Demonstrate Poorer Moral Reasoning Than Past Generations

When compared to past generations, millennials exhibit lower levels of cognitive moral reasoning, according to research from Business Ethics Professor Dr. James Weber, executive director of the Institute for Ethics in Business at Duquesne University. 

In research he conducted with Ethics and Business Law Professor Dr. Dawn R. Elm at the University of St. Thomas, Weber compared millennials' levels of cognitive moral reasoning to secondary analysis from other studies on the moral reasoning demonstrated by Baby Boomers and Generation Xers when these generations were in college-in the 1960s and 1970s and the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. 

These past studies show that baby boomers used principled moral reasoning (the highest level of decision-making) about 42% of the time and Generation Xers on average used principled moral reasoning 37% of the time.

Studies looking at millennials found that they only used principled moral reasoning 31% of the time. The recent research by Weber and Elm found millennials using principled moral reasoning less than 25% of the time. "What surprised us was how much lower our group is compared to other millennials," said Weber.

Weber's findings specifically show:

  • There is some difference between moral reasoning of female vs. male millennials, with females reasoning at a higher level (29% versus males at 26%) when the ethical dilemma involves a female but males reasoned at a higher level (23% versus females at 20%) when the ethical dilemma involved a male actor.
  • Millennials' moral reasoning was slightly lower after being employed by business organizations when confronted with an accounting-rules violation  (21% of those with 5 or more months of work experience at the higher level versus 23% of those with less than 4 months of work experience at the higher level. 

When asked what spurred this specific research, Weber said it was because millennials increasingly are a growing influence in the workforce, marketplace and investment environment. "They are a force to be reckoned with, given their unique ideals, beliefs and practices, which prompted us to begin our exploration to better understand millennials' cognitive moral reasoning," he said. 

Weber's emphasized that the millennial generation appears to be susceptible to various influences embedded in the moral reasoning instruments used in this research and may similarly be influenced by forces they encounter in the workplace. "This initial exploration uncovered many interesting-if not perplexing-results in our efforts to better understand millennials' cognitive moral reasoning and our comparisons of these findings to other populations," explained Weber.

Duquesne University

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