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Generation WhY: teaching my own generation

March 20, 2012

What the heck is up with the youth of today? Older generations are just as fond of asking themselves this question as the countless generations that preceded them. Earlier this afternoon I attended a “theme meeting” or “inspiration session” (it went by several names) on “youth” (such a deliciously vague) topic  which got me thinking (organizers are punching the air: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED) about the fine balance between accommodating the needs of students in this day and age versus catering to their every whim.

It’s no secret that the generation which is currently in undergrad or graduated in the last 10 years (also known as the Millennial generation, Generation Y, or Generation Next) is (or, in the case of the older segment of that generation, was) quite self-assured, mouthy, assertive, and grew up in relative wealth. They’re both  “high-performance and high-maintenance.” Not all these things are considered positives by older generations. Sometimes people who are part of this generation, including recent undergraduates, can come across as entitled, rude, self-involved, lazy, unrealistic, flakey, and suffering from Special Snowflake Syndrome. Sometimes they are these things. But this generation, despite what Lady Gaga might say, wasn’t born this way, baby. They were made, by their parents, their teachers, their society, the media, and so on.

This is a fact that often appears to be overlooked by many older folks. But there is no biological difference between the generation born between 1980 and 2000 and everyone who came before them. The difference is the context in which they grew up. Whatever young adults are, we made them that way.

Before I continue, I think it’s only fair to note that I’m talking about “them” and “we” as though I’m part of the older generation. I’m not. I’m in the vanguard of the millennials and in our faculty discussion of “the youth of today,” I was the only person fitting that description. I very much felt like I did not belong to the faculty, but rather to the students and future students they were discussing. But I’m also on the side of the faculty when it comes to issues teachers and lecturers face today. In a way, I’m straddling both perspectives. I identify with problems my students face and have faced, but I cannot be – indeed, am not – the same as them.

Discussions of youth today can easily devolve into criticism of youth today and this criticism can be divided into valid or not valid (or problematic) criticism. This was the case in our inspiration session as in many other discussions I’ve had on the same topic. The criticisms are always the same: youth don’t know how to communicate in a polite manner, they don’t know how to choose/make decisions, they feel like they can have it all, they don’t know how to behave properly in society, and so on. Real-life examples for each of these points are always given and often these are contrasted with how things were different (and by implication better) in the past. I would like to take a minute to discuss some of these examples (though the ones I’ll use are fictional) and how valid these criticisms are. Yes, this is going to be a long post.

Millennials don’t know how to choose.

Dutch young people hop from one undergraduate program to the next and often have problems settling down on a single thing. They go to school, work, are members of student organizations and sports clubs, go on holidays, play video games 3 hours a day, hang out with their friends and partners, spend ages on Facebook and other social networking sites, play instruments – and sometimes they fail at doing even one of these things exceptionally well (especially school). My question is, can you blame them? Parents stimulated the idea that it’s important for their children to follow their bliss, to do what they want, to be part of a great variety of activities and networks, and now it’s expected of them and ingrained into the way they live their lives. Yes, of course focusing on your studies was easier in simpler times, when all you did was attend lectures and read your books and maybe play hockey two times a week. Focusing on your studies was also simpler before there was TV or radio. It was probably also easier when studying was just for the aristocracy, who did not have to worry about money. But that’s not the times we’re living in. If our young people don’t know how to choose and this leads to problems in their professional, personal, or academic life, then we need to help them start making choices. We have to give them the tools to do so and trust we taught them well. And then we have to hope they will raise their children differently. Furthermore, when it’s the millennials calling the shots (and that time will come), let’s hope that they won’t offer horribly specialized degrees that lead to thousands of event managers graduating every year (and in a country of 16 million people, how many events are hosted that truly need professional management) and sheer academic supply overload to future students.

Millennials feel like they can have it all

This point of criticism is related to the previous one. Millennials were told, by parents but also by the overall wealth of the society in which they grew up, that you can have it all: the education, the house, the car, the brand-name clothes, the fancy food, the two to three holidays per year, and so on. Now that we’ve hit economically leaner times (which, by the way, were not caused by the millennials but has hit them hard when it comes to unemployment, thank you very much), we are shaking our heads and tut-tutting at young people who are in debt because they tried to keep it all. “We” were not in so much debt when “we” were young. “We” may have had a mortgage, but no other debt. “We” certainly didn’t finance cars or furniture with loans. Not “us.” No, ma’am. Only “we” did not have loans and financing offered to us at every street corner, now did “we”? Nor did “we” (except perhaps the generation which came of age in the 80s) grow up in relative (or extreme) wealth only to have that ripped away the moment they came of age/graduated college. And if “we” never expected the same amount of wealth our parents had, perhaps “we” should have raised our children to not have such expectations either.

Millennials can’t behave or communicate properly or politely

Communication norms for the Internet generation are not the same as for older generations. They’re just not. They’re also not wrong. They’re just different. But that’s a point many older people will refuse to make. However, it’s perfectly okay to teach young people that their way of communication is valid and may even become the norm in the future, but it is not the polite form used in business or scholarly communication today. That way you validate the way they relate to the world while also setting clear boundaries about current conventions and norms.
Other things that young people do that older people might consider rude, even violating, is recording lectures or taking pictures of teachers without (asking for their) permission. I, too, find such a thing rude. But at the same time I can also understand that to students, especially to current undergraduates, who might as well hook up their 4G connection straight to their brain, it is perfectly normal. They are so used to recording everything they believe is important, interesting, stunning, relevant, terrible, and so on, that many of them won’t think twice about doing this until they’re asked to think about the ethical implications. Perhaps it’s time to add discussions of such ethical implications to debates in high school social science classes (which often are about the eternal ethical holy trinity: gay marriage, abortion, and euthanasia). Moreover, I’ve rarely found that people, including students, react badly to logical explanations as to why you don’t want them to do a certain thing, so just engaging them about such topics could work wonderfully as well.

Today’s youth is not the same as yesterday’s youth. That doesn’t mean they’re worse. All it means is that they are different. They may believe that they know more or better than their predecessors, but in that they are certainly no different from previous generations. In fact, I think such feelings are part of the human condition and perhaps even necessary for progress and innovation. It takes a bit of a mommy/daddy complex mixed with a dash of a superiority complex to look at anything (including a machine, mode of transport, communication device, and so on) and think “I can make that better.” Yes, the knowledge of previous and current generations is necessary to make those improvements, but in the end it may very well take a snooty young person to help humanity achieve its next best thing. And I don’t know about you, but I’m rooting for the snooty young person. Previous generations have shot the environment to hell and made the survival of societies wholly dependent on the continued access to fossil fuels. We will need an army of self-assured, high-performance, confident, clever innovative minds to think us out of this mess.

(One thing though. I would pay good money to never have to utter the request “Please don’t lick that newspaper” to an undergraduate again. That, my dears, is unacceptable, plights of your generation be damned.)

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