Stop slandering the millennial generation

Matt Bors has an outstanding cartoon where he takes to task those who dump on today’s younger generation as whiny, needy, lazy, self-absorbed, narcissistic and tech-immersed, who demand instant and constant gratification. Very often this is blamed on indulgent parents who refuse to let their children grow up but hover them protectively for far too long. Here is the first panel of his cartoon where he takes to task this lazy and shallow form of journalism that manufactures trends and stereotypes out of nothing,

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 9.00.04 AM

I simply cannot agree with those who speak of this generation in those terms. I come across this generation of students all the time because I work in a university and so see a steady stream of younger generations passing through. My own impression is that this generation is no worse than the others that I have been witness to and in many ways they are better, more socially conscious and accepting of diversity.

It is true that I teach in a private university that is fairly exclusive and expensive, so the students I encounter are not representative of the entire age cohort but you would think that this kind of place would be precisely the milieu where one would find these awful pampered specimens that are complained about. And I just don’t see it.

I published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on October 11, 2009 (unfortunately behind a paywall) where I took to task those who made such glib and undeserved generalizations. It ended this way.

It would be silly to argue that student behavior hasn’t changed over time. But what we are observing may not be a result of new traits emerging, but rather old traits manifesting themselves in novel forms because of changes in external conditions. Maybe parents have not become more clingy or students more psychologically dependent on them. Perhaps the truth is simply that college has become vastly more complicated and difficult to navigate, with its explosion of majors, minors, and other programs—not to mention the byzantine rules for financial aid—so perhaps some parents have felt obliged to step in more than they might have in earlier generations to act on their children’s behalf.

Similarly, we have always had students who were uninhibited, socially awkward, or needed instant gratification. But now e-mail and Facebook enable them to display those qualities in ways they couldn’t before—such as by expecting immediate responses to midnight queries or revealing personal information online they should keep to themselves.

Students are diverse and have always been diverse. I’ve taught for over three decades and have my own cache of funny or poignant stories about needy, annoying, or self-absorbed students. We teachers love stories about students, and treasure and accumulate them like anglers or golfers do about their pastimes. While my own stories can fit those spread around about the Millennials, many of them are about students from long ago, before it became fashionable to label students according to their birth years.

Bertrand Russell said that “no man can be a good teacher unless he has feelings of warm affection toward his pupils and a genuine desire to impart to them what he himself believes to be of value.” The trouble with generational stereotyping is that it sucks the individuality out of our students, the very thing that generates those feelings of warm affection. It makes them into generic types, whose personalities and motivations we think we can discern without having to go to all the bother of actually getting to know them.

Looking back, I actually find today’s students to be as delightful to be around as those from the past.


  1. slc1 says

    The previous generation always thinks that the current generation is going to hell in a hand basket. Nothing new here.

  2. says

    Another thing to address is the fact that one’s social circle has figuratively exploded. While you hear the laments about the generation on Facebook and Twitter, they’re talking to people that are their friends. I have friends across the entire world, who are no more than a few pixels away.

    One’s social circle is no longer defined merely by those within the same geographic area, but those who we can reach out and touch digitally as well as physically.

  3. machintelligence says

    It is true that I teach in a private university that is fairly exclusive and expensive, so the students I encounter are not representative of the entire age cohort

    Even if you only see the “best of the best”, the fact that

    in many ways they are better, more socially conscious and accepting of diversity.

    is of significance. I think it does not matter very much what the average person knows or does, as long as the best are well educated and able to achieve their potential. These will be the leaders, after all, both in the sciences and society. (At least I hope so, since the current crop of Republicans seem to argue against this. Still they are mostly old white males and will not last forever.)

  4. Scr... Archivist says

    That cartoon amuses me because it could have been made in 1991 about Generation X, with stereotypes of slacker twenty-nothings and kids taught self-esteem (but no facts) in school. The only change you’d probably need to make would be a Walkman instead of an iPod.

  5. troll says

    In my opinion, there’s something deeply ironic about the boomers who constantly go on about how narcissistic and self-absorbed millenials are, and how the boomers themselves were much better at that age.

  6. Dunc says

    See also: Plato / Socrates complaining about how the kids with their writing can’t remember anything any more; Gildas going on (and on, and on, and on) about how 6th century Britain was going to the dogs, etc, etc…

  7. garnetstar says

    I teach at a large state university, and I agree with Mano. Students in general haven’t changed much over the decades, except that they’ve become much more tolerant of people’s differences in race and sexual preference.

    The people who have changed are the parents. Helicopter parents have become more common. The students, however, must give their permission for me to discuss their academic performance with their parents, and they are almost always too embarassed by their parents’ behavior to do so. They prefer to deal with any problems on their own.

    They aren’t particularly immersed in tech, either, or even that tech-savvy. I have to tell many of them how to enable cookies on their browsers (to access the class web page).

  8. dickspringer says

    The oldest known written letter was from a Sumerian king to his son telling him to shape up and act more like a man.

  9. Chiroptera says

    Actually, I have noticed a big difference in students over the last 10 years.

    But I don’t think the problem is as much generational as it is a result of the ideology of “anyone can get a college degree and everyone should.” Schools at the tier I teach at are under a lot of pressure from regents and legistlators to do everything and everything to increase enrollments and graduation rates. As a result, smaller schools, I think, are admitting a lot more students from families who don’t really value education and who aren’t really motivated to meet the challenges of higher education but were misadvised and told they “needed” a diploma to get a “good” job.

    That is a different problem, but my colleagues complain about this generation and, as I said, I’m not sure it’s a problem with the generation as much as the social expectiations and political environment that institutions like mine are now in.

  10. garnetstar says

    Chiroptera, I’ve seen that, too. My university needed money, so they went on a huge increased-enrollment binge. The students admitted in those classes are less academically prepared, and I do think less motivated for acdemic studies. But you are right, that is because of the universities’ policy, and not reflective of “this generation”.

  11. sigurd jorsalfar says

    What’s all the complaining about the millenials? Millenials are awesome! As long as they stay the hell off my lawn.

  12. Corvus illustris says

    Here again, nothing is new. The engineering college of my employer-emeritus decided to double the size of its entering class back in the late 1970s or early ’80s. This required the first- and second-year engineering calculus classes (previously taught in reasonably small sections) to go to lec-and-rec, a helluva format in which to get mathematics across--um, and go to machine-graded multiple-guess exams, too. With admirable cynicism, the administrators left the upper-division structure at its un-doubled size. I realize this all sounds baroque in the context of hs AP courses that teach empty symbol manipulation, not to mention machine-taught math--but the point is the persistence of the administrative imperative--oh, and the fact that the millenials are being treated even worse than their parents, let alone grandparents.

  13. jakc says

    One of the biggest differences is the way that my generation (baby boomers) has screwed the last couple of generations on college costs. Loans have replaced grants, costs have increased and most starting jobs don’t pay enough for a house, car & loan.

    As for moving back home, in my day, there wasn’t room for older siblings to come back. We had smaller homes and bigger families, and neither older sibs or younger sibs wanted to share bedrooms again. Part of the great transfer of wealth from the young to the old is that the parents of the millenials have far bigger houses than they need. There’s plenty of room to move back into, and the kids need the help. My parents weren’t financial genius inthe early 1950’s because my father, after finishing school on the GI bill with no debt, made enough money to buy a house, buy a new car, raise a family without the need for a second income from my Mom.

    Similarly, when you have four or six kids, parents of the baby boomers just didn’t have time to be helicopter parents. And even if they had only two kids, they came from bigger families where there parents didn’t hover. Parents of millenials have the time and frankly a lot more reason to focus (all or most of their eggs in one basket so to speak

  14. Corvus illustris says

    One of the biggest differences is the way that my generation (baby boomers) has screwed the last couple of generations on college costs. Loans have replaced grants, costs have increased and most starting jobs don’t pay enough for a house, car & loan.

    Well, you had help from the born-in-the-depression age grade. Look at the mid-1950s tuition (sometimes called “fees”) at, say, Cal or Michigan, and multiply by the inflation factor to get to 2013. The depth of the screwing becomes terribly clear.

  15. slc1 says

    In my freshman year at UC Berkeley, the fee was a flat $50, independent of how many units I took. Same at UCLA and all the other campuses in the Un. of California system. The government then had the quaint notion that an educated populace was essential for the prosperity of the state. This was under Rethuglican governors Warren and Knight. In today’s Rethuglican party, they would be consider far leftists and RINOs and would probably have long since migrated to the other party.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *