A Generation's Worldview from the Campus

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By Phyllis Weiss Haserot

An understanding of today's undergraduate college students is vital to the effectiveness of our nation's colleges and universities and to the quality and skills of our future workforce.

A new book based on surveys from 2006-2011 of undergraduates and student affairs officials on 270 US college campuses, Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student, provides new details and reinforces the presence of attributes we've recognized for a while regarding Gen Y/Millennials. Given the years cited, the data focuses on the younger half of this generation (see sidebar). 

The book was written by Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University and now president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and Diane R. Deane. Dr. Levine related key findings of the surveys in an interview in the New York Times Book Review (November 4, 2012).

He mentioned four key events – some of which surprised him – in the lives of this generation. In order of significance, they are:

  1. The advent of digital culture
  2. The economy
  3. 9/11
  4. The election of President Obama

Regarding the pervasive integration of digital culture, one student said",It's only technology if it happened after you were born." But I think it's important to note that it's not a matter of being tremendously tech savvy. Gen Y has been raised with technology, and they're referred to as "digital natives" or "tech dependent", which is different from "tech savvy." Gen Yers aren't necessarily tech savvy, as they tend to want their technology to be as simple and straightforward as possible. They want to integrate technology into all aspects of their lives, including work.

Following are the Gen Y/Millennial attributes Dr. Levine cites from the surveys:

  • Pragmatic – They view the primary purpose of education as "to get a good job and make money" rather than following their passion, or Milton S. Eisenhower's (former president of Johns Hopkins University) advice that an undergraduate major teaches you how to learn, and that's most important.
  • Diversity mind-set – They strongly favor diversity.
  • Similar "likes"– They tend to favor the same celebrities and public figures.
  • Optimistic about themselves but pessimistic about the future of the United States - They were always told they were great and expect grade inflation and praise.
  • A great fear of failure– They haven't been taught to expect to fail and resilience is lacking. They feel the pressure of expectations that they'll succeed.
  • In constant touch with their parents, and they call on parents to help with any difficulties and questions– Their parents are heroes to many of them, and that would seem to put pressure on parents to overdo attention.
  • Don't know how to have intimate relationships or crucial personal conversations– Their social lives tend to be either in groups or a series of hookups.

Dr. Levine gives Gen Yers' strengths as: having digital skills, being interested in global issues, and dealing better with diversity than generations before them.

He expected 9/11 to be the top-ranked key event for Gen Y/Millennials. The ranking indicates this generation has gotten used to living with the possibility of terrorism, and they're focused on their everyday lives, opportunities for their careers, and making meaningful change in the world. He was also somewhat surprised at the impact of the 2008 election of President Obama, which I interpreted as embracing diversity and younger-thinking leadership.

Much of the findings reiterate previous surveys and observations. The pragmatism the generation has been credited with previously is reinforced in these findings, particularly their attitude toward education. As Generation on a Tightrope clearly reveals, today's students need an education very different from the undergraduates who came before them. 

This raises questions for educators on where to place priorities: should the focus be "vocational" or rather to maintain that learning how to think and learn and seek broader horizons is most important.

Please share your thoughts about this with me and with the Cross-Generational Conversation group on LinkedIn

  • Read More Generational Articles by Phyllis Weiss Haserot

About the author:

Phyllis Weiss Haserot helps firms attract and retain clients of different generations and improve the working relations of their multigenerational teams, including knowledge transfer. She is president of Practice Development Counsel and a recognized expert on workplace intergenerational challenges. She is the author of The Rainmaking Machine and The Marketer's Handbook of Tips & Checklists (both Thomson Reuters/West 2012). Reach her at [email protected] or www.pdcounsel.com. View her YouTube videos at her Generational GPS channel.

© 2012 Phyllis Weiss Haserot. All rights reserved.

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By Matthew Gordon
Jun 26th 2015 01:11

Everything looks great except I'd qualify this:

"Don't know how to have intimate relationships or crucial personal conversations – Their social lives tend to be either in groups or a series of hookups."

I find this one really inconsistent among the many Millennials I know. Some are better at it than others, which I imagine is true of any generation. I personally appreciate intimate relationships and personal conversations, and often gravitate toward others who do as well. Many don't, and I understand that. It just doesn't strike me as a defining Millennial attribute either way.

The expecting success/fearing failure thing may also be a little different from the way older generations sometimes explain it. It's not entitlement or anything of that sort, it's wanting to make good on the hopes and dreams people have sunk so much into this generation. The inverse of that, of course, is dreading the possibility of not being able to do that.

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