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February 18, 2002

Today's students are a different type

John Ford is senior vice president for Campus Life.


In 1991, William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote a book titled Generations: A History of America’s Future, 1584–2069.

In it they advanced the idea that four different generational archetypes have existed throughout British and American history. Each archetype they identified has a unique character that embodies attitudes and values about family life, gender roles, politics, religion and lifestyle.

In the 20th century, American culture gave rise to five generations, members of which are alive today and in their various stages of life. First are the GIs, who are the grandparents or great-grandparents of our current college students and have been the subject of much attention in the popular literature as of late (such as Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation).

They have what Strauss and Howe call a Hero or Civic persona, and came of age during the Great Depression. As rising adults they went off to fight World War II and then returned to build our powerful business and governmental institutions. Members of the GI generation are characterized as confident and rational problem-solvers, believing in public harmony, productivity and cooperative discipline.

Next is the Silent generation, and they have what Strauss and Howe call an Artistic or Adaptive persona. The Silents were born just too late to be heroes in WWII and just too early to be youthful free spirits during the “Consciousness Revolution” of the ’60s. Character-ized as rational, risk-averse, sensitive and anxious, they kept their heads down and settled into the giant institutions created by the ex-GIs.

The next generation, the Boomers, are perhaps the best-known generation of our century. They have what Strauss and Howe call a Prophet or Idealist persona, growing up as increasingly indulged youths and coming of age leading the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960s. As rising adults, Boomers were a generation of great promise and vision; as mid-lifers, they now control the politics and economics of the country, but are often accused of selling out and retreating to a lifestyle of materialism and self-absorption.

When Boomers began assuming the leadership of America’s institutions, they defined the childhood environment of the two succeeding generations. Some say Boomers have acted with typical hypocrisy by encouraging conformity and traditional achievement in their children and demanding sweeping educational reform, from re-instituting standardized tests to eliminating open classrooms, to zero tolerance for behavior they themselves engaged in with celebrated impunity.

Next is Generation X, who were widely derided during the ’80s and ’90s as lazy and apathetic. They have what Strauss and Howe call a Nomad or Reactive persona. The Xers came of age in the materialistic ’80s only to find a depressed job market after college. They were the boomerang kids of the ’80s and early ’90s, sometimes jobless after college and occasionally taking up residence on their parents’ couches.

The Xers got the worst of all worlds during tough economic times. They were less protected as children, while their Boomer parents divorced at high rates and tried to “find themselves.” As adults, the Xers are becoming “Gen-nesters,” rejecting their own latchkey childhoods. They are responsible for the dramatic rise in attachment parenting, home schooling and telecommuting to spend more time with their families. They place a high value on creating a stable family—and they take child rearing very seriously, some say to a level of hyper-parenting not seen even in the Boomers before them.

We’re now back to the beginning of Strauss and Howe’s generational cycle. The new Hero or Civic generation, the Millennials, promise to share many of the characteristics of their GI generation grandparents. By 1982, when the first of the Millennials were born, the era of the protected, wanted and worthy child had begun.

The Millennials have been, and will continue to be, the most obsessed-over children at every age—more so than
any generation in history. Already 80 million strong, the Millennials also will be the largest and most diverse generation yet. As children of mid- to late-wave Boomers and early-wave Xers, the Millennials seem to be the opposite of everything objectionable about their parents and similar to everything laudable about their grandparents: They are focused on teamwork, achievement and good conduct.

Although Millennial teens typically go along with their parents’ agenda, they see through any double standards very clearly. When you ask Millennials for descriptions of their Boomer parents, two words top the list: strict and hypocritical.

Millennials are being led by the license of the adult culture far more than they are pushing it. Adults are shocked when they hear 15-year-olds mimicking “South Park” dialogue, yet few adults express any particular shock at the 30-year-olds who write it, the 50-year-olds who produce it or the 70-year-olds whose portfolios profit by it. As Cornell University’s Helen Johnson has said, “Imagine growing up, as a kid, in a world in which older people produce a trashy lineup for you, tailor it to your vernacular, market it in your media and then condemn you for participating in it. That’s what it’s like to be a teenager today.”

David Brooks, writing in Atlantic Monthly, characterizes the new college students in the following way: “a generation of students who are extraordinarily bright, morally earnest and incredibly industrious. They like to study and socialize in groups. They create and join organizations with great enthusiasm. They are responsible, safety-conscious and mature. They feel no compelling need to rebel—not even a hint of one. They not only defer to authority; they admire it.”

Brooks attributes these characteristics to their parenting. Parents were bombarded with messages to provide the proper environment for their children, an environment where, as Brooks puts it, “your child is the most important extra-credit project you will ever undertake.” He discusses the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, and its call to reassert authority and re-establish order in the nation’s schools, and notes that parents and educators did so with fervor, structuring playtime, enacting safety rules and persistently being present in their childrens’ lives.

Brooks asserts that the parents of Millennials rest on three pillars: science, safety and achievement. The result is a generation of college students who are comfortable with authority and look to please their elders. He even says, “Baby Boomers may be tempted to utter a little prayer of gratitude: ‘Thank God our kids aren’t the royal pains in the ass that we were to our parents.’”

Barry McKinney from Texas A&M notes that the newest generation of students have very different expectations of the college environment than do most administrators and faculty. Students, he says, come to college thinking they can achieve anything and are willing to use whatever means are necessary to get there. They are very capable of multitasking and accessing information quickly, and have trouble understanding why answers from administrators don’t come more readily. They have a tendency to go to those in authority—presidents and vice presidents, for example—for immediate action. They also feel frustrated when administrators aren’t available when they want them, including after hours.

Our institutions, on the other hand, are slow to change, either because of tradition or because of a lack of resources. We value reflection and contemplation, and want students to think creatively when solving problems. In our classrooms we want a certain decorum that doesn’t always fit with the instant-information demands of our students, who come equipped with cell phones, Palm Pilots and pagers.

If we are to engage our students in learning, we will have to meet them in the middle. In student life, McKinney suggests we need to make an extra effort to listen to student concerns—not just the ones that rise to the top because they are expressed more loudly than others, but also those quiet voices that we might not otherwise hear.

In addition, he suggests we will need to be very conscious of our use of hierarchy. We need to talk about civility with our students, and be very clear about our expectations and the rationale for them. Here I want to compliment our own President Bill Chace. He is extraordinarily accessible and responsive to our students. He also refers them to the appropriate people in the University for advice and assistance.

In the classroom, we need to encourage students to reflect and solve problems, rather than just “do.” Students of this generation already know how and where to access information, but we need to teach them how to apply it.

Students of this generation respond well to group activities, and to the extent that group work is an appropriate educational tool, we should utilize it. Faculty and staff should foster and maintain an environment in which students will be open to each other, where they can learn to communicate with clarity and precision.

We must also remember that parents are a much stronger presence on our campuses than ever before. We would do well to work closely with parents and make them our allies in the education of their children. Including parents in orientation activities, designing parent newsletters, establishing parent advisory boards, establishing offices of parent relations and inviting parents to campus for parents’ weekends will go a long ways toward that effort.

At the same time, however, we need to help parents understand that their daughters and sons are growing into their independence, and they need opportunities to try their hand at making decisions on their own.


This essay was adapted from Ford’s address to the University’s Board of Visitors on Jan. 15.