In 1991, William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote a book titled Generations:
A History of Americas Future, 15842069.
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 Brokaws
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 Americas 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 familyand they take child rearing very seriously,
some say to a level of hyper-parenting not seen even in the Boomers
Were now back to the beginning of Strauss and Howes
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 agemore 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 Universitys 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. Thats
what its 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 rebelnot 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 nations 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 arent
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 dont come more
readily. They have a tendency to go to those in authoritypresidents
and vice presidents, for examplefor immediate action. They
also feel frustrated when administrators arent 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 doesnt always fit with the instant-information demands
of our students, who come equipped with cell phones, Palm Pilots
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 concernsnot 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
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
essay was adapted from Fords address to the Universitys
Board of Visitors on Jan. 15.