Getting to Know the Millennials – From a Higher Education Perspective

Getting to Know the Millennials

The Millennials now represent the largest generation with an estimated 101 million adults in this category. This presents a significant need for career and educational opportunities. However, is the higher education system prepared to meet their academic needs, which ultimately influences their career options? Can generalizations about the Millennials, such as a “can do attitude” or tendency to “go with the flow,” truly explain their attitude about learning? It is important for educators to understand what shapes and defines the background, views, opinions, and preferences of this generation because their needs will likely cause academic institutions to reconsider the purpose of education. And if you are a millennial student now, perhaps you should be aware of how your background is viewed.

Let Me Introduce You

In my post, When Generations Collide: Generational Differences in the Online Classroom, I shared the following background information about this generation. According to a study titled Adapting Teaching to the Millennial Generation, Millennials have a distinct attitude about achievement. Here are some of the findings of this study:
•    Positive aspects: With educational competitiveness having risen to the top of America’s political agenda during their childhood, the need to excel drives them to earn higher grades.
•    Negative aspects: They are pressured to achieve, which drives them but also pressures them to perform without regard for ethical standards.

As I reflect further on these findings I realize that I do not like to make sweeping generalizations about any group of students, as this can promote exclusion in a manner similar to any other diverse characteristic or quality. For example, the indication regarding ethical behavior is a valid concern for educators; however, it is a problem that exists within all institutions and is not exclusive to one generation. The accessible nature of information through the Internet has caused the plagiarism issue to reach an unprecedented level.

So how did this generation develop this reputation?

Generation Me

What interests me are the cultural influences that have created the lens through which the Millennials view their world. As I have researched this topic further, there is one name that continues to come to the forefront: Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, who has been actively studying generational differences and cultural influences for many years. Her research examined over 60,000 college students nationwide from 1968 to 1994, culminating in a book titled “Generation Me.” (This is not the same as the “Me Generation” of the 1970s) One of the findings of her research is that the Millennials “were raised in a world where grownups did everything possible to shield them from adversity and disappointment.” One of the examples cited is the elimination of red pens from schools “because the color was considered too harsh and judgmental,” to use to grade papers.

Twenge believes that Millennials are not prepared to effectively address setbacks or problems because they have “been told their whole lives that they were ‘special’ and destined for greatness,” and more importantly, “they feel entitled to the best of everything – and they want it now, since they were raised in a fast-food, drive-thru, high-speed Internet culture that believes waiting is for suckers.”

I looked further at the article that Twenge co-authored with W. Keith Campbell and Elise C. Freeman in 2012, Generational Differences in Young Adults' Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation. One of the first of my questions was answered right away, concerning why it is important to make assessments about each generation. The authors believe “there is considerable intellectual, cultural, and economic interest in discovering and predicting generational trends.” This makes sense from a broader perspective. If this is the largest generational group at present, their needs are going to have a direct impact on educational institutions, the economy, employment forecasts, career trends, and so many other related categories.

One final aspect of the study by Twenge, Campbell, and Freeman is the indication that they dispute the popular view of “Millennials as more caring, community oriented, and politically engaged than previous generations.” They have developed this conclusion based upon a declining interest in environmental issues and yet they acknowledge that community behaviors such as volunteering have increased. What’s interesting about these findings is that they do not fully align with the “Generation Me” description and confirms my belief that we (especially educators) should be cautious about categorizing people (especially students).

Will Culture Change Higher Education?

By many accounts, Millennials will become a highly educated group of adults. As noted in Millennial Education Inflation: “Master’s as the New Bachelor”, this is “a trend driven largely by the demands of a modern knowledge-based economy, but most likely accelerated in recent years by the millions of 20-somethings enrolling in graduate schools, colleges or community colleges in part because they can’t find a job.” What are the current statistics about education for this generational group? presented some interesting findings in the online article How Has the Recession Shaped Career Attitudes of Millennials?:
•    “79 percent of Millennials responded that they had completed at least some college to date
•    65 percent ranked education among their top three preparation activities for getting ahead in the workplace
•    40 percent of all Millennial respondents ranked ‘getting the proper education’ as the most important choice they could make to prepare for future careers”

Does this mean that the Millennials are finding an equally proportionate number of jobs? The article Educated and Jobless: What's Next For Millennials? noted that at present “only 55 percent of people ages 16 to 29 have a job — the lowest percentage since World War II.” There is also an increase in the number of adults in this group who continue to live with their parents. What complicates this problem is that “for the first time ever, there is now more student debt than credit card debt in America — to the tune of $829 billion in student loans.” This article concluded that “the average college student today has $24,000 in student debt, and many are without jobs they feel their degree had guaranteed.”

What these perspectives indicate is that Millennials understand the potential value of obtaining an advanced education; however, the number of opportunities available after they graduate has not met their employment needs. This will ultimately shape the future of higher education, as degree programs must be designed for specific career needs and skillsets rather than focus on the acquisition of generalized knowledge. I would emphasize that instead of just pointing a finger at academic institutions, students must also take responsibility for conducting research into the degree programs they are interested in, along with possible careers, so they can determine what skills are required and the opportunities that may (or may not) be available.

From my perspective as an educator, I’ve found that Millennials are highly adaptive because of their technological skills. This was confirmed in a report by the Pew Research Center, The Millennials. After studying the behaviors and values of this generation, the study concluded that “they are the first generation in human history who regards behaviors like tweeting and texting, along with websites like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Wikipedia, not as astonishing innovations of the digital era, but as everyday parts of their social lives and their search for understanding.”

An important corollary to this study was offered by David A. Reuman of Trinity College, who warned in his article Millennial Students and the Social Organization of College Education that “the nature of distinctive attitudinal and behavioral features of Millennials may not generalize.” As an example, Reuman believes that “greater use of computer-mediated social communication (such as Facebook use or texting) by Millennials may not generalize to the ability to talk and listen comfortably in person when interacting with out-group peers.” Once again, we cannot make assumptions about how students learn but we can understand the format that encourages them to participate in the learning process.

This is one of the reasons I was prompted to write the post Welcome to the Class Discourse – A Renewal of the Classroom Lecture: cultural changes – influenced by technological changes – create a need for new and adaptive teaching methods. Because they have been raised in or grew up in a technology-based societal environment, teaching strategies must be innovative and engaging. And regardless of any other qualities or characteristics that may or may not apply to the Millennials, there are certain needs and issues that must be addressed. Probably the most important issue for higher education involves adequate preparation of these students. They understand the importance of education for professional development and future career opportunities. Are academic institutions ready to meet that need? It’s time to really get to know the Millennials.

Share your perspective of Millennials via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

Photo © Mike Watson/moodboard/Corbis

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