Any talk of generational identity will undoubtedly be rife with overstatements and generalizations. Even so, how can we identify attitudinal trends that reflect, more or less, the values of a diverse group of people who by chance were born in the same timeframe without thinking big about what makes that generation tick?
Generations always acquire their names retroactively. Doing so requires some degree of retrospection because time fleshes out the general characteristics of a wide swath of people born within a 20-year-or-so time span. It’s important to think big this way because putting your finger on the shared characteristics of a generation can impact the way colleges chose to approach teaching and learning.
As researchers today trawl the diverse waters of youth in search for the defining traits of the current rising generation, colleges should pay attention to these generational experts and also make their own careful observations the mass of 9/11-digital-native-great recession-iPhone-era students who are currently fun-tacking posters onto their dorms walls across the land.
Just how these kids tick affects the manner in which they will decide to navigate the college experience. The question is whether colleges will chose to carefully consider the sensibilities and emerging values of those who are coming to define themselves against the much discussed Millennials. It’s in higher education’s best interest to understand this new generation beyond their obvious reliance on technology — not for the purpose of catering to these students, but because a genuine education should account for the values the students bring to the process.
Most of what we believe about the Silents, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers or Millennials comes from marketing research or sociological research drawn upon by marketing analysts. Whether we realize it or not, we constantly refer to the professional observations of researchers when navigating the attitudinal differences among people born into different social conditions. For instance, in order to engage across the generations we need to know what Millennials tend to believe in relation to the viewpoints of their Boomer parents. Not only does recognizing the traits of a generation help in regard to marketing to a particular demographic, it illuminates why the generations differ so much in their perceptions and attitudes.
Understanding what the emerging generation believes can make college administrators and professors better prepared for the manner in which these students will “do” college. What people believe is often a matter of what they have and have not experienced.
We need to pay attention to the fact that the generation-yet-to-be-named has no memory of 9/11, nor do they remember their country at peace. What a generation experiences and remembers contributes to its common identity. What its members cannot know first hand because of the accident of birth equally impacts the shaping of identity. This is how generational shifts are set up.
The accident of my own birth in the early 1960s speaks to this point. I was born in a fuzzy zone at the end of the Baby Boomer generation and the beginning of what would eventually be called Generation X. Many of us at the tail end of the boom didn’t particularly feel like Baby Boomers, yet we were lumped in with those born in the black and white TV world of the post-World War II 1940s and 1950s.
When Douglas Coupland published his novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Generation in 1991, we realized in hindsight that we were actually the beginning of the post-1960s generation. Even if we were born in the 1960s, our generation had missed out on the tumultuous spirit of revolution that defined the Boomers’ youth.
Unlike the Boomers, we had no working memory of the new social movements, the anti-war movement or the explosion of youth culture. You couldn’t be a Boomer if you didn’t have first hand knowledge of a long-growing economy, assassination, civil rights, feminism, Vietnam, 1968 or Woodstock. Instead, we came of age in recession, double digit inflation, Watergate, the Oil Crisis, and the Iran Hostage Situation — not to mention the pervasive societal hangover of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Unlike today, there weren’t any great technological advancements to marvel at in our childhood and youth. Dishwashers, air travel and frozen food preceded us. Yes, we did witness the moonwalk, which was thrilling. Yet, even with space travel or the advent of computers that took up gym-sized rooms, our lives weren’t exactly impacted by brand new technology; they were abstractions that didn’t impact our everyday lives.
We got used to the world limping along in the 1970s and 1980s. Then Coupland, born in 1961, articulated a generational identity that set us apart from the Boomers. Generation X was — had been — a thing.
And now the children of Generation X are going to college. In fact, current traditionally-aged undergraduates primarily consist of the generation-yet-to-be-named.
So, what names are being bandied about to define the post-Millennials? Generational expert, Tammy Erickson, refers to them as Re-Gen. Jason Dorsey prefers iGen or Generation Z. Only time will tell what sticks.
Before I talk about students born since 1996, a few thoughts on the Millennials. Remember that the experts use a broad brush. According to Erickson, Millennials are highly confident and very close to their parents. And like their parents, they are planners. They live “curated,” eager lives. They want to succeed but they are hardly slaves to their jobs. Their highly driven, anti-authoritative, Baby Boomer parents have pushed these largely compliant kids to succeed for the benefit of putting a feather in their own Boomer hat. Reward seeking Millennials expect praise (a trophy for everyone!) even when they haven’t accomplished much. Yet, it seems that these 20 and 30 somethings are pushing back just a bit on their parents by taking the time to appreciate life’s aesthetic qualities. They carefully choose and assemble their lifestyles. Maybe they just aren’t as competitive as their parents. And they don’t mind hanging out with mom and dad…since they might even still be living at home.
Enter Re-Gen. If, according to Coupland, Gen Xers in their youth had to take meaningless McJobs, their own children are instead MacGyver-ing their way through life. They haven’t had a choice. The Great Recession and the dogged recovery have defined these kids. Erickson calls them Re-Gen because they are content-sharing and RE-purposing things to the point that recontextualization is a value they hold as well as an action they perform. If this approach leads to fulfillment, that’s just fine with their Gen X parents who believe that happiness is more important than chasing yuppie (Boomer) dreams.
This makes sense when you consider the fact that the oldest Re-Gens were born in the years surrounding 9/11. Their parents watched the unfathomable events of that clear September day in horror, asking themselves what really mattered in life. As a result, they raised their kids to live more for fulfillment than for material success, a turn to basic values that the poor economy would hasten. The spectre of 9/11, endless war and the anxious economy have loomed in the background of their childhoods. So has the breathtaking transformation of personal computers from clunky desktop machines to sleek hand-held devices in every teen’s pocket.
Erickson says these kids are utilitarian. They are savers. They are willing to postpose. They re-think, re-make, re-fashion, re-cycle and re-consider as necessary. What options have they had when their formative years have been defined by a degree of austerity the country hasn’t seen since the Great Depression? The somber national mood of the past 15 years and a sputtering economy, coupled with a more exuberant countertrend surrounding the growth and ubiquity of at-your-fingertips communications, have coalesced to shape the iGen mind.
It’s easy to look at the veneer — seeing only selfie-obsessed digital natives with phones forever in hand. But it’s vital to look beyond the stereotypes. As Dorsey sees it, this generation has no memory of 9/11 beyond its import as an historic event, nor will they have a working memory of a time before a black president or equal marriage. For this generation, the strange bedfellows of Adversity and Diversity are the norm.
So what do the observations of generational analysts mean for higher education?
Eduventures analyst, Kim Reid, has taken Erickson’s observations and applied them to forecasting the manner in which this new generation will want to navigate and negotiate their college experience. Reid thinks colleges will have to respond to the fact that the sharing-oriented generation would rather take an Uber than buy a car. And unlike Millennial kids and their Baby Boomer parents, Re-Gens and their Gen X parents aren’t necessarily going to accept a high sticker price for college just because there is a desired degree of prestige associated with a particular school. The discount rate matters more and more. These kids aren’t necessarily the opposite of the over-confident Millennials, but they are more sober regarding life’s prospects. They appear to be optimistic in regard to what an unrehearsed life can bring them, yet they go about things with a certain degree of caution.
Their caution should give higher education leaders reason to question the ever-escalating price tag of the college experience. Re-Gens crowdsource and improvise their lives. They are drawn to spontaneity. Reid says Re-Gens are coordinators, rather than planners. This makes sense to me. As a parent of teenagers (I have two generation-yet-to-be-named in high school), I pay attention to the manner in which they get things done. Teens don’t necessarily make solid plans with their friends, as prior generations did. They don’t have to. They can communicate instantaneously at will. In the way that family members harmoniously inhabit different rooms of a house — together but apart — Re-Gens are with their friends, even when they aren’t. Reid says Re-Gens don’t think it’s important to make solid plans to meet their friends socially. They instead broadcast their whereabouts and see who wants to join in. They are individual pivot points in constant interaction with other pivot points.
On a level, this perhaps sounds like a really narcissistic form of pseudo-community, but a closer look suggests something more complex. When the positive aspects of their attitudes and behaviors are brought to light, colleges should begin to heed the fact that this generation will grow up to think and work differently than prior generations.
These low profile borrower/sharers keep to a spare footprint. Their smartphones are non-negotiable extensions of their bodies, yet these students aren’t weighed down. They promote themselves as fluid spokes across a number of intersecting, dynamic and ever-changing networks. Such change allows new opportunities to emerge. Just consider the freedom that travelers feel today with regard to the rise of Airbnb and Uber style sharing economy practices. College students will not remember a time when they couldn’t find a ride in someone else’s car or grab a bed in a stranger’s house at the touch of a smartphone screen. If the almost-digital-native Millennials deliberately curate their (artisanal) lives, teens today are embracing the power that comes from coordinating themselves through unpredictable and shifting opportunities. Something good should come of this, shouldn’t it?
Thinking about this matters because higher education leaders can miss the impact of this sort of flexible network thinking on the values and everyday habits of the rising generation of college students. Leaders may instead think that this spontaneity needs to be meet with discipline. If the research is correct, it appears that Generation Zers are natural lateral thinkers who throw out options without much pre-judgment before they cull and coordinate the resources that will help them get where they want to go. This sounds like Design Thinking. So there may be an upside to the habits and values they exhibit. Lateral thinking can be harnessed by a college experience that embraces this generation’s desire to broadcast diverse possibilities and coalesce useful resources for better outcomes.
The problem is that many colleges are still stuck in the silo-ed thinking of disciplines, departments, and hierarchical linear curricula and hackneyed the pedagogy that go along with a higher education system designed more than a few generations ago by the parents and grandparents of the Baby Boomers during the great post-World War II expansion of the American university. How well will the old ways work on the sharing generation? Not very well, I’m guessing.
Before I get further into this, I’m not proposing a consumer-oriented overhaul of the college experience aimed at making a new generation of college kids happy by offering them a setting in which they never have to plan or do anything they don’t want to initiate themselves. As I’ve said elsewhere, colleges should resist disney-fication. Nor am I advocating an extreme progressive education philosophy.
Instead of turning the college campus into a fun-zone, leaders should unequivocally aim for helping students become strong critical and creative problem solvers who do fulfilling and challenging work rather than expecting to be entertained with extravagant facilities and gourmet food paid for by rising tuitions. But how much do leaders trust young adults to coordinate their own experiences? How much should they trust students to be self-determined in their learning and still become academic achievers? What is the role of faculty in this process?
Colleges must decide whether to take the easy route and indoctrinate the network generation to the old way of doing things or respond to the opportunities this generation potentially offers the world. As Dorsey points out, technology trends have shown that young users invent the behaviors that older generations adopt. Social media is a good example of this upward current. These students jump to the next spot in space (from Facebook to Instragram) like nomads if doing so allows them the flexibility to live more simply with greater fulfillment. They are a generation of tiny houses on the move. They are Pokemon hunters meandering in a horde while each member of that horde looks at the world through their own phone. They love the energy of groups but want to retain their individual identities. This just might prove to be the future for everyone.
In the meantime, what happens when these networked minds enter the traditional college classroom? Reid wonders how this generation will adapt to “carefully constructed curricula, majors and degree plans.” She says that we “instinctively know we can’t have an unplanned curriculum (an uncurriculum).”
But, why can’t we aim for a space in which to set up and promote an such an “uncurriculum”?
Colleges can respond to their self imposed rigidity by advancing progressive ideas aimed at providing college students with vital tools for thinking and doing while opening up curricula to greater self exploration. Students should be able to coordinate curricula by establishing affinity groups mentored by professors who can help learners discover and manipulate resources. If these students are good at broadcasting and crowdsourcing, why not let them coordinate (with support) the process of building a college experience?
A few years ago I taught an art theory course for architecture undergraduates. In response to a digital humanities initiative at the college, I made the tough decision to scrap the last month of content in order to allow the students to explore digital tools in the classroom. It was also a good way to allow them the opportunity to coordinate their own experience of the course material. I anxiously sacrificed almost 4 weeks of “vital information” so the students could find ideas they cared about. They also found affinity groups in which to explore the course ideas through collaborative digital learning tools. Keep in mind, these students were sophomores rather than seniors who expected the freedom associated with capstone or senior projects.
The outcome was humbling.
The students flourished in this environment. The use of digital tools in combination with the ability to nail down specific interests and find peers who responded to similar problems led the students to go much deeper into the course material than I could have imagined — not just the course material I introduced, but further explorations they discovered on their own. One group, unbeknownst to them, articulated with aplomb an obscure argument pertinent to their topic, an argument that had been put forth by an expert some years earlier yet to my knowledge hadn’t been documented in the context of mainstream academic publishing. When this particular group self-affiliated early in the process, I was concerned because they tended to seem disengaged in the classroom in comparison to other students. Yet, by allowing them to explore threads of knowledge on their own, they tapped into highly sophisticated connections between course themes. My old highly structured, disciplined (although interactive) approach to the classroom would never have allowed that discovery to occur. An assigned “final paper” wouldn’t have engaged this bunch. It would have blocked this unique knowledge network from emerging.
Colleges need to understand that retention rates and overall issues of engagement may well reflect the failure of pedagogy and curriculum to adapt to minds that have been shaped by particular social conditions.
Students today are representative of what David Edwards calls the post-Google generation of learners. They don’t particularly respond to straightforward lectures because they know information is easily obtained online at the touch of a finger. For better or worse, lecturing professors are like search engines that bring forth ideas from an information repository. Students want something else to be happening in class–something interactive and experiential.
Yet, many colleges are slow to incorporate post-Google strategies that help students think and problem solve in real time. Doing so demands that faculty give up the sage-on-the-stage model of teaching. It means faculty have to know when to step away and then step back in to provide support. Professors must respond to these developments by helping students make the connections between bits of information so that they can gain greater skills toward integrating new understandings of the world.
Colleges need to adapt to the emergence of the networked student in deep and rigorous ways. Responding to the Re-Gen’s networked mind doesn’t mean sacrificing content for enjoyment. It means helping students discover their affinities and interests not because they listened to a lecture and dutifully recalled what they heard, but because they MacGyver-ed the coordinating features of a problem with the help of the resources their college classroom provided them with.
Professors can introduce content and prime the pump of learning, only to recede a bit from the action while interacting from the sidelines. This can allow for a rhizomatic process through which students affiliate and network in order figure things out for themselves. Isn’t this what we want them to do in the post-college world?
With all the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity and innovative curriculum on college campuses, the traditional college classroom complete with lectern and neatly ordered rows remains pervasive. Those who defend such spaces should be worried that the post-Google generation is here to stay. If the Millennials adopted it, the Re-Gens do not remember a time before expertise was housed in an algorithm. If professors want to be relevant to this generation, they have to do what computer’s can’t: facilitate the process by which ideas connect, conflict and catalyze each other.
Colleges, then, must focus on the manner in which students integrate information into existing schema for the purpose of stretching toward new schema.
A pertinent story — urban legend, perhaps — has been circulating in academia and design for some time. Instead of putting sidewalks in prior to opening a new campus, the college president tells the community members to get themselves some good boots. The idea is to see where the “desire paths” would carve themselves as the result of the practical, communal navigation of space over the first year of operation. Instead of those ubiquitous ruddy short cuts between sidewalks that inscribe themselves across less enlightened campuses, this foresight would allow a natural navigation network to emerge. This sort of action demands faith that the network will purposely form itself toward some generative outcome.
When they are at their best, this is how Re-Gens think. And with support, they can further craft this sensibility. They respond to and coordinate action in the present. They move spontaneously. Better solutions come from networks in motion, while planning is overrated. A college education should support a lean approach by which the planning only goes so far as to inspire processes that cannot be fully controlled or understood. Yet these processes may prove to yield more effective long term solutions.
The important point is that the world changes, and the way people think and work changes with it. Stubbornly holding on to the division of knowledge, and defending anachronistic pedagogy and curricula will no doubt turn students away from traditional avenues for education. Colleges don’t have to go the route of lavish spending on amenities unrelated to learning. They should invest in new faculty pedagogy, curricula and technology that engages the hive mind while supporting the development of individuals.
Colleges can compete for thoughtful students if they get serious about adopting new models for learning — project-based and other experiential models that put the power of critical and creative networks in action. Baby Boomer college administrators and professors — those good at planning — run the risk of safely traversing well worn sidewalks at the expense of attracting the new generation of students — young adults who already pad about in their muddy boots.
Who knows which moniker will stick for the new generation. It took 25 years — the length of an average generation — for Generation X to retroactively get a name. Generation Y only recently lost out to the Millennials, and now, well, they are history. Competition is capricious. As for the generation-yet-to-be-named, maybe the experts should step aside and ask the new generation to throw the question out on social media so they can crowdsource the winner.