The Millennial Muddle

The term “millennials” was coined by Neil Howe and William Strauss in their 2000 book, Millennial Rising. Although each generation has its own unique characteristics, the schism between millennials and other generations centers on technology. While demographers debate just how influential digital technology has been on the millennial personality, no one doubts its profound impact. It is certainly the great unifier of millennials from places as diverse as Geneva, Japan, and Jersey. More than any other factor, it has united the generation, even globally.

Today’s article from the Chronicle of Higher Education offers several opinions by people who have studied this new breed of young people. The researchers who study them propose findings that contradict each other, perhaps because the experts themselves are a product of their own generation. The reporter, Eric Hoover, writes: “Depending on the prediction, this generation either will save the planet, one soup kitchen at a time, or crash-land on a lonely moon where nobody ever reads.” Such contradicting arguments should make us wonder whether an entire generation can be effectively stereotyped. With colleges and corporations spending immense amounts of money on experts to tell them how to attract today’s twenty somethings, what implications will these stereotypes have on our higher education institutions?

Following are statistics of millennials that do not stereotype:

• Referred to as the “Internet Generation,” they speak digital as a second language: 94% use the Internet for school research and 78% believe the Internet helps them with school work (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008).
• The vast majority of young people are not in college full time. Only an estimated 25% of 18-24-year-olds attend a four-year college full time (U.S. Department of Education).
• 44% of college students are male (For the first time in history more girls attend college than boys; Newsweek, January 30, 2006).

While it’s useful to determine patterns to help us understand trends, when it comes to students, learning is dynamic. The advent of a new generation of students and increasingly sophisticated technology has left many teachers separated from their students. Similarly, most faculty teach their students in ways they were taught, and these methods may not be reaching today’s students. Indeed, technology has emerged as the salient characteristic of the millennial generation, but like all students, they are as individual as their fingerprints.

  • What unique characteristics can make millennials successful in the academic and economic world of the 21st century?
  • How might we better understand these characteristics and translate them into specific pedagogical practices?
  • What important principles from cognitive science and pedagogy should faculty know and utilize in their teaching?


October 11, 2009
The Millennial Muddle
How stereotyping students became a thriving industry and a bundle of contradictions
By Eric Hoover

Kids these days. Just look at them. They’ve got those headphones in their ears and a gadget in every hand. They speak in tongues and text in code. They wear flip-flops everywhere. Does anyone really understand them?

Only some people do, or so it seems. They are experts who have earned advanced degrees, dissected data, and published books. If the minds of college students are a maze, these specialists sell maps.

Ask them to explain today’s teenagers and twentysomethings. Invite them to your campus to describe this generation’s traits. Just make sure that they don’t all show up at the same time. They would argue, contradict one another, and leave you more baffled than ever.

Figuring out young people has always been a chore, but today it’s also an industry. Colleges and corporations pay experts big bucks to help them understand the fresh-faced hordes that pack the nation’s dorms and office buildings. As in any business, there’s variety as well as competition. One speaker will describe youngsters as the brightest bunch of do-gooders in modern history. Another will call them self-involved knuckleheads. Depending on the prediction, this generation either will save the planet, one soup kitchen at a time, or crash-land on a lonely moon where nobody ever reads.

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