The Millennial Generation and College Teaching

Differences between generations certainly aren’t new.  As adults we can all look back on our childhoods, particularly the adolescent years, and remember those times when our parents or other authority figures just “didn’t get it.”  The irony  for me is that now, as a college teacher, I sometimes find myself scratching my head when it comes to figuring out what motivates and inspires today’s students.  Although I am still relatively young, research has shown that there are some distinct differences between the latest generation of college students – known as the Millennial Generation, or Generation Next – and previous generations, including Generation X, which immediately preceded the Millennial Generation.

One study, conducted in 2006 by the Pew Research Center, highlights some of those differences (you can read the entire study and a summary of key points by following the link above).  While the study as a whole is quite interesting, a few key points jumped out at me as being particularly relevant to teaching at the college level.  The following quotations are all taken from the “Summary of Findings” section in the Pew Research Center’s study.

They use technology and the internet to connect with people in new and distinctive ways. Text messaging, instant messaging and email keep them in constant contact with friends. About half say they sent or received a text message over the phone in the past day, approximately double the proportion of those ages 26-40.

In the intervening years since this study was conducted, the level of personal communication via technology has only increased, with Generation Next leading the way. Young people (ages 18-25 for the purposes of their study) are plugged in, switched on, and wired to an extent older generations find hard to comprehend.  As teachers, there are a couple of ways we can respond to this trend.  We can either choose to ignore it, and hope it goes away (unlikely), or we can use it to our advantage to reach out and engage students through a medium familiar to them.  I prefer to speak to current and prospective students either face-to-face or on the phone, but I realize that often the best way to contact them is through email, text messaging, or social media.

They are the “Look at Me” generation. Social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and MyYearbook allow individuals to post a personal profile complete with photos and descriptions of interests and hobbies. A majority of Gen Nexters have used one of these social networking sites, and more than four-in-ten have created a personal profile.

Again, we can either choose to ignore the social networking explosion, or we can use it to communicate with the younger generation.  While I don’t use social networks and media sharing sites nearly as much as some, I do maintain a professional presence on Facebook and YouTube.  What began as a kind of experiment on my part has been actually quite successful in connecting with other horn players around the world.

Their embrace of new technology has made them uniquely aware of its advantages and disadvantages. They are more likely than older adults to say these cyber-tools make it easier for them to make new friends and help them to stay close to old friends and family. But more than eight-in-ten also acknowledge that these tools “make people lazier.”

One other reason I like to be familiar with new technology is that it helps me advise students against some of the pitfalls associated with it, from the risks associated with social networking (see this great post by Bruce Hembd on the subject at HornMatters) , to guidelines when using the internet for research.  While Generation Next overwhelmingly thinks that new technologies can “make people lazier,” I think it is part of our job as teachers to help them learn how to use technology in a responsible, academically viable way.

Their heroes are close and familiar. When asked to name someone they admire, they are twice as likely as older Americans to name a family member, teacher, or mentor. Moreover, roughly twice as many young people say they most admire an entertainer rather than a political leader.

This, more than any of the other findings, is encouraging to me.  Though there may be times when we feel at odds with Generation Next, the research shows that we are at least in part making a difference in their lives.  Teachers, especially those in the arts and humanities, have a unique opportunity (responsibility) to inspire students, and learning about the goals and values of the generation(s) we teach can only help us in that process.

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2 Comments

I am sick of people labeling individuals a certain generation just because of the year they were born. I feel this way because there are many people who do not fit into the generation to which they were assigned. For example, I was born in 1979 and I am a Millenial because I have virtually nothing in common with Gen X. Also, I do not like to be labeled. In fact, MANY out there don’t. My definition of the word “generation” is holistic. Stop the labeling and let everyone be who they want to be.

Hi David,

Thanks for your comment, and I sincerely apologize if my post has in any way offended you. I personally adopt a very individual approach in my teaching, and sharing this information on generations was not meant to encourage the labeling of certain groups. I agree that simply because someone was born between a certain date range doesn’t guarantee that they will exhibit specific characteristics or tendencies. However, I think that this research study was conducted based on sound principles, and can be useful to some extent in teaching.

Best regards,

James

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