It’s not us, it’s them. And it’s not our fault either.

Cover imageReview of Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student
By Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean
Jossey-Bass, 2012

Student affairs practitioners are quite naturally drawn to books of this nature: descriptions of the very generation we are charged with reaching, supporting, educating and policing. We search for explanation — why, oh why, does this job seem harder today than it did yesterday? — cling to insights, and are comforted by the commonality of frustrations faced by anyone who has to deal with these irrational beings.

Insofar as those explanations, insights and comforts are delivered, the book is useful as a form of reassurance. If that’s what you’re looking for, buy it and read it. But please do not accept its findings without question.

You will recognize Arthur Levine as the author of When Dreams and Heroes Died (1980) and, with Jeanette Cureton, of When Hope and Fear Collide (1998) and this book builds on the research of the first two in what is now referred to as a trilogy. Levine is a scholar of might, as is co-author Diane R. Dean. I’m sure either of them would blow me out of the water in any debate but I can’t help but challenge some of the assumptions and implications of this piece of work.

First, a little background: exactly what generation are we talking about here?

Generation on a Tightrope is a portrait of a subset of a subset of a generation. The generation in question is what we most commonly refer to as the Millennials — those born between the 1980s and early 2000s — also known as Generation Y, the Echo Boom, the Net Generation, the Digital Natives, etc. But since this book is based  on research done on current undergraduates — defined as those attending college between 2005 and 2014 — this is a subset in two important ways: first, it is only about the latter end of the Millennial generation and, second, it is only about those who went to college (two-year and four-year institutions) in the US. Notwithstanding the US part, this makes it a particularly up-to-date and relevant description of the students we serve today.  And until someone writes a portrait of Canadian post-secondary students, the US portrait is the best proxy we have. Use your brain and apply a critical lens and you’ll be able extract some meaning.

A lot has already been written about the Millennials — some of it positive, some it negative, almost always polarizing. And as I’ve pointed out before, I have serious reservations about most of this type of literature. I’ve been working with the Millennials for my entire student affairs career and, frankly, I’m getting a bit bored of them — not the students themselves, of course, but of the words used to generalize them and, most often, mock and patronize them.  But I was drawn to Generation on a Tightrope because of the credibility of the authors and the methodology (it’s based on longitudinal survey data.) Unfortunately, once again I feel compelled to raise some serious questions about this “portrait”.

Is age really the defining characteristic?

The book is based on two sets of longitudinal data — a survey of undergraduates conducted in 1969, 1976, 1993 and 2009, and a survey of senior student affairs officers conducted five times between 1978 and 2011. Naturally, some differences emerge in terms of the attitudes, values and behaviours of young people in each decade, and in the observations of people like us. But there is very little comparative data for the general “grown-up” population in the same year. So how do we know whether we are looking at generational differences, or just general differences experienced by most Americans living in 2013?

Let me give you an example.  In a section devoted to the effects of digital technology on life outside the classroom, descriptions of undergraduates include: fear of being without a digital device, no time for contemplation, expectations of immediacy, and stories of roommates in dispute texting each other rather than communicating face-to-face. We’re supposed to shake our heads in disbelief.

But that pretty much describes my life too and I’m not 21 years old.  If I forget my Blackberry at home, I will spend an hour going home to get it rather than try to survive the workday without it. My colleagues and I constantly refer to the loss of “thinking time” (though I’m really not sure if it ever existed.) We are expected to respond to email — from each other — at pretty much any hour.  I have had to resolve disputes between employees in neighbouring offices engaged in a war via email. And I have checked Facebook and Twitter three times in the course of writing this paragraph, while I am sitting in Starbucks, along with about 25 other lonely people of all ages on mobile devices.

Maybe that just means I’m immature (wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of that.) But I remain unconvinced that what we are looking at is a generational difference rather than a mere sign of the times.  Generational theory would tell us that what defines a generation are events and trends that shape a cohort during childhood and young adulthood and thus, the Millennials are defined by the advent of the Internet, the Web, digital or smartphone technology in ways that we grown-ups are not. Ok, maybe I can accept that.  But I find these kinds of generalizations about technology based on age to be annoying and deceptive. How many times have you been told that these so-called “digital natives” are whizzes in front of a keyboard, only to find they don’t know how to use paragraph styles in Word or enter a formula into an Excel spreadsheet? They are experts in the technology that has meaning and relevance to their lives which is mostly, as far as I can tell, in gaming and entertainment, as are we. As their lives change, so too will their command of technology. Just as ours did.

This brings me to my second big question.

What role do other demographic factors – gender, ability, race and, especially, socio-economic status – play?

The authors dedicate an entire chapter to “multiculturalism” (a very deliberate choice of terminology.) This is the most diverse generation of college students in history, they tell us. Among the key findings: students of all backgrounds are more satisfied with their undergraduate experience, interaction among diverse peers is up, and women perceive fewer barriers. The authors even indicate briefly that class is poised to be the next big campus issue.

Despite the acknowledgement of this diversity, the book lacks a level of critical analysis in other chapters. The picture that is painted throughout is of a generation of politically myopic career-oriented rule followers (as long as the rules are spelled out), tethered to their parents, who engage with the institution with a consumer mentality. But rarely do the authors even hypothesize that these trends in attitude and behaviour may be based in factors like culture, ability or class. Living with your parents into your 30s is perfectly acceptable in many cultures; why do we assume it’s a weakness? Changes in policy and practice have made it possible for people with pretty serious learning disabilities to attend higher education; might we be okay with the fact that they need a little more support navigating the bureaucracy? And if your parents didn’t attend higher education and/or your family has sacrificed a lot to send you to university, might you be forgiven for being “career-oriented” and having expectations of service given the amount of money you’re paying?

Although Levine and Dean are often sympathetic in this book, they are too cutting and judgmental for my tastes. Here’s a gem of a paragraph to give you a taste of that tone:

“Their deficits are significant. This is a timid generation of rule followers in an era that demands bold, new rule makers. They are self-centered and have little experience with failure in what is likely to be [a] period requiring flexibility, adaptation, and resilience. They are immature, needy, and tethered to the adults in their lives in a time that requires vision and leadership. They are tribal, self-centered, and low in interpersonal skills in an era that will be characterized by growing interconnectedness and mutual dependence. They are weak in basic skills in a developing information economy that will demand the highest level of skills and knowledge in history. They confuse effort with excellence and quantity with quality in an age in which the economy elevates outcomes over process. They talk internationally but their focus is local and their knowledge of the world is poor in an age of globalization.”

That was not a typo. They actually used the term “self-centered” twice.

The following paragraph retreats a bit, but I think the damage is done.

“This should not be taken as a slap or dismissal of current undergraduates, harkening back to the old saw about students being so much better in my day. They were not. This generation of college students is no better or no worse than other generations but, like every generation before, they are different and will live in a world demanding a different set of skills and knowledge to thrive.”

Which brings me to my final question: so what?

Even if we accept that there are attributes of this generation of university students that are substantially different than past generations, what do we do with this information? Levine and Dean provide quite a comprehensive concluding chapter that attempts to answer that question for a variety of audiences. For the higher ed folks, there are some interesting ideas, each of which requires much more exploration than the limits of the print medium provide. In a page on Career Services, for example, the authors acknowledge that too many students wait until it’s too late to access these services. “Comprehensive career programs need to be offered to students and their parents from the first days of college.” To their parents? Didn’t we just read an entire chapter about how parents are way too involved with their students’ lives and are coddling their children too much? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em I guess. But it seems to me we bear some responsibility for this extended adolescence we’re all observing.

I read with great interest the short “so what” section for parents since I have three digital natives in my own home. One more reminder, in case we haven’t got the message by page 190: “Parents have raised and by all reports are continuing to raise a generation of children who have the characteristics that have been described. They are entitled, overprotected, timid, dependent, self-absorbed, rule followers, tied to their parents, and have not been allowed to fail.” And again, a caveat, lest we feel blamed here. “This has not happened because they have bad parents.” Oh, phew. “Rather parents have attempted to compensate for past and present circumstances.”  Wait, what are we compensating for? Well, the boomers are apparently compensating for their own strained relationships with their parents. And many of us, we’re making up for lost time caused by, wait for it, single and double-income parenting. What follows are several paragraphs of patronizing advice about “having the child sell cookies for the class trip door to door rather than selling them at the office” (really? not sure about the States, but here in Canada, the school usually explicitly tells us we are not to send out kids door-to-door, for safety reasons. But okay..if you say so…),  setting “clear rules” about drugs, sex, and alcohol (what a concept – why didn’t we think of that before?! Just tell them not to drink and they won’t do it!!!), limiting internet access (in practicality, very difficult to do, since most high school homework now requires it) and a bunch of other pat garbage that you can get from most of the magazines at the grocery store check-out.

You might be getting the impression I didn’t appreciate this book. For the most part, you’d be right. I don’t appreciate generalizations that judge. blame and preach rather than bridge differences in perspective, cultivate respect and share responsibility. But I do appreciate one fundamental premise of Generation on a Tightrope: they are who they are. They are the products of a concoction of good and bad parenting, world events, the economy, policy, popular culture, their own experiences and all sorts of social phenomena, including, of course, technology. And as institutions of higher learning, we don’t necessarily need to meet them “where they are” (or else we’ll be running courses like reality television shows) but we do need to meet them at least half-way.

– Deanne Fisher @deannefisher


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