Stop the MIllennial Madness

Students internet computer addiction sitting bench

Imagine reading these quotes in a student affairs magazine or journal:

“About 8 in 10 of the hiring managers we surveyed said Asians are more tech-savvy than non-Asian workers. They also overwhelmingly see them as more creative and adaptable.”

“African Americans are suspicious of tradition: according to a new report, they are over conventional advertising, home ownership and the promise of social security.”

“Gay men seek more fluid and diverse mentor relationships.”

“This means Whites are also smarter, faster, more innovative and potentially even more motivated than others because competition has risen.”

“Three values of African American women: always improve, always engage, always collaborate.”

“Women are putting purpose front-and-center, which is where purpose belongs.”

Do any of these statements strike you as broad generalizations? How about stereotyping? I pulled each of these statements from on-line or hard copy publications in professional literature. The only difference is that I changed the group that was the focus of these quotes. In each one of them the group in question was Millennials.

I attended a program at a conference last year where the presenters stated Boomers use email, Millennials use text, and Gen Xers use social media. Really!? Really?! And no one argued with them. Generational stereotyping is accepted. Can you imagine the uproar if we stereotyped women, African Americans, or gay men the way in which this and other age group cohorts are stereotyped?

My point is that people in our field writing and presenting about generational cohorts get away unchallenged with some of the most ridiculous generalizations and stereotypes and I am calling bullshit on this.

Psychosocially, we know that significant historical events will shape a generation, causing distinct patterns of behavior and perspectives. The Great Depression shaped those people who lived through it. World War II shaped those people, and, most recently, the Digital Revolution has shaped many aspects of individual, relationship, and community life for those growing up in it. Those three long-term events represent significant societal disruptions. There are also events that shock and shape society, such as JFK’s assassination, the Challenger disaster, or 9/11. However, to generalize about a generational cohort is dangerous and inappropriate. There are first-gen millennials and rich millennials whose grandparents when to college. There are liberal millennials and there are conservative millennials. There are African-American, Asian-American, White, Hispanic/Latino millennials. I don’t know for sure, but from what I have read, race, ethnicity, and social class probably have more influence on shaping individual students than does the year they were born.

Are there patterns and overall differences between college students of today and 20, 40, or 60 years ago? Absolutely! If you want to read nuanced research on some of these patterns, I recommend Arthur Levine’s work (e.g., Generation on a Tightrope), rather than Neil Howe and William Strauss who have made a mint on stereotyping generational cohorts.

I believe that applying so much of what is “pop” research on generations must stop in student affairs. We are embarrassing ourselves. Here’s what all Millennials have in common – they were born between 1980 and 2000. That’s about it. Just about everything else inappropriately reduces a diverse and complex group of human beings who happen to have been born at a similar time to a stereotype. We must stop doing this.

I welcome your arguments and reactions to this.

Glad I finally got this off my chest! 🙂

Follow me on Twitter: @pglove33

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3 comments

  1. This isn’t just in student affairs literature. Within the last 4 months I’ve attended two trainings from a highly-respected flagship state university near where I live. One was about management, and one was about executive leadership. Both dedicated half a day to supervising multiple generations in the workplace, and while they did have some good information about being flexible with your style and tactics, Millennials and the up-and-coming favorite group to bash, Gen Z were painted with a VERY WIDE brush. Of course, those of us that complained about it were millennials, so we were likely perceived as being whiny because we didn’t feel good about ourselves, or something.

    Now, can we rant about the Beloit Mindset List next? 🙂

  2. I appreciate this. I had to walk a very fine line with my dissertation research. On the one hand, I take issue with generational research for the reasons you mention. On the other, I wanted to talk about a group of emerging adults that arose during the time of social media nearing ubiquity. So in some ways I talk about a “generation” and in some ways not. I use generation more as a signifier of time/space rather than as a cohort.

  3. while I agree that we have to stop making broad assumptions based on even broader generalizations, I’m hesitant to agree that all generational research is bullshit (and not just because I’ve contributed to it). My worry is when folks still cite Millennials Rising as their source of information, and not empirical studies that have examined developmental and other characteristics of members of a generation. There is a benefit to having empirically sound research to help frame discussions about the students served through postsecondary education, whether that’s on students of color, adult learners, or Millennials. Perhaps what we need is greater professional acumen in being savvy consumers of the myriad published works that serve to categorize college students.

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