Posted by: Jeff | October 26, 2009

Educating Millennials Through Generalizations

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an interesting article deconstructing the pervasive stereotypes in higher education that pertain to the millennial generation (or, alternately, what used to be known as Generation Y).  As a student and educator in the millennial generation, this was a particularly interesting read.  I deal with students on a daily basis that fall into this broadly-conceived amalgam of commonly-shared characteristics, and presumably share some of those same characteristics myself.

The author surveyed a number of administrative staff and faculty in higher education institutions and found that a common depiction of millennials emerged: “that of a whiny, needy, instant-gratification-seeking, grade-oriented bunch of students.”  The implicit accusation in many of the observations are that millennial students crave praise (often in the form of grades) more than any previous generation, and that they seek out and utilize university resources nearly to the point of exhaustion.

Working in higher education as I do, I can identify with the frustration inherent in being emailed three times by the same student before having the chance to look up an answer to the initial request, and I’ve been as tempted as anyone to snarkily email back to the third inquiry, “I would have had time to answer your first question by now if I didn’t have to spend so much time reading and responding to your follow-ups.”  That said, I’m uncomfortable with such generalizations, especially as I realize that I am among those being stereotyped.

The millennial generation as  a social construct is a wholly arbitrary conception, and one that disguises an incredible amount of diversity and difference.  Such simplifications are dangerous when they are the foundation of universal educational policy.

Changes in student behavior may be more related to ever-evolving cultural contexts than anything chronological.  With new innovations in communication and technology, students have an array of tools available that have an impact on their social development from an early age.  Even within the millennial generation, the experiences of young people have changed remarkably over the past decades both in terms of political context and technological innovation, with the advent of the cell phone, personal computer, and social networking websites.  This fundamental point shows why it is important to get beyond labels.  Cultural and technological development are fluid processes – why do we still insist on cookie-cutter labels to define social development?

I guess by now you can probably tell that the title of this site is partially tongue-in-cheek.  The coming of age of my particular demographic coincided with the rise in pop sociology – it’s no accident that there are no discernible psychological traits associated writ large with Baby Boomers, for instance.  I’d like to think that the individuality of my generation won’t be suppressed by blanket generalizations.  Given the power of education in institutionalizing ways that we look at the world, however, I’m glad that there are those within the academic community pushing back.


  1. Hi there,
    As a graduate student in Higher Education Administration, I’ve been asked to read numerous of these pop sociology texts -in conjunction with many more research driven, peer-reviewed articles- that purportedly tell us about our students and what to expect from them, their “helicopter” parents, etc.

    Its nice to hear your perspective on this- its true that by putting students in little boxes (cue “Weeds” theme song here), we’re doing them more of a disservice than we are helping them. And while of course there are students I deal with who fit the stereotypes perfectly, there are many many more who break the mold. They are self-sufficient, and original thinkers, and promising individuals.

    So who are they, the millennials? Who are we as millennials (yes, I fall into the category as well, depending upon the years chosen)? As with all young generations, on the cusp of adulthood and political power, they are the future. We are the future. And little boxes or no, its best for us to treat college students on an individual basis, lest we fail them and stifle their true selves.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Meghan!

      I wholeheartedly agree that as educators, it is best to treat students as individuals. Generational stereotypes are not the complete picture of a huge demographic that will need to lead the way in future political, cultural, and technological innovation. By using blanket strategies in higher ed, we’re not encouraging students to be motivated to succeed to the best of their unique abilities.

      Also, major props for inserting both Weeds (love it) and helicopter parents (future post forthcoming) into the conversation.


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