In late January I was speaking to one of my former students who is three years into her post-university life. We were catching up on what we have both been doing and the conversation was bubbling along in the normal way it tends to with my former students: a relaxed combination of friendly banter and a bit of mentoring from me. I love to know how my former students are doing, because it helps me to know what is possible out there in the world, and I love to offer support and ideas when I can.
At some point in the conversation I quipped that too many young people are having quarter life crises, which got us on to a discussion about what it is like to be a part of the Millennial Generation. By the end of our conversation I had been convinced that I should write a blog post about the Millennial Generation. I hope it is useful for Millennials, as well as for the people who care about them. As it is Australia I know, the context for this blog post will be a generalised version of the Australian experience. All opinions and assumptions presented below are mine alone, and I look forward to my former student’s’ responses to what I have written.
Since I started teaching at university in 2002, two groups of students have stayed much the same: the top group of students continue to successfully adapt to whatever they encounter, doing well no matter what, and the bottom group of students continue to struggle and to be out of their depth from day one. It is the group in the middle that has changed markedly over the last nineteen years: they used to be within striking distance of the top group, and a bit of extra support, focus, and effort would get them a long way, but, recently, the middle group has sunk to somewhere below the mid-point and it has become progressively more difficult to get them anywhere near the top group. It now takes significantly more effort to move the middle group a smaller distance in a positive direction than at any point in my years of teaching at University.
What is most unusual about this situation is that the middle group of students are no less capable than students from 2002, they just don’t know how to consistently apply their capabilities to get good outcomes. Instead of working steadily, as one might expect from the middle group, they get distracted easily, can’t focus for long, expect things to come easily, expect to be right the first time, and are unhelpfully sensitive to perceived setbacks. I have spent years gradually adapting how I teach to work around these changes, and my focus has been on how to continue to empower young people, rather than on how to explain why they have changed. My phone call with my former student has temporarily shifted my focus from taking action to providing an explanation.
Consequently, I am going to start with my conclusion, so that it is easier for you (the reader) to keep track of my meanderings. Too many Millennials are having quarter life crises as a consequence of misaligned expectations. Because we had unreasonable expectations concerning what the world they are inheriting would be like and what they could do in it, Millennials can neither meet our expectations, nor theirs. As a consequence of our unreasonable expectations, they expect too much from themselves and too much from the institutions they are trying to situate themselves within, which results in Millennials feeling thwarted and under-appreciated. Millennials have also been led to believe that the world values their emotional truth and insights, and their openness has outstripped the appetite for change in the society that encouraged them.
By the “We” who have had unreasonable expectations of Millennials, I mean Baby Boomers and Generation X. I am about to make some large generalisations about both generations, because I have enough energy and time to write a blog post rather than a book. Boomers were born in a period when a large amount of progress was possible, in which opportunities could be created, where there was a high degree of autonomy and freedom, and in which working hard was strongly correlated with success. Some of Generation X experienced the waning years of this world, while others experienced the beginning of a harder, less optimistic world. Generation X began to see that connections were at least as important as effort, autonomy was losing ground to conformity, and that change is more common than progress. While Boomers worked out that there was diversity and an environment to protect, Generation X Learned that it didn’t have the time and resources to do the right thing while it was trying to get ahead, or at least not fall behind.
What binds the Boomers and Generation X together is that, in the main, they kept on believing that the world was going to get better, even while the evidence to the contrary continued to stack up. The social and technological gains from the 1960s to the 1990s look pretty good, until you overlay them with concomitant economic and environmental decline. For any of you who would like to argue that we have had decades of economic growth, please explain why a greater proportion of people were experiencing financial distress just before COVID-19 than in the 1980s (at the height of high interest rates). For those of you who would like to argue that the environment hasn’t declined very much, go and read The Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission Report. While the reality of economic mismanagement and environmental inaction crept up slowly, Boomers and Generation X doubled down on the dream that progress would happen without deliberate action and tangible management. Science and technology were meant to save the world without any serious attempt to define what personal responsibility would look like.
Boomers and Generation X have (in the main) held onto their ideals concerning a better world being just around the corner, and as parents, teachers, and mentors they have made sure that Millennials believe that even more is possible. The big problem is that what is possible has very little to do with what is probable, and the gap between mature rhetoric and Millennial reality smells like hypocrisy.
Boomers and Generation X did not set out to leave the world in more of a mess than they found it, but we have done precisely that, and dealing with this reality is not simple. All humans are subject to Cognitive Dissonance and Confirmation Bias, immaterial of whichever supposed generation they belong to. While Boomers and Generation X have to deal with the Cognitive Dissonance and Confirmation Bias related to not fixing the problems they identified, Millennials have to deal with the Cognitive dissonance and Confirmation Bias of having to fix the world without the skills, resources, or influence they need to do it. Millennials have been told that they are free to do whatever they want, but whatever they want cannot be achieved under our present economic, social, environmental, and political circumstances.
Pivot points between eras are always arbitrary and artificial, but, for the sake of expediency, I am going to align the shift from the Boomer and Generation X era to the Millennial era with 9/11 and the Bali Bombings. Before 9/11 public fear and anxiety were not normal, and after these events they became ubiquitous, particularly for Millennials who were old enough to absorb the negative public emotions and young enough to not really understand what was going on. Islamist Extremism did not pose an Existential threat to the West, but the fear and anxiety that terrorism and political messaging fostered has changed Western societies and Millennials lives.
After 9/11 safety became the absolute watch-word for Western societies, and when terrorism didn’t manifest at home every other possible negative event was imagined into a probable threat. Fear and anxiety were normalised to underpin vigilance as a justification for safety and control, and millennials didn’t have sufficient life experience before 9/11 to counterbalance the constant thrum of anticipated violence and disaster.
Consider what it was like to be told that the world was amazing at school, only to find out that war was raging across the world via the news at home. Imagine looking forward to flying to see your family, only to discover that everything had to be searched at the airport, because lots of people wanted to kill us. Terrorism failed to be an existential threat, but fear had an existential impact on Millennials lives.
As well as this public fear and anxiety, which is characteristic of the post 9/11 world, Millennials lives have been affected by how Boomers and Generation X responded to the proliferation of electronic media and social media. The news cycle has been shaped by “if it bleads it leads” for decades, but in the post 9/11 world this took on even more power, because adults were primed to focus on every bad thing that was possible as if it had become probable. Consequently, the calls for safety and a risk free world have become louder and more insistent every year.
The practical impact of bad things being perceived as probable, rather than just possible, has been most effectively outlined by Jonathan Haidt. When public fear and anxiety increased, children stopped being allowed out to grow. Boomers and Generation X were normally allowed to go out with their friends between the end of school and dinner from the age of eight. On average, Millennials were not allowed to go out and do the same thing until they were twelve. Based on Haidt’s research and argument, Millennials have, on average, missed out on four years of developing all sorts of skills: socialisation, negotiation, problem solving, conflict resolution, belief in self, and the ability to take personal responsibility. Of course, every Millennial has had a different experience of developing, or not having as much opportunity to develop, these skills, but, based on my teaching experience, a majority of Millennials have been adversely affected by missing at least some of the opportunities that childhood used to afford.
Jonathan Haidt – The Coddling of the American Mind:
These missed opportunities occurred at the same time as Millennials were exposed to the praise based education model. Historically, Boomers and Generation X did not experience much praise at school, while Millennials have experienced a lot of praise at school. The idea of the praise based model is that students who get a lot of praise will do better at school. As usual, the pendulum has swung from too far on one side to too far on the other. Some praise is definitely good, but too much is as detrimental as too little. Too much praise at school has caused three different problems for Millennials: children aren’t stupid, and a proportion of them question the credibility of adults when they keep on delivering praise that the child knows is not warranted; if praise is constant, then children can become dependent on praise; and if children start believing that they really are amazing, not being able to live up to this supposed standard can cause them huge amounts of anxiety.
In every tutorial group I have taught I have had a few of each of these three groups: Millennials who don’t trust what adults say, Millennials who don’t get any work done without praise for turning up, and Millennials who are anxious about every phase of a task or assignment. I am sure that there have always been a few of each of these groups in every class, but, as time has passed, there have been more students who fit in these categories every year.
As I wrote a few paragraphs ago, these young people are just as capable as young people of the same age were in 2002, but all of these factors are getting in the way of them applying their ability to get things done. Too many Millennials are carrying a heavy back-pack full of some combination of the following: under-developed life skills, an unhealthy level of scepticism, an unhelpful need for praise, a lack of self-motivation, a lack of self-belief, and a high level of anxiety. Millennials have been told that they can run far, and they want to run fast, but neither thing is possible while they are weighed down by a bulging back-pack full of socially constructed and culturally normalised baggage.
Millennials have been encouraged to be in touch with, and open about, their emotions, which means they can very often articulate what is bothering them (and how it makes them feel in the moment), but normally they cannot explain how their lives and emotional states came to be the way they are. As a generation, they are comfortable with having a mass of information, but a majority of them have no clear sense of the recent history that has shaped them.
As a consequence of all of these factors, a lot of Millennials can emote in a way that society is not ready for; they can fixate on safety and certainty to a degree that makes them anxious; they often require novelty and praise to stay interested that adult life has not normally provided, and they crave having an immediate impact in a society that has been severely impacted by inaction.
In short, Boomers and Generation X have put the weight of the world on Millennials shoulders, and most Millennials do not know how to shoulder the weight. This situation was neither intended, nor is it fair, but, nonetheless, it is what we all have to deal with. Boomers and Generation X often deal with it by shrugging and complaining, and Millennials too often end up experiencing a quarter life crisis, because they are trying to deal with expectations and circumstances that cannot be reconciled.
Millennials need to reflect on their emotional truth, and we need to decide to be emotionally open with them. Millennials need to learn that safety comes at a price, and we need to show them that the price of taking risks can be managed. Millennials need to expect less, and we need to do more. Millennials need to learn about disciplined process, and we need to learn about personal responsibility for immediate progress. Millennials need to turn information into history, and we need to turn rhetoric into reality. Millennials need to believe in themselves, and we need to believe in them. Millennials need to work out where their quarter life crises come from, and we need to do something about the reality that we didn’t deal with the global crises that existed before they were born.
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