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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Millennials Are People, Too

We are all Millennials.

May 11, 2016



I’m starting to wonder if I was a Millennial before my time.

Born in 1970, I am firmly Gen X, but whenever I read blanket descriptions of today’s Millennial student, they seem oddly familiar. Sophia Sanchez, writing in IHE’s “University of Venus” blog shares a fairly typical list of the “traits” of the Millennial learner:

  • They have a shorter attention span.
  • They prefer interactive, experiential and collaborative learning.
  • They are very comfortable with technology.
  • They multitask.
  • They are driven by instant gratification.
  • They like informal and stimulating environments.
  • They prefer casual and friendly relationships with teachers.
  • They are often well-rounded.

As I reflect on my college days (U. of Illinois, Class of ’92), I feel as though I recognize these traits in myself.

Short attention span

I would bring the newspaper or a book to every class (provided it was a large enough lecture to get away with this). In smaller classes I would daydream or carve notes into the wooden desktops. In an early-American literature class working over the course of the semester, I succeeded in covering the entire surface of one desk in the word, “bored,” etched over and over.[1]

Prefer interactive, experiential and collaborative learning

Is there a generation for which this is not true? Did previous generations express deep and abiding love for scantron sheets?

One of my favorite courses in college was oil painting for non-art majors, which had 15 of us in a garage space, brushstroking away for 3-hours a week, our canvases turned to the middle of the space, open for comment or critique at any moment. I was truly pathetic, but I looked forward to it every time.

They are comfortable with technology

In college, I saved my summer job money and bought an early Mac SE with a 20MB hard drive. I quickly became proficient with the PageMaker desktop publishing software, almost entirely through my own experimentation.[2]

I find the above assertion to be as untrue of today’s students as it is true. I have many students express difficulty with seemingly simple things like uploading a document to the LMS, or converting a Word file to a PDF, while others can program their own apps.


See bringing the newspaper to class above. In my post-college job as a paralegal, I would switch between indexing documents for a gargantuan piece of commercial litigation and writing short stories on legal pads. At my post-grad school job as a marketing research consultant, I would do something similar, except utilizing the alt-tab keystroke on my desktop to toggle between the focus group report and short story I was working on simultaneously.

Instant gratification

I often decided to sleep, rather than go to class. Hugely gratifying, instantly. Another time I missed almost an entire week’s worth of classes as my friends and I became engrossed in a massive tournament of Nintendo’s Super Tecmo Bowl. I do not think I missed more than six episodes of All My Children in four years. I could go on, but why embarrass myself further.

Stimulating environments

I lived for three years in a fraternity house with 75 other college-age males.

Friendly relationships with teachers

Amidst large, impersonal lecture courses, I had a small handful of instructors who learned my name and seemed to care about me as a human being. They are friends to this day. And was this any different in, I don’t know, the 60’s?


I don’t know what this means. Does it count that I played club lacrosse, was president of that fraternity, and was passable on guitar? Does it matter that my roundedness was entirely unremarkable?


I see two possible conclusions. One, that in my college days, I was actually a visitor from the future, or two, that I was a human being.

Occam’s Razor tells me choice two is more likely.

It also tells me that Millennial students are human beings like any other. Their desire for stimulating, collaborative, gratifying things is identical to the same desires held by previous generations.

There are some generational differences, namely that Millennial students report being more prone to anxiety and depression than previous generations, but this is not because of some inherent character defect, and is instead due to a systematic divorcing of learning from schooling, and a culture of standardization and high-stakes testing.

These policies – particularly coupled with an age of economic anxiety – would’ve had the same impact regardless of the year you were born.

Humans may be largely the same, but the world has changed around us. For sure, that smartphone may be a bit more seductive than the newspaper, but this doesn’t change the underlying motives and values. I also see plenty of non-Millennials focused on those little devices.

When I talk with students, they desire the same things as anyone else, an interesting life, economic security, connections to others who are meaningful to them. What they do express is a doubt that the world is organized in a way that allows one to achieve these aims.

This, I believe, has given rise to a more idealistic strain than the slacker ethos of Gen X. For my generation, things weren’t great, but they were at least a’ight.

If Millennial idealism comes coupled with a little excess hubris, I will take that a thousand times over cynicism. I will also forgive them their excesses, as they are young and the country has surely survived worse transgressions, and we deserve a thousand times worse for what we’ve done to the once accessible public institutions of this country.

This disconnect between college instructors and the average student isn’t rooted in generational divides, but in the fact that most college instructors don’t know what it is to be an “average” student.

If you loved school, it is hard to appreciate what it means to loathe it, particularly if you loathe it while believing doing well is deeply important as many current students do. Being a student today is more unpleasant and damaging than any time in history. Our mental health scorecard tells the tale.

I believe it’s more likely we’ve designed an ill-conceived and pointless gauntlet, rather than we’re saddled with an entire generation that has a character defect.

If you’re wondering what makes a Millennial student tick, and you want to understand their dreams and desires, my advice?

Look in a mirror. They want the same things you do.

[1] That course was taught by Prof. Nina Baym, one of the great eminences of the field. Didn’t matter. I’d decided I wasn’t interested in Billy Budd.

[2] This would prove valuable in future employment as I later taught myself to program a DOS-based indexing program at my first post-college job and later learned PowerPoint (this used to be meaningful), and video editing software at my post grad-school job. In a lot of ways, being present for the development of these tools has made me far more proficient than my own students, who often seem to expect the technology to be frictionless.


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