A mainstay of academic leadership retreats is consultants and administrators offering generalizations about Kids These Days. Kids These Days are much more practical and career-focused than those of previous generations and also more idealistic, seeking meaningful experiences consistent with their communal values. They are more tech-savvy than predecessors and also more in need of guidance—we can’t expect them to google for instructions! Contradictions offer something for everyone. STEM and business faculty can hearken to the career focus while arts and humanities faculty take solace in the idealism of Kids These Days.
What these proclamations don’t offer, however, are useful guidelines for working with a roomful of messy, multifaceted human beings. Campus leaders seeking practical advice would do well to accept the timeless complexity of human nature and invite ground-level insights into how these complexities play out in their institutions.
One reason why people forgive the contradictions in Kids These Days presentations is that they reflect the truth that people are a mixed bag. I venture that even the oldest readers of this article can recall college classmates with widely varying personalities, goals, strengths and weaknesses. Your own college cohort might have had less racial or gender diversity than a modern campus, but even pale and male classmates surely varied in numerous interesting ways. Do we really need paid consultants to remind us of this?
I also take issue with the “more than ever” characterizations dispensed in these talks. Consider the commonplace assertions about modern students’ incredible tech savvy. My colleagues and I spent the summer orienting incoming freshmen and got to watch Kids These Days struggle with the course registration system. I don’t fault freshmen for struggling with confusing software; I have likewise struggled with unfamiliar user interfaces, both now and in my misspent youth. Still, they are merely no worse than me and my peers and not any more savvy in allegedly game-changing ways. We can invest money in more user-friendly interfaces, or invest time to help them learn the tools that we have, but please do not spin fables about unprecedented technological prowess.
To be sure, some differences between past and present generations might well be real. Omnipresent distractions probably do reduce attention spans, surveillance via social media likely worsens anxiety and greater overall diversity might make many students more tolerant. I find such differences plausible because they involve highly visible, large-scale social changes, rather than a subtle zeitgeist that only soothsaying consultants can divine from the entrails of survey data.
Even so, there are limits to the utility of dwelling on trends, as students are invariably a varied bunch. Data on averages are useful in lecture halls with hundreds of students, but not a discussion section with 10 students. The median student might have more experience with diversity, but abundant anecdotes suggest that microaggressive slips of the tongue remain commonplace. Some students code their own apps and others can barely navigate course websites. In other words, we still have heterogeneous classrooms.
To quote a text that predates most emeritus professors, there is nothing new under the sun.
This is not to deny that experienced people can offer useful insights about today’s youth. Many insights will come from faculty members: we lead discussions, hold office hours, grade papers, supervise projects and advise clubs. We know something about Kids These Days! Yes, it’s easy for us to lapse into complaints about them (another timeless activity) and we are as likely as anyone else to see through our own preferred filters, but at least our gripes are grounded in direct experience. Take us with a grain of salt when we say that Kids These Days are worse than ever, but consider us a sobering splash of cold water when consultants dispense all-too-neat narratives.
It would be tempting to say that just as we faculty are a corrective for popular narratives, maybe the narratives are a corrective for our crankiness. I understand why people might hope to counterbalance our complaints about a teenage wasteland of poor study habits with warm, fuzzy generalizations about the (supposedly) most practical, idealistic, inclusive, anxious, tech-savvy and needy generation ever. Alas, equal-and-opposite errors only balance in statistics. What we really need are more accurate ground-level insights.
Fortunately, I attended a meeting where the Kids These Days pronouncements were followed by practical observations from people who run resource centers for students with various needs. Some of their observations indeed supported popular narratives, describing both needs and resiliency and pointed to helpful ways for faculty to respond. Other observations ran counter to narratives, describing ways that students lack perspective and mischaracterize their needs and challenges. They talked about times when the best way to help is by reminding students of the responsibilities they have to fulfill, not just resources they can rely on.
In other words, it was a balanced, practical take on a varied group of people with a lot to learn.
That part about students who mischaracterize their challenges and need to embrace responsibility might be discomforting in a culture that celebrates youth. It would be easier if Kids These Days were so perfect that even their imperfections reflected the virtues of innocent victimhood and the touching naïveté of youth. But real people have rough edges. It makes them delightful and maddening in ways that don’t always reinforce narratives. That is frankly comforting. I would hate to teach in a world where the only way to understand the people around me was via consultants rather than my own senses and the insights of friends and coworkers.