Education Opinion

Teaching the Next Generation

By Gary Marx — February 05, 2015 4 min read
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Think of it this way. A 5-year-old who started kindergarten in 2014 will turn 65 in about 2074. An 18-year-old high school graduate in June 2015 will turn 65 in about 2062. The future is in school today.

The flow of generations is like an elephant in the room. We get a glimpse when a teacher leans toward us and says, “These aren’t the same kind of kids I had in my class five years ago.” Of course, the flow of generations is as natural as life itself. In fact, because people, on average, are living longer, we now have about six generations coexisting in our communities, each exhibiting a tendency toward certain values, expectations, and shared life experiences.

A school or college/university staff is generally a mix of the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945; Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964; Generation X, born between 1965 and 1981; and Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003. Our students? They are largely Millennials and members of what I’m calling Generation E (for Equilibrium), born beginning in about 2004 and continuing until 2020 or 2024.

Generational experts Neil Howe and the late Bill Strauss, after studying generations over centuries, discovered that every fourth generation has a tendency to repeat itself. Of course, those cross-generational similarities show up within a context of new technologies and history-shaping events. For example, the GI Generation, born between 1901 and 1924, was known as a “Generation of Heroes,” striving to save the world from tyranny. Four generations later, the Millennials are generally insisting on solutions to accumulated problems and injustices. Some have even taken to the streets or used social media to foment uprisings. Like the GIs, they will have a profound impact on leadership and lifestyles.

Read more in Chapter 1 of Twenty-One Trends

Who are these Millennials? People who really listen to them tell us that they generally have high aspirations for themselves but are becoming increasingly concerned about college debt and a scarcity of the kind of jobs they’d prefer. To pursue their hopes and dreams and use their talents, some are settling into occasional gigs, often short-term jobs, constantly searching for opportunities. Many like the idea of being entrepreneurial. “Start-up” is part of the vocabulary. A common response to a problem: “There’s an app for that.” Millennials, along with members of Generation X, have earned a reputation for being tech-savvy. (So did the Silents, who took us to the Moon with a lot less computing power.)

The ubiquitous Millennials, 76 million of them, are one of the largest generations in U.S. history. While the description doesn’t fit everyone, here are some parts of their portrait: optimistic, focused, high personal expectations, a sense of enormous academic pressure, digital literacy, comfort with teamwork, unlimited access to information and connections, and acceptance of a world that is open 24/7/365. They generally see rights, for themselves and others, as givens.

Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, writing for ASCD, noted that, for Millennials, WWW doesn’t necessarily stand for World Wide Web. It also stands for “Whatever, Whenever, and Wherever.” That’s a particular challenge as we shape education for the future, striving to reach a generation of learners constantly using electronic devices, online or offline, listening to music, playing video games, talking on the phone, instant messaging, texting, sending and receiving emails, and watching television, Rosen observes.

As for the workplace, education or otherwise, expect this educated and diverse generation to be less concerned about position than they are about getting important things done. Millennials generally want instant feedback so they can get on with their work, hope to have their voices heard, and get uneasy when meetings don’t seem productive. As for authority, they understand it but want to be treated as peers. When they want something, they’re not afraid to say so, and it’s often the same thing others want, too, but have never felt comfortable asking for it.

Millennials are willing to upsize by downsizing, trading a larger place to live for a small one that has style and is close to community, restaurants, nightlife, cultural events, and continuous learning opportunities. In urban areas, many would like to exchange the traditional car for a bike and be within walking distance of work.

Growing numbers of Millennials are now parents of students in K-12 schools. Expect Millennial parents to have high expectations coupled with some acceptable definition of instant communication and an opportunity to voice ideas, opinions, and concerns. A reasonable goal would be to demonstrate that, “We’re all in this together.”

As leaders, we’d better be ready, even eager, to rally people in common purpose across generations. Our future depends on it.

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