October 20th, 2009

Generational Stereotypes


Mano Singham (a colleague whose work I greatly admire) makes such an important point in a viewpoint piece published in the October 11, 2009 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. He thinks we are getting carried away with generational stereotypes. Rather than being monnikers that identify whole generations (like baby boomers), they have become trendy labels attached to ever smaller age cohorts (Generation X, Y, the Millenials). But what worries him most is how these stereotypes lump very diverse students together.

Once the label gets used in a conversation (even during exchanges between teachers who care about students and are committed to learning), faculty launch into all sorts of stories about these Millenial students—they want their emails answered in the middle of the night; they can’t make decisions without consulting their parents; they expect detailed, explicit instructions for every assignment; and they willingly share personal issues most professors would prefer not to hear.

“The willingness of … professors to accept generational stereotypes stands in stark contrast to their sensitivity when it comes to gender and ethnic stereotypes,” Mano writes. He describes a session he attended at a teaching conference where incivility in the classroom was addressed. There was some suggestion that student behaviors are incivil depending on their culture and examples used to illustrate. “There was immediate pushback from professors that such generalizations are not valid—and are in fact harmful, because they prevent us from seeing the individuality in students.” Interestingly, Mano notes, generalizations about the Millennials went unchallenged in the session.

“Why are we in academe so accepting of media-driven constructs like the ever-multiplying generation labels?” Mano asks. He sees a paradox in our acceptance of the labels. We want to help those students who now come to college with many problems. If we can categorize, label, and otherwise conveniently group their problems, in this case under some generational label, we think we understand and can better deal with the issues. “But generational stereotypes are of no value for professors … . Students are diverse and have always been diverse.” Generational stereotypes rob students of their individuality. It makes us think we know them and don’t need to bother to get to really know them.