Monday, July 02, 2018


There is a 2015 article by Jeff Selingo just linked by David Foster over at Chicago Boyz. Selingo is worried because college graduates don't know how to shoe a horse tolerate an ambiguous situation anymore.  Maybe so, but Selingo is drawing largely from personal anecdotes plus a Stanford psychologist who hasn't figured out the difference between correlation and causation (which means neither can Selingo), so I'm suspicious.  Also, Steven Johnson's 2005 book Everything Bad Is Good For You says the opposite, that the computer teaches kids to try all sorts of things to get where they want to go, epitomised by the videogames that just drop you off in an environment with no clue what your objective is or what the rules are.

Most likely, many Millennials are able to tolerate ambiguous situations, many are not, and many are in between. Is the trait more common now than it was? I don't know of evidence either way, but everyone has an opinion about Millennials.

I have a bias that generations are not that different from each other.  They each have their cabbages and kings. When we say "I have been teaching/coaching/hiring/supervising young people for forty years, and I think that Kids Today aren't as ______ as they used to be," there is a lot left out of that estimation.  First, that means you were 25 when you were first coaching 16 y/o's, and you were different then than you were at 45 or now are at 65.  If some percentage of your athletes challenged you, was that because they thought you too young? Or if they challenge you now, is it because they think you are too old? Are you remembering the percentages from 1978 accurately, or have you bent the impression to fit later understandings? (Answer: the latter, and it's not close.) Secondly, your sample set is extremely limited. Forty years is a long time, but at any given moment you are viewing an invisibly small percentage of the available calculus students that year, or whatever. Relatedly, what you remember about a very few young people will eventually dominate your impression - the vagaries of memory again. Thirdly, supervising kids in an economic downturn, when you can have the pick of the litter, is different from supervising them in flush times when you have to take what you can get.  Are there more real snowflakes at Yale now, or are more just acting like snowflakes because administrators let them get away with it? Your personal data is slippery and unrepresentative, start to finish. In 1968, the under-24's still supported the Vietnam war.  It was the elders who were beginning to turn away, finding it different than WWII and Korea. We don't remember it that way.  Doesn't fit the narrative.

Finally, even if there are measurable changes over time, they will be gradual, and in a narrow range. Percentage of people attending church in a month has dropped from 60% to 30%* over 70 years, with only slight changes in slope.  That's large, but there aren't any clear dividing lines. Perhaps a whole half-generation of 8-18 y/o's are affected by the Kennedy assassination or 9-11, or less visible factors like available birth control and easy pornography might change how young people coming of age might view the world, but they don't show up obviously.

I asked my two oldest plus bsking (all part of the Oregon Trail Generation, born 1977-84) for their thoughts on differences among generations.  My two lazily didn't answer, but Bethany did.  I won't give all her answers, as she may want to use them on her own, but I agree that she identified four things that are different now. However, I think these are things that have happened to all of us, not just Millennials. As a single example, she notices that the millennials are more sensitive and accepting of mental health issues than their grandparents were at a similar age.  That's true, but we all are, not just the younger generation.

How we look at endangering the body is different; how we look at endangering the family is different - one way up, the other way down. That may actually be pervasive enough to create a generational difference. I'm interested in what difference all of you think are present. So that I can shoot them down and tell you you're wrong, of course. Are Millennials actually different?

*The numbers vary wildly depending on what you ask and who is asking.


Tom Grey said...

I think the car-driving, rock & roll teen dancers in the 50s & 60s were, due to technology as well as recent post WWII history, quite different from the WW II fighters, and the Depression teens, and the Roaring 20s teens.

The post-Elvis thru Vietnam era "60s" teenagers & pre-teens were really more different from before than any generation since; plus the Boomers were pretty populous.

The growing-up in a digital world young folk have more "infotainment" distractions, but don't seem hugely different, tho more along the spoiled rich kid than anything else.

Christopher B said...

I am partial to the Strauss-Howe cyclical generational theory (not least of which because it properly recognizes that the Boomer Generation ended before my birth year). They echo some of the same sentiments that you do. Generations are undoubtedly different but there are broad similarities between eras that we mostly don't recognize because it's rare for people to live long enough to see the rebirth of their own generational group. They also agree that the relationship between generational groups changes as each group passes through the life epochs (childhood, adulthood, midlife, elder). So a Gen-X or Boomer in adulthood working with childhood Millennials is going to have a different experience than that same person in midlife or elderhood working with young adult Millennials. They accept that generational groups will influence each other as they exert their efforts to shape society. Finally, their adherence to a 20 year (more or less) cycle tends to avoid people backing into the selection of generational divisions based on information that fits their bias.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have been persuaded that access to a car - a mobile hotel room - and having spending money that was not immediately handed to your parents created enormous changes for the 50's & 60's teenagers. Those are a little before plus the first half of Boomers, so they don't fit the standard category. OTOH, as the change was gradual, those changes mostly happened to 50's and 60's kids in the movies and in imagination.

Also, a lot of what we ascribe to the late 60's actually happened in the 1970's. David Frum's third book, How We Got Here: The 70's: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life covers that. I never read it, only a review, but the history seemed right. As it's Frum, I'd now be unlikely to read it now unless it were lying on a coffee table and I had nothing else to do.

dmoelling said...

I've got a bunch of millennials as young engineers A couple of things stand out:

1. They are less well prepared professionally (same universities, similar programs as us old guys) which I believe is due to two factors. One is too much computer support in school and life. Their basic reasoning skills seem missing without a computer to support them. the other is that everyone is going to college/university now. In the 1970s if you had the grades you could easily get in to top schools. The students really wanted to study engineering rather than being told they should consider this. So self selection was stronger.

2. Their cognitive skills are different which again is a product of connectivity. With GPS none of them can navigate by their surroundings. Their raw observational skills are also low. Too many times I told one of my younger staff to go to the north side of a building and getting a blank stare. I then point out the location of the sun!

3. It's tough for them to get good financial management skills due to prices being so high and credit so accessible.

4. Finally, they really are clueless on history. This is a big handicap in my opinion. My immigrant staff can be somewhat excused but guys born in the USA should know more. We do a worldwide and a USA wide business so knowing a little history of say Alaska would be helpful.

Sam L. said...

What is "The Oregon Trail generation"? What does that mean? I'm old, but i have heard of an Oregon Trail game/computer-game.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, it's a reference to the game, and coming of age when it was popular. It was perhaps the first educational game that was both fun and good. The graphics looked primitive within a decade, so those who played the game later were not seen as having the same experience. If you run the phrase past anyone born between those years they will nod or laugh. They see themselves as straddling two worlds, having started out in the analog world for the beginning of their education but being fully digital by the time they finished high school.

Donna B. said...

My children fit the age group, but because I balked at buying an apple computer (went from Commodore 64 to IBM) they didn't have any exposure to the game at home. Apparently they did at school, but it was minimal and didn't make an impact.

As late as 1990, both Commodore 64 and IBM were present in my house and we were "online" with a dedicated modem line for the computers. Chat room trivia games on Qlink were oldies by then, but still fun. (Actually, more fun because I was no longer paying 6 cents/minute on a 300 baud modem.) They had teen and pre-teen rooms. AOL on the IBM was a bit trickier. I actually miss those days of trivia rooms run by Mercury News. I traveled to meet some of those people IRL and it was "enlightening".

This was in a rural area. I also had a cellular car phone at the time (Not exactly the same as today's cell phones, but better than the car phones of the 70s. Maybe... coverage was iffy.) What I paid for connectivity at the time seems a huge amount to me today when I'm in a developed area, but it's comparable to what the people in that same rural area are still paying for internet. At least their cell phone bills have gone down.

The reason I balked at apple way back then was my preference for text over icons. I was also a late adopter of Windows. And I still don't like icons and Windows. My initial "feeling" that the icons and Windows were hiding control of the system is still relevant.

Have I gone off-topic yet?

james said...

The icons do hide a lot of control. OTOH, sometimes you can get lost in too much control (e.g. with ls).
Or rsync, which I forgot the proper options for this morning.

Texan99 said...

I wasn't good at tolerating ambiguity when I was 20. I hope I'm better at it now.

Donna B. said...

james, perhaps I only want the illusion of control ;-)