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Higher Ed Gamma

I’ve often wondered why my cohort of doctoral students at Yale, unlike their successors, displayed no interest in unionizing.  Most of my classmates considered themselves women and men of the left, yet unionization was not broached once that I can remember. In stark contrast, twenty years later, the pressures for graduate student unionization at private universities were intense.

For reasons that deserve close scrutiny, the Overton Window – the range of policies that were considered plausible – had widened. Ideas once deemed farfetched, like student debt cancelation, now seem conceivable.

What had changed?  The answer, in a word, lies in a deepening pessimism about the future.

Generational pessimism can be seen in many ways – in delayed marriage and childbearing, the retreat from organized religion, the growing prevalence among twenty-somethings of substance abuse, and, perhaps above all, the well-documented decline in mental health, apparent in surging rates of loneliness, depression, and despair.

We’re all familiar with the developments that have contributed to this sense of foreboding.  Lagging real incomes.  Rapidly rising housing costs. High-priced childcare.  Unprecedented levels of student debt.  Looming fears about degrees without a payoff.  Very slow rates of wealth acquisition. Persistent racial disparities. Unparalleled levels of intergenerational inequality. 

There’s a widespread sense that expectations once considered reasonable are now unattainable. 

Jill Filipovic’s 2020 generational manifesto, OK Boomer, Let's Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind, cites a number of telling statistics:

  • That her generation holds just 3 percent of American wealth, in contrast to the Baby Boomers, who, at the same age, held 21 percent.
  • That members of her cohort held $15,000 in student loan debt, in contrast to Boomers, who held just $2,300 in today’s dollars.
  • That her age mates had to pay almost 40 percent more for their first homes than did Baby Boomers.
  • That her generation spends twice as much on healthcare than when the post-World War II generation was young parents.

As one reviewer summed up Filpovic’s argument:  “The immediate post-War generation grabbed all the careers, incomes, nice neighborhoods…. created a public polity to protect their gains… pulled up the political drawbridge and thus left those born in the 80s and 90s to grow to adulthood imprisoned in much enfeebled life-chances.”

Generational hostility is evident in the tendency to stereotype and stigmatize, to view the young as coddled snowflakes or entitled, self-absorbed navel gazers. 

It’s not simply that many young adults own a bicycle instead of a car, or purchase an iPhone or avocado toast another affordable luxury in lieu of a house or condo.  For the first time since the Great Depression, a majority of young adults now live with their parents.  Many work side-gigs since they’re unable to find a full-time, middle-class wage-paying job commensurate with their education.

I detect a growing belief among many twenty-somethings that American society has an animus against them, with the likely Supreme Court decision to allow states to severely restrict abortion cited as yet another piece of evidence. 

As The Guardian put it, among many twenty-somethings, there a sense that “their generation was facing far greater hurdles to establish themselves as independent adults than previous generations did.”

As the left-leaning British daily observes:

“today’s young people are not delaying adulthood because they are – as the New Yorker once put it – ‘the most indulged young people in the history of the world’. Instead, it appears they are not hitting the basic stages of adulthood at the same time as previous generations because such milestones are so much more costly and in some cases they are even being paid less than their parents were at the same age.”

Generational gaps are not, of course, new, and haverecurred repeatedly over the past century “when two different demographics collide because one (the younger) has established a value system that is fundamentally different than the other (the older).”

It remains the case that the majority of faculty, and not just the most senior professors, increasingly differ in background, formative life experiences, and frequently in value orientations from their students.  

One side-effect:  A mounting sense of generational hostility that sometimes makes its way into the college classroom. We can see this in disputes over language, values, behavior, and identity that, at times, flare over perceived generational differences sometimes intensified by demographic and cultural dissimilarities. To further complicate matters, our classrooms are, increasingly, multigenerational, consisting not simply of older instructors and traditional aged college undergraduates, but a wide variety of students with very different backgrounds, life experiences, outlooks, and aspirations.

How can instructors bridge intergenerational gaps and create more generationally inclusive classes?  The communication scholar Bruce Bryski offers some concrete suggestions:

1. Learn as much as you can about your students’ attitudes and values.

2. Identify and combat generational stereotypes and misperceptions.

3. Openly acknowledge and discuss generational differences.

4. Recognize the way that your life experiences and cultural reference points differ from your students'.

Then there’s what not to do:

  • Don’t condescend.
    Be careful not to patronize or talk down to our students with off-putting and inappropriate comparisons about the challenges that the instructor’s generation faced and overcame.
  • Be careful of offering inapt advice.
    Recognize that social and economic realities have undergone profound transformations, and advice that might have been appropriate in the past may now be utterly misguided.
  • Don’t close your eyes to your students’ concerns.
    It’s a big mistake to discount or dismiss anxieties and apprehensions that might strike you as transitory or trivial or inflated.

I am certainly not the only one to wonder whether the pandemic will define the lives and outlook of younger Americans in the way that the Great Depression did, or whether it will be more like 9/11 – an awful, aching trauma that – for those who didn’t lose loved ones – faded with time.  

If the pandemic’s impact persists, however, it won’t be simply because of COVID, but the confluence of developments, including wrenching demographic changes, the reckoning with racial inequities, debates over the very meaning of gender and sexual identity, deepening stratification along lines of education and socio-economic class, and shifting patterns of economic opportunity that have helped color our students’ identities.

When we speak of inclusive classrooms, don’t limit your attention to differences rooted in gender, ethnicity, race, class, sexuality, and religion.  Generational differences matter too.

Those of us who are older have a special responsibility to attend to the challenges that our students confront and do all we can to produce truly inclusive intergenerational cultures within our classrooms.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Steven Mintz
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