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The Millenial Student and Technology: Insatiable Quest or Part of a Reliable Pattern of History?

November 17-18, 2006
University of the Sacred Heart and the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Myna German, Chairperson, Department of Mass Communications, Delaware State University


If we look at history—personal history—as the cycling and re-cycling of generations, set patterns emerge. At any given time, four-to-five generations tend to populate the planet. At the moment, we “baby boomers” (born 1946-1964) have as parents the aging GIs (born 1901-1924). My parents were born in 1918 and 1923; my father fought in World War II. After the Axis surrender in 1945, he came home, met and married my mother in 1949. World War II shaped his life and that of his fellow immigrants and Americanized them, made them into a formidable age cohort.

After the War, this group bought houses in unison, had children in unison, retired around 1988 in unison and were most noted for a remarkable conformity (Strauss & Howe, 1991). The children of the GIs are the “baby-boomers.” The boomers’ children are the millennial generation, born 1980 to 1994. They are remarkably similar to the GIs in group temperament, ingenuity and outlook.

Together we are strong and can do anything, Millennials believe. They have great team spirit. We can rebuild the world. Unfortunately, historically wars have come about when this generation comes of age in their 20s. World War II broke out when my father was 24; I shudder to think what the world will look like with all the regional conflicts when my eighteen-year old-son graduates college four years from now.

Apart from the “baby-boomers” and my son’s “millennial group” (he was born in 1988) live two generations: the “silent” generation, so-named because they had to silently sit at home while their older brothers fought World War II; and Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980 (Strauss & Howe, 1991). The “silent generation” are the parents of Generation X (Strauss & Howe, 1991).


Background on the Generations
The generations that sandwich each other can be very judgmental. A point of pride with many GIs is that they “don’t do e-mail.” My friends in the “silent generation,” whether 65 or 70, do e-mail. The “peer personality” of your generation and how it interacts with those before and after provides a human dimension to history.

As we look at the “millennial generation,” a distinguishing characteristic is how they view technology. An exploratory study at our university found that students rate courses higher that employ new technology. In terms of course evaluations, professors who score highly on questions relating to use of technology in the classroom consistently rate higher on overall course effectiveness than instructors who are evaluated poorly on class technology.


The Generations and Technological Progress
“Millennial students”—cyber-students—are demanding an electronically-charged classroom. Students expect the University to offer the same level of technology as the home. Anything less than a wireless atmosphere duplicating the homes left behind is considered archaic and a negative quality in University marketing. If students believe the University is behind-the-times technologically, they may believe it is backwards in other ways in the creation of knowledge.

The generations repeat themselves in their outlook every four generations (Strauss & Howe, 1991). The GIs are rationalist and orderly; so are the millennials. Computerization represents the rationalist mindset. The GIs came of age in a time of emergency, World War II breaking out; the “millennials” are living in the post-9-11 world where crisis always seems like it’s around the corner. By comparison, the “silent generation” came of age in the 1950s when domestic calm was a reality; Generation X came of age in the post-Vietnam 1970s, a time of relative quiet.

The GI generation is called a “civic” generation (Strauss & Howe 1990:35), as are the “millennials.” They rebuild the “outer world of technology and institutions” (p35). The “silent generation” is “reactive,” checking the excesses of their more public neighbors, the GIs. Generations can be proactive or reactive. The proactive generations want to change the world; the reactive generations just want to survive.

How does the computer-savvy mindset of the “millennials” reflect the proactive mentality? The television, a more passive device, became popular in the 1950s when the “silent generation” came of age. This meant in their early twenties, they watched “American Bandstand” and “I Love Lucy.”

The television was actually invented in 1927 by Philo Farnsworth; that is the date when the U.S.Patent office issued the patent (Landon, 2006). It went into mass production after World War II when electronics factories from the War were dormant and were converted into producers of this invention. Only the most innovative in the GI generation had television sets immediately after the War; it was the “silent” group that in their youth became interested in television in a massive way, making it part of their youth culture.

The Internet, which spawned the PC revolution was first invented by the U.S. Defense Department in the 1980s, when Generation X were teenagers; however, it was the “millennials,” a pro-active generation, who knew it from birth and adapted it from the time of age three. For the millennials, computerization is as basic as water or the air we breathe.

The millenials worship the computer; hence they expect their instructor to deliver computer-based learning. A “star” professor has to arrive with animated clips, Powerpoints, computer-video to have celebrity status on-campus. A lecture with just talking-heads, as they used to be called in the TV-news business, is considered behind-the-times.

According to Strauss & Howe (1991: p76) a “crisis era” exists when civics come of age, opening with growing collective unity in the face of perceived social peril and culminating when the danger is overcome and a new set of ideals triumph. While the Woodstock generation of the “baby boomers” pondered the inner world (p342), the Millennials were raised to achieve and excel in the outer world.

While “boomers” saw computers as a “force for social individuation,” Millennials sees them as a “force for social homogenization” (Strauss & Howe 1991: 419). A team spirit pervades the cyber-student. While their parents were the “baby boomers” who went to Woodstock in the 1960s and became the “me” generation in the 1970s, the Millennials see computer networks as making them all the same. The technology is the same; the use is different from their parents. Individuation is not a key phrase for this group—they would like nothing better than to wear uniforms to school, be like everyone else, have the same i-pod as their friends, and watch the same shows.

How Are Millennials Different in Their View of Progress?

What do they want in the classroom? Entertainment. This generation wants to be spoon-fed their entertainment in the classroom rather than have to dig and ferret out truth. That is part and parcel of their learning style. While the baby-boomers were concerned with their quasi-religious quest, their search for the Holy Grail (which led them to Woodstock), this group’s Grail or mantra is the computer. The machine will talk to them, make them feel cozy, provide the social links that the “boomers” found in-person through the collective-gathering. This generation’s idea of face-time is meeting online in front of a screen tube and cultivating relationships that way; hence, the proliferation of and online services.

An important difference of theirs from the GI group—both civic generations—is their view of globalization. The American GIs fought against the Germans and the Japanese; hence they have a more xenophobic, avoidant view of “foreigners.” There are some people who would not buy a German car after WWII, remembering the Germans as the cause of WWII. Contrast this with a young millennial who finds a girl in another country over the Net or buddies engaged in the same pastime such as “Fantasy Baseball” in India, China, and Japan. They become instant friends and start instant-messaging, e-mailing, and may even meet some day. As we all know, the Internet has no international boundaries.

By the time a student comes to college, he may have corresponded with his new roommate in real-time from India, China, or Japan hence the relaxing of international boundaries. The GIs invention when they came home from the War, their pastime was watching the newly-created television which did not have the same interactive capability, coming on the scene in 1947. By the 1950s, America experienced the Cold War and the McCarthy era, which had a distinctively anti-foreign twinge. Hence, the environment surrounding the television set was distinctively American; the environment surrounding the Internet is distinctively international.

This is a major difference between the GIs, whom the Millennials supposedly reflect, and that generation, as it reflects a national versus international outlook. Millennials are seen as upbeat and engaged (Strauss & Howe, 2000: 4), and this is reflected in their electronic-use profile.

Comparing electronic devices from the “Boomer” childhood, one must look at broadcast TV, 8mm film, 78s, and LPS. In the Generation X childhood, 1965-85, preferred devices were cable TV, VCRs, cassettes, and CDs. The Millennials’ childhood is peppered with interactive TV, streaming and MP3s, DVDs, microchips, and personal computers (Strauss & Howe, 2000, 49). ) A key characteristic of the Millennial childhood is diversity, with immigration rates rising from the time of the “boomer” childhood. This is a major difference.

When the boomers were young, suburbs were very white and homogeneous; immigration was very much a non-issue outside the largest cities. The Millennials, even in the smallest towns, are familiar with immigrants from other cultures. But now the Net has introduced them to other cultures and it is part of their everyday life. As of 2000, only 2.4 million Millennials, or 3.5 percent of the entire generation, are themselves immigrants. But some 14 million Millennials are the children of immigrants, mostly Generation Xers.

That number has grown by half since 1990—and now accounts for 20% of the entire generation. More Millennials can be expected to immigrate to the US in future decades, but Generation X will remain the largest first-generation immigrant cohort group of its time. Unlike Baby Boomers (Strauss & Howe, 2000: 85) it is very common for Millennials to live in “mixed status” households where at least one parent is not a U.S. citizen.

Technology has shaped the Millennial view of culture as distinctly international and diverse. The Internet introduced this generation to a world without borders, but younger millennials are actually born to Generation X-ers and hence the diversity within the millennial world. Technology actually prepared them for the diversity they encounter in everyday life. (Strauss & Howe, 2000).

Millennials are growing up as familiar with computers as boomers were with television. In fact, more teens say they can live without a television (28%) than without a computer (23%) (Strauss & Howe, 2000: 73). Technological progress, a liberating force for boomers and a diversifying force for Generation Xers, is serving a unifying purpose for today’s teens.


There is no doubt about it. We are witnessing Global Millennials, and with the Internet there is a striking similarity between this age group in all cultures. They unite by using what they know best—technology. Go to any Olympics and the children of newscasters/guests will all be there and they are all involved with the same device—the Ipod. At a previous Winter Olympics, what united the worldwide young guests was GameBoy. Millennial youth go for tangible results, not just gestures and feelings (Strauss & Howe: 2000: 317).

As this outlook pertains to educating the next generation,

Students view professors’ performance higher if they use up-to-date technology in a “halo” effect

They demand the same level of technology at the University as in the home

If they think the University is behind in technology, they believe it behind in the creation of knowledge, as for this generation, technology = knowledge

Millennial students value ingenuity and progress. However, their most striking characteristic is a team spirit reminiscent of the GIs. Colleges need to adapt to this spirit, which still recognizes competitiveness, but it is international versus regional. Immigration patterns and technology have created a globalization of Millennial culture. This globalization is now reflected in global student recruiting, but overall it could be positive for creation of knowledge in the United States, while recognizing world diversity.

Strauss, William & Neil Howe. Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1991.

—————The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.

———-Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books, 2000. The Birth of Television, adapted by Hal Landen, accessed 11-7-01.

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