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The Millenial Generation: Who Cares?

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

Patricia M. Carey, Assistant Provost for Scholarship Initiatives, New York University

 

Just a simple inflection can change the meaning of these words, the millennial generation, who cares? — in other words, who actually cares about this generation; the millennial generation, who cares? — in other words, knowing who they are, they can’t possibly care about anything but themselves; the millennial generation, who cares — a declarative statement about one of this generation’s resonating characteristic. And it’s this characteristic that we affirm in our conversation with you today, the millennial generation who cares.

How can that be, you might ask, if, we accept Thomas Benton’s (2006) notion that the millennial generation, today’s college students, are guilty of the 7 deadly sins we read about in Christian thought (and, as well, in other religious thought).

We hear again and again that the millennial generation walks with pride – of achievement, empowerment, and, with a yes-I-can attitude. That’s good, but again, depending on where the emphasis lies, pride can convey an attitude of “I’m ok, you are not. I am somebody; you are not” (p. 2). When it does, pride goeth before a fall and moves in with the other 6 deadly sins Benton suggests as being characteristic of today’s students: sloth; greed; anger; lust; gluttony; and envy (p.2). Consider these examples, which are, by no means, exhaustive.

Why not make a deal with myself? I can complete this homework assignment after I watch my favorite show (or after my nap). Put off now what I can do later. That’s procrastination, which at its extreme, is sloth.

Success is measured by material things, and I want as much as I can get. My degree will help, so, to earn it, if I have to cheat a little to get good grades, well, then, I will. I will copy, cut, and paste. That’s greed.

Bob Herbert (2006), in his column in the New York Times, While Iraq Burns, quotes a student as saying that most of his classmates don’t even think about the war. They’re more concerned with what grade they got on yesterday’s test (p. A23). Grades? Selfishness? Greed?

Don’t my professors know how hard this work is? I’m paying their salaries and they should be helping me. Just wait until my professor sees my evaluation of him on ratemyprofessor.com, I’ll show him! That’s anger at having to put effort into earning the “A” that he/she thinks they deserve.

Lust? What should I wear to statistics today? It’s a big class and I really want him to notice me. I wonder if he saw that picture of me on Facebook, the one with all the comments about how hot I look?

Gluttony. Why do students bring lunch to class – or sit on public transportation, glomming down a Mcdonald’s, including fries, supersized, with 2 apple pies on the side, or walk down the street, head back, trying to slurp down a bowl of noodles? When did it become fashionable to carry coffee or a bottle of water or anything else eatable or drinkable as part of what one’s carries whereever?

Listen to her, trying to impress the professor, like she’s so brilliant. I hate her. I can’t see why she should get an “A” and not me. It’s not like she earned it and I know I deserve it. That’s envy. Envy, too, comes through when we hear Why do we always have to talk about those people and what they need. What about me?

These are some of the ways the deadly sins Benton talks about manifest themselves – in- and outside of the classroom.

***

Returning to my initial question, if today’s college students are guilty of these deadly sins, how is it that this writer is now suggesting that the millennial generation cares about anything or anybody but themselves?

Benton (2006) sees atonement in the liberal arts. The liberal arts takes students into the larger world and provides an antidote for combating the 7 deadly sins with 7 contrary virtues – diligence, generosity, patience, chastity, moderation, contentment and humility (p. 2). “A liberal arts education is not about acquiring wealth and opportunities to further indulge one’s desires. Nor is it about cultivating in students an insular, idolatrous view of their nation, ethnic group, gender, or religion…it is about recognition, ultimately, of how little one really knows, or can know…a liberal arts education, most of all, fights unmerited pride by asking students to recognize the smallness of their ambitions in the context of human history” (p. 2).

Sinful, yes, but we certainly have not written off this generation as hopeless. So let’s not stop there. Every generation has been accused of something, probably the same 7 deadly sins, since, for some, they describe the human condition. It’s no surprise that at this stage of development, students are caught between idealism and self-preoccupation. It is also no surprise that every generation has atoned, and in so doing, finds its purpose.

I wanted to further test this notion in a particular way by asking if the millennial generation is to repent, the liberal arts not withstanding, what will it have found one of its purposes to be? What will be its legacy? My generation, and perhaps yours, marched for civil rights, for women’s rights, against the Vietnam war, for social justice and gender equality. These are the things we cared about and for which we fought. I am not sure that this generation can imagine being hosed down, spat upon, dragged to jail for these causes – because in their world, we have always been free, free to choose, free to be. Nor can they imagine themselves as missionaries, proselytizing, somewhere, far away, to save “poor souls.” Instead, they tell us that they vote, and that community service is how they are helping to change the lives of others, and one of the critical ways they are saving the world.

To answer my question, I looked at a large urban institution’s response to Hurricane Katrina, talking with undergraduate students, administrators and faculty. And while many initiatives at the University were planned by administrators and faculty, it was obvious that students joined in as partners in caring. The millennial generation energetically embraced their peers. They studied together, and engaged with one another, in- and outside the classroom.

Students from colleges affected by Katrina enrolled as special students; their tuition was forwarded to their home colleges.

Katrina students were welcomed into their new academic community with orientation sessions, ongoing social and cultural activities, counseling and student services.

University faculties and administrators reached out to their counterparts, offering various kinds of professoriate and administrative assistance.

Further, University students here have established connections with other organizational efforts to help rebuild New Orleans, during their summer and semester breaks. On campus, they continue to sponsor book drives and fundraising activities.

***

Why have you been involved?, I asked one of my students. It’s too hypocritical not to be — with my pseudo-revolutionary stance. It is not enough to go to college. I was poor and never saw black professionals growing up. It’s important to help the community, to talk to each other. Katrina was one of my first opportunities, one of the first huge crises. Yes, we saw government corruption. But there was something that we could actually do. So many of us could make a difference. Nyle describes his experience of living for a week with 149 people in a school in new orleans, helping to gut houses. I made a promise I’d go down to help. It was a mind-blowing experience. I wrote a song, making it concrete…

Sounds like a millennial who cares, who possesses a sense of integrity and responsibility, doesn’t it?

Emmanuel said my job grows out of community service…I’m trying to improve the world one person at a time…it feels more manageable. Huge causes, huge moments bring people together, but now, we’re more independent, we have choices, we can decide where and how we’re going to change the world. We are free to ask how much do I sacrifice to make a difference?. Is it worth what I’m giving up? If you care about something, you’re going to do something about it.

Kristin said when there’s something people can agree on, that people need help…Katrina represents that. Visible, national tragedy. I want to help. Katrina was very visible, very concrete. People feel a tie, a connection and want to help. It takes some tragedy to bring us together. People also are confused but want to know; they are curious to find out what happened; they want to understand why things happen the way they do. Not until it was “destroyed” did we act. Whenever a celebrity is attached to something, we latch on – these famous people are doing something so maybe I should help. This generation lives in a visual culture, and wants to be connected. They emulate their role models. If this star can, I can, too, they say.

How do you characterize your generation? I asked. Kristin offered that every generation has the previous generation’s influence. The previous generation identified, discovered what this generation uses, e.g. ipods, internet, etc.

It’s alright to find a label, Emmanuel added, but don’t get lost on the form. We seem to be more stereotyped. What do these stereotypes mean anyway?

Nyle said that depending on causes and resources available, not so much generational. People put us all in one pot, but we are different.

What do you suppose the next generation will be like? I asked. A lot more impersonal and scarier, Kristin responded. Electronics are bringing people together, but not always in a positive way, like Myspace, Reality TV. The next generation, too, will be technologically involved, discovering information previous generations never had access to.

***

The millennial generation is concerned; they are involved. I want to think that community service, like the liberal arts, is another antidote for this generation’s sins. Like the liberal arts, community service exposes students to a larger world, helps to snap them out of their own self-preoccupation to a close-up of societal issues that today’s students want to do something about. They can practice citizenship, and put their political values to action (millennialpolitics.com).

***

Listen to Nyle Emerson’s RELIEF (POEM)

RELIEF

Nyle Emerson

In the sixties, it was risky for teens

To travel down south and march towards a king’s dream.

But those kids knew, that if they didn’t fight

They couldn’t protect their kids from livin’ the same life.

Parents protested,

They were used to oppression, and useless aggression

But had too much invested, in their kids’ lives for them to be arrested,

Beaten, bitten, molested

Hosed down and abused.

Just to be used

In shocking footage viewed on the news.

And nowadays those very same airways play

People powerless against the powers that be.

From police brutality, to incidental casualties,

Sending off the cavalry to wars based on fallacies,

Fatalities and African infant mortality.

Isn’t deducted from the Presidential salaries.

So those elderly teens that once marched now ask,

Does anyone?

Does anyone

Have something to say?

But see to them its just “the old days “ but to people our age it’s a world away

In this day and age, where revolution’s worn on the sleeve

Of a Che Guevara tee, listenin’ to Talib Kweli.

See transgression is more than just a trendy way to rebel.

And race relations is more than just watching Dave Chappelle.

We go down south for the same reasons the Jews joined in

To the Civil Rights marches on the mall in Washington.

We go to show old folks who want to pass the torch

That the flame is still burning,

And we shall go forth.

(Nyle Emerson © 2006. Used by permission)

References

Benton, Thomas (2006). The 7 Deadly Sins of Students. The Chronicle of Higher Education: Chronical Careers, 52, 32, C1-3.

Bock, Wally (2006). The Millennial Generation. Monday Memo. http://www.mondaymemo.net/010702feature.htm.

Herbert,Bob (2006). While Iraq Burns. New York Times, November 27, A23.

Sandfort, M. & Haworth, J. (2006). Whatssup? A Glimpse Into the Attitiudes and Beliefs of the Millennial Generation. Journal of College and Character, 2. http://www.collegevalues.org.

Strauss, W. & Howe, N. (2004). Millennials Rising: The Next Generation. New York: Vintage Press.

Conversations with New York University Undergraduate Students:
Kristin Sheridan, Senior, Social Studies Education
Emmanuel Moses, Senior, English Education
Nyle Emerson, Sophomore, Instrumental Music

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