There is a 2015 article by Jeff Selingo just linked by David Foster below. 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. Memory research is unambiguous on this point.) 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 whoever. 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 were 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.

10 thoughts on “Millennials”

  1. Yeah, individual differences probably outweigh generational differences; still, there are general characteristics that generations tend to have on the average as a result of life experiences. I think the tendency toward spending increasingly-long amounts of time in school…kindergarten thru grad school…probably has had an averse effect on ambiguity tolerance. Obsessive use of social media certainly differs across generations, though it’s not clear whether this plays a part in ambiguity tolerance or lack thereof.

  2. I don’t think it’s so much a lack of tolerance for ambiguity as it is fear of making a mistake. Let me explain.

    Until about two years ago I taught first-year law students for nearly 25 years. Most of the point of the first year of law school is learning to spot issues and analyze both sides thoroughly. Hypotheticals in class, more in-depth assignments, and exam questions are all typically structured so that there is no “correct” answer. The only thing that matters is the quality of the analysis of the possible answers. (Students for years have grimly joked that the answer to every question in law school is, “It depends.”)

    Starting about five years before I retired, I noticed that a sizeable propotion of students were absolutely terrified by this approach to teaching. They were among the best and brightest in the country and they’d gotten to where they were by always choosing the right answer (best school? best course? best extra-curriculars? best major?). When finally confronted by a situation in which that wasn’t a viable stategy, they were virtually paralyzed. They couldn’t even start the analytical process because their first attempt would invariably be questioned by the instructor. It would take me most of a semester to convince them that nothing really bad would happen if you made a mistake and that this was how you learned to think beyond a superficial analysis.

    I felt terribly sorry for them. Imagine how sterile your life would be if you were that afraid to make a mistake.

  3. Migratorious…..I’ve seen similar comments from others in academia. Likely, the emphasis on “getting into a good college” is so strong in high school and even earlier that kids are terrified of doing anything non-approved and ruining their futures.

  4. Lack of acceptance of complexity combined with fear of being judgemental may be a bad combination.

  5. It may be because, to some extent, that we moved away from ‘written answer’ exams to ‘multiple choice’ exams where ever we could, as its easier on the examiner.

    That creates a situation where there are only wrong and right answers. People used to getting high marks on these exams, develop ways to maximize their success at getting the right answer. Then the ‘right answer’ becomes the whole ball game, and uncertainty is not dealt with in any useful manner.

  6. I see absolute thinking as more a result of mental illness, or a symptom of it. Depression lies and tells you you will feel this way forever, as does anxiety. Some therapists build this into their approach. “You are having a period of depression. You have had these before. They have a beginning, a middle, and and end. Right now you are in the middle. What can you do to either endure the middle, or get nearer to the end?”

  7. Jonathan, I love that video and have a link on my blog so I can find it.

    It is great satire except I’m not sure it is satire.

    My experience with people that age, and that is why I am still working, is with kids joining the military.

    I expect they are very different psychologically.

    I had an applicant yesterday who has a BS in Geography and who is joining the Air National Guard after have served an enlistment in the Army including a tour in Afghanistan. I asked him why he had not been an officer. He said he was thinking about it in the ANG but in the Army he just wasn’t interested.

    We talked about how interesting Geography could be and how it was used in medical research.

    He is working as a pool maintenance guy and likes it.

    A very interesting young man.

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