Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Millennials

I watched 60 Minutes last week, which had a segment on the Millennials—those people born between 1980 and 1995. Those kids are now my students, and I recognized many of the characteristics they discussed in them—that they grew up believing they were special just because they exist, that you can’t shame them or boss them into doing something—you have to coach them, and the one that struck me, that they stay home longer, go home after college and have no embarrassment about it or see any problem with it. And that got me thinking—how am I different from these kids? I’m the very tail end of the baby boomers having been born in late 1964, and I do exemplify most of their characteristics—hard-working, independent, educated, and materialistic. I think we all share the educated and materialistic parts, but I’m not so sure about the rest.

I was stunned a few years ago as I realized that my graduating seniors had given little or no time to finding jobs—many hadn’t even written a resume yet. I panicked. “Oh my God! What are you going to do?” But they were, all of them, unperturbed and didn’t seem to understand my reaction at all. “I’m going home,” they said, or “I’m going to work for awhile longer at Penney’s (or All-tel or as a receptionist or as a sales associate, etc.) while I figure out what I want to do.” Figure out what you want to do? Hadn’t you been thinking about that for the last, oh, three or four years? What about health insurance? What about your cell phone bill? What about your car payment? What about your car insurance?

I put it down as a phenomenon of the Writing major—students who tended to be creative and not always very practical. I am, after all, a linguist in the Writing Department and while I also teach writing, I don’t do much of it except on my job. (This is my first foray ever into the blogging world and besides this, I wrote one short story in college, and while that was fabulously wonderful, it’s gotten lost somewhere over the years.) But it isn’t just the Writing majors I found out from my friends across campus. It seems the more science-y types are still practical like me, but not the Philosophy majors nor the English majors or Spanish majors. It’s a generational thing.

So what bothers me about this? I thought at first that maybe I was jealous. Once I went off to school at 18, it was pretty much understood that while I could come back at Christmas break and over the summers, I was building my own life. Oh, it’s not that I couldn’t’ve come back if I wanted to; my parents just made sure that I wouldn’t want to. Not in a bad way. In fact, when I found myself on my own at 22, getting a divorce, my parents immediately offered their home and their money—they asked me to come live with them and they would pay for me to go to graduate school. Now that is a tempting offer. Living with my parents after being out of the house and having had my own house for a year isn’t at all the nightmare many of my generation might think. In fact, having my parents as roommates would have been great. They are very easy to get along with, don’t demand much other than doing my fair share of keeping up the house, cooking a bit, doing some laundry—all things I had been taught to do as a child. And they regularly partake of the cocktail hour and nightcaps, and they love to go out to dinner as much as I do—nice dinners. Plus, unlike other roommates I’ve had, they don’t play loud music, bring strangers home for the night or park their cars so I can’t get out. So going back to live with my parents at age 22 wasn’t a bad idea at all—except that it was. Doing that would have made me feel like a failure. Getting a divorce didn’t feel like a failure in the same way that living with the folks would have. I would have told myself it was a great deal, that it was only temporary, that there was nothing wrong with it, but I would have known there was something wrong with it—for me. Life has an order to it—you can have detours, like a divorce, but going back to the parents was going backwards, back to childhood, immaturity, inability to make sound decisions. OK, so you’re thinking getting a divorce at 22 isn’t proof of my inability to make sound decisions? That will have to be another blog, but no, my divorce wasn’t about poor decisions or immaturity.

So it isn’t jealousy that bothers me about my millennial students. What is it? I think they scare me. I think that these are the people coming up behind me (after Generation X and Y), who will be my colleagues in a few more years. They aren’t driven like I was, not motivated like I was. I fell into the materialism—it’s a by-product of wanting the intangibles that my profession gives me. The Millennials seem to think that money is a given for them because of their parents—they always had money so they always will, either by earning it themselves from employers who will be so grateful to have them or through their parents who will never let them want for anything as always. Do they have passion? Do they have a love for what they do?

60 Minutes says they do have passion; it’s just not so much for work. These students of mine want more than my generation got—and it isn’t about money. When you look at a professor’s life, many people only see what’s on paper—that I teach 4 classes a semester, that I teach 32 weeks a year and have the rest of the time off. What they don’t see is that I work 40 hours a week during the school year, preparing for class, reading for class, grading homework and tests and papers, going to meetings for the various committees, preparing for those various committee meetings, writing abstracts, preparing papers for conferences, preparing conference papers for publication, reading and researching, doing service work for the department, for the college, for the university, for the profession—get the picture? Being off for the summer is often a lot of prep time, a lot of research time, a lot of writing time. Sure, I sleep until 10:00 most days and work maybe just 4 hours on a given day—or maybe not at all. But if you boil it all down, I work an average of 40 hours a week, every week, with about six weeks off a year. The Millennials will insist on those six weeks off a year—and maybe more. Maybe 8 or 10 weeks off a year. And they’ll make more money than I ever did and they’ll work less. I bet they get better health care, better benefits, too. Lack of passion and drive? Maybe so for work, but not for what thy want, what they see as a better life than there parents had. Is it any wonder that they are not worried about that first or second or third job? They don’t see their parents as safety nets like I did, but as cushions for rest as they plan out their next move—on their terms. More power to them!

So what scares me? Perhaps that by the time they do make such an impact, I’ll be gone. I will not get to reap the benefit of their impact—and they will have an impact. What will the typical college look like in 30 years in their hands? I hope it isn’t relaxed to the point of mediocrity, but relaxed enough that they don’t have to feel the pressures and stresses that my generation did.