A Catered Generation?
July 20, 2006
America, take a good look at the freshman class hitting college campuses this fall. According to some who study generational cycles, what we are witnessing is the rise of the next Hero generation. An echo of their World War II-era grandparents, the so-called Millennials, born after 1981, are being hailed as the promise generation, history makers who will define the new century.
There’s just one problem: At the moment, this is a generation that lacks the common sense to stay off deadly train tracks or campus rivers when they’re icy. A generation that can’t seem to make decisions without texting home, and whose helicopter parents—so named for their hovering ways—have actually begun negotiating salaries with job recruiters on their kids’ behalf.
Faced with the most-chaperoned, play-dated generation in memory, as the Globe’s Marcella Bombardieri found, colleges are rolling out increasingly elaborate orientation programs. Having long taken for granted a basic set of life skills, schools are having to spell out such dos and don’ts as Boston University’s: Don’t try to cross the icy Charles River in winter.
Of course, catering to Millennials also means answering to their parents. A University of South Carolina official tells of a mother asking that her photo appear on her child’s student ID card. “Because anytime there is a problem, I’m going to be dealing with it.”
The news isn’t all bad. The baby-on-board generation has benefited from a dramatic shift toward child safety and parental nurturing. In response, they are also making some smart decisions: Smoking, suicide, and teen pregnancy and abortion are all down. In their outlook they are the anti-Gen-Xers: They tend to be law-abiders who believe in institutions, whether their family or the government. All in all, it’s a relentlessly upbeat crowd, say Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book, “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.”
But it’s easy to be optimistic when you’ve never been allowed to fail, when every kid at a swim meet has to win something, and making children feel good becomes as important as ensuring that they do well. It’s easy to have a can-do spirit when you’ve been insulated from the ordinary risks of childhood. As Howe put it, “This isn’t a generation of kids who went wandering in backyards and empty lots and thought of things to play. All their activity was prepared for them.”
And that’s the problem: Life is not a supervised activity. If those in this group are to fill their grandparents’ shoes, they can’t continue to be coddled at an age when their grandparents were fighting wars. D-day didn’t come with a handbook. Parents, and colleges for that matter, would do well to do less catering and let their very old kids finally become adults.