Millennials Struggle to Pass Life Skills 101

July 02, 2014 | By Neil Howe

This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.

According to the new book Beyond TextingMillennial teens are in dire need of guidance on face-to-face communication. It’s one among many life skills parents and educators believe could use polishing. In recent years, for example, a growing contingent has advocated for the return of mandated “home ec” and shop classes in schools.

Millennials are genuine achievers when it comes to structured classroom knowledge. Today, a record share of 25- to 29-year-olds possess degrees from four-year colleges (33%) and high schools (90%). The number who pass AP exams every year has more than quintupled over the past decade. On campuses, they take “smart” drugs to boost concentration—where older Boomers and Xers once took “dumb” drugs to mellow out.

But when it comes to basic life skills, let’s be honest: Older generations are often astonished by how little Millennials know. Consider cars. Young Boomers spent endless afternoons tooling around with their tie rods and carburetors. But today’s Millennials spend more time perfecting the trip playlist than ever looking under the hood—if they even know where the latch is. As Forbes columnist Larissa Faw reports, most Millennial drivers don’t know how to check their tire pressure and only half have read their car’s owner manual.

Cooking is another practical skill that has dropped by the wayside. According to a recent marketing report, Millennials are far more likely than older generations to order food from restaurants for delivery or carry out. They’re also driving the rise of “grocerants”: grocery stores that provide ready-made meals. Fully 78% of Millennials have purchased these prepared foods in the past 30 days, compared to 68% of Xers, 60% of Boomers, and 57% of Silent.

In fact, Millennials are unfamiliar with a broad range of life skills. They are less likely than older generations to know how to sew, make basic home repairs, or drive manual-transmission cars. With GPS always at their fingertips, many never really learned to use physical landmarks to guide them. Some can’t even imagine how people functioned before mobile IT. One Millennial wrote an article asking older people how they used to look up information, meet up with friends in public places, and handle getting lost without smartphones. A Boomer responded that he visited the library, scheduled meet-ups, and learned to read a road map.

Several factors have driven this drop in life skills. On one level, tech advances have rendered many of them obsolete—like penmanship and reading maps, for example. Constant access to the Internet also makes younger generations feel like they don’t need to know how to do certain things themselves. (I can always just look  it up or ask Siri.)

Generational traits are also contributing to this attitudinal shift. Millennials tend to trust “the system” and don’t mind relying on digital infrastructure for everything. Boomers and Xers are more likely to think that one day it might fail them. So they have backup plans. As one “modern survival” blogger put it in a post about the younger generation, if and when everything goes wrong, “there are so many that will just be so clueless. No common sense and no skills.”

The controversy over practical skills is related to a different debate over how Millennials’ constant technology use is changing the way they think. Some claim (see: The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans…) it is stunting their development and making them less creative. Others argue the opposite (see: Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter). Unquestionably, it is preparing them for a future in which more of us will be interfacing digitally with the world—whether we are pouring molten ore in a factory or flying stealth weapons in enemy airspace.

The replacement of sensory-analogue with command-digital feedback is changing these younger generations in ways that have yet to be fully explored. Older generations memorized facts, internalized spatial “maps,” and developed muscle memory for physical tasks. What will happen as Millennials and Homelanders grow increasingly removed from this type of learning? Will they lose an internal sense of space and geography? No one has truly sorted out the costs and benefits of this disembodiment.

To be sure, the disappearance of physical feedback is a question of degree. The march of technology is always distancing people from once-common physical experiences, like flipping a light switch instead of starting a fire. But the digital revolution has escalated this process dramatically.

Even Millennials themselves have qualms about it. Whether it’s joking that their generation wouldn’t survive a zombie apocalypse or signing up for collegiate “life skills” classes, young people are thirsty for lessons in the basics. One Minnesota high schooler recently argued that her curriculum should have included cooking, car repair, and budgeting. An emphasis on practical skills could even pay off in the workplace: The wages of high-skill, blue-collar positions are starting to rise rapidly.

Meanwhile, old-school physical activities and items have retained a retro-allure for the young. DIY and Pinterest culture is big among Millennial moms. Popular blogs like A Beautiful Mess and Young House Love share know-how on crafting, home improvement, and cooking. Millennials are also complementing their iTunes playlists with vinyl records and gathering after work to play board games. So Millennials aren’t letting themselves go entirely digital. They still enjoy doing some things by hand. Just don’t ask them to calculate the tip without a calculator.