The Staggering Ways America Is Rigged to Traumatize and Impoverish Kids Coming Out of College

October 8, 2015 | By Sophia A. McClennen

In a recent issue of Psychology Today, Peter Gray joined the chorus of Millennial-bashers, making the case that college kids lack "resilience." He says that more college students depend on counseling services and offers up anecdotes of woefully pathetic kids. The basic gist of the piece — common to this genre of article — is that society is doomed because young people can't handle "everyday" challenges. 

Other commentators have been all too happy to bash Millennials. In fact, everywhere Millennials turn they are told that they’re lazy, entitled, narcissistic and clueless. They have even been called “the lamest generation.”

This conclusion is wrong, and it's damaging.  

When critics accuse Millennials of lacking resilience, they fail to appreciate the very real pressures young people face. This line of argument is especially damaging because it transforms major public issues into a problem of character. Blaming "helicopter" parents and an "overprotective" society for failing to inculcate kids with coping skills misses the point. Young people do live in a helicopter society, but the helicopters that ominously hover over them are much larger socioeconomic forces that threaten their safety and success. They live in a world that is fundamentally hostile to their future.

Gray’s argument goes like this: parents have not allowed children as much time to freely play and explore, and this reduction in time for adventure has produced fearful, coddled losers who can’t cope in the world. He claims parents have solved their kids’ problems, leaving them unable to deal with everyday challenges without calling mommy — or, if in college, a counselor or faculty member — to figure things out for them.

Some of this should come as no surprise. Older generations have always demonized the young. Generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe remind us that at the outset of World War II, army psychiatrists complained that their GI “recruits had been ‘over-mothered’ in the years before the war.” According to Russell Dalton, the younger generation is constantly blamed for all that is wrong in our nation. He explains that Millennials may be the most denounced generation ever.

The thing is, though, these attacks are unfounded. Sure, it may well be true that counseling services are used more frequently on campus. But for some reason, it never occurs to Gray that students’ need for support make sense. He tells of “a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a ‘bitch’ and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment.” Gray never considers, as would many mental health professionals, the possibility that the reaction to the mouse and the name-calling are symptoms of a deep anxiety that may be well-founded rather than a product of immature hysteria.  

In contrast, I’d suggest that students are anxious and depressed for a range of good reasons. Millennials have inherited one of the most difficult social situations to face a generation of college students in decades. Let’s look at some facts:

  • About one-third of college students are first-generation American. This means that many of their parents might be limited in their ability to give them advice on college life in the United States, since they have no direct experience. It is also important to note that 60 percent of these students do not complete their degree.
  • Forty-three percent of Millennials are of color. This is the most diverse generation in U.S. history. While college campuses attempt to attract a diverse student body, students of color often find a lack of inclusion and support once they arrive. It’s also worth noting that 79 percent of faculty are white, a factor that researchers suggest can influence the success of non-white students.
  • Approximately 25 percent of Millennials were raised by single parents. And about 66 percent of single moms work outside the home — a factor that greatly limits a parent’s ability to solve a child’s problems for him or her.
  • Twenty-six percent of undergraduates are raising dependent children.
  • There are twice as many openly LGBT students on college campuses than there were in 2011. A recent study shows that this group suffers disproportionate sexual harassment (73 percent ) and violence (44 percent).
  • One in five women is sexually assaulted in college.
  • Many students face food insecurity. Hunger among college students is on the rise: 121 college campuses have food banks for students and, in one example, 60 percent of students at Western Oregon University reported suffering from hunger and poor nutrition.
  • About 4 percent of all undergraduates are veterans or military service members. Statistics show that this population has higher rates of mental disorders.
  • Eleven percent of college students have learning disabilities — a reality that would make coping with college workloads naturally more challenging.
  • Thirty to 40 percent of all graduates have double majors, a trend designed to offer students more job prospects, and one that also brings with it far more stress as students have to overload to complete their degrees. (I have one student this term enrolled in 28 credits so that she can graduate on time.)
  • Seventy percent of college students have school debt and the average owed is $28,400. The total amount of student debt today is $1.2 trillion.
  • Eighty percent of students work part-time while in college and 18 percent pay their way through college. Twenty percent  of working students work 35 hours a week or more.
  • Only 22 percent of college students get their bills paid by their parents. Sixty-two percent of students manage a budget.
  • Millennials account for 40 percent of the nation’s unemployed. If they do have jobs, they earn less than the nation’s median income as compared to those of the same age a decade ago.
  • When they do get meaningful work, they toil away at unpaid internships that may never become full-time job offers.

These statistics belie the argument that this generation's biggest problem is overattentive parenting. But it’s worse than that: most of the arguments that charge Millennials with being coddled are based on anecdotes that really only refer to a highly select segment of Millennials who might be coddled by their parents — let’s call them the “1 percent” of Millennials.

Despite the hype, a 2012 APA study found that only 12 percent — at most — of college students consult counseling services. Given the reality-based stresses so many college students face, we might conclude that today’s students are potentially the most resilient generation we have seen in decades.  

Even though they inherit a tough economy, a fractured political system, and a news media dominated by hype and fear, today’s young adults remain overwhelmingly optimistic.  

They might suffer from depression and anxiety, but they also have a strong positive attitude. They vote in record numbers. They volunteer more than any other generation. They value many of the same things older generations do, like being a good parent and having a home. They prefer to buy from companies that support social issues.  A 2010 Pew research study characterized them as “confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change.”

But here’s the real problem. Aside from being the most unfairly demonized generation of young people in decades and inheriting a world in crisis, Millennials have been raised in an era of neoliberalism. Think about it. The most significant social change to face this nation in the last 25 years is the shift towards a neoliberal, market-oriented society. If anything, the rise of the “helicopter parent” is a direct consequence of the fear-based, competitive society that neoliberalism fosters. The move to neoliberalism meant the complete retreat from our social contract. We began to speak of “entitlements” over social “security,” we've vilified people who need help as "welfare queens," and we substituted high-stakes testing for teacher support. Neoliberalism is more than a market economy; it's an ideology and social practice that refuses social obligation to others, including our youth.

Neoliberalism has brought about not just a ruthless economy that privileges the 1 percent, it has also ushered in a way of life that threatens notions like the common good. It destroys a sense of care and compassion. It is an ideology that believes all problems are personal and that if you are in crisis it's your fault (or your parents’). It is the ideology of those like Donald Trump, who advocate a cutthroat, cruel, survival-of-the-fittest world governed by market principles.   

As Zygmunt Bauman puts it, “The plight of being outcast may stretch to embrace a whole generation.” There now seems conclusive evidence that the millennial generation will suffer the hardships of neoliberalism at a rate that far exceeds that of older generations.

One of the key consequences of neoliberalism, as Henry Giroux explains, is the privatization of all problems. We see not just the privatization of public services, but also a tendency to explain social crises as personal problems. According to neoliberal logic, students clamoring for counseling are a consequence of overprotective parents. Millenial-bashers like Gray pin the blame on parents for not giving kids the freedom to play, learn and grow. But no amount of independent play is going to fix the economy or the broader social ideology these kids inherit. 

It's never just personal. Paul Verhaege writes in the Guardian that “[w]e tend to perceive our identities as stable and largely separate from outside forces. But over decades of research and therapeutic practice, I have become convinced that economic change is having a profound effect not only on our values but also on our personalities. Thirty years of neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatisation have taken their toll, as relentless pressure to achieve has become normative.”

When you buy into the logic that the problem is in the home or in the classroom or in the student's mind, you neglect the link between individual problems and a socio-economic process that puts extreme pressure on individuals. Furthermore, "just toughen up" mantras are eroding our ability to support and strengthen the younger generation. The young live in a tough world, and when they crack, we tell them they are needy.

Rather than support students, we now have what Giroux describes as a society that governs youth “through a logic of punishment, surveillance, and control.” Our schools are filled with security cameras, metal detectors and other forms of surveillance. This is a system that arrests kids who build clocks and that shoots young black men wearing hoodies and holding Skittles. Nearly half of black males and 40 percent of white males have been arrested by the age of 23. That is the real “helicopter society” that Millennials have been raised in.

Only 19 percent of Millennials agreed with the statement "most people can be trusted." Eighty-three percent of Millennials agreed with the statement "there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies.” Nearly half of Millennials believe the U.S. justice system is unfair. They are acutely aware of the fact that the system is stacked against them. Make no mistake: Millennial bashers are part of that same system.  

If we really care about the mental health of today’s college students, then we need to start rejecting the narratives that blame them for feeling the social stresses they have inherited. And, if we really, really care, we will stop sharing memes about self-involved students that don’t read the syllabus; we will stop complaining about how young people are needy and lame; and we will start finding meaningful ways to work with them to improve the society we share.