Experiences Put Different Focus on Life for Millennial Generation

Last Updated: Jul. 2, 2014

February 28, 2004 | By Mary Pickett

Rocky Mountain College psychology professor Barbara Vail thought she was keeping up with new innovations in technology fairly well.

Still, she was caught off guard last spring when a student in one of her classes worked out a standard deviation on a calculator on her cell phone.

The ease with which students absorb ever-changing technology is just one common trait of the generation of students recently entering college.

Members of the millennial generation, as they are called, don’t remember a time without personal computers and just barely recall when the Internet wasn’t around. Cell phones, laptops and CD players are part of their wardrobe.

The millennials, young people who were born from about 1980 on, are different from previous generations, and colleges and universities are taking note.

One reason for that interest is that the 70 million millennials are the largest group of Americans ever, said Kim Woeste, campus pastor at Montana State University-Billings.

Brad Nason, vice president for student services at Rocky, is among college administrators who have been researching millennials.

Ascribing certain characteristics to a large generation of young people can be risky.

“You make broad generalizations at your own peril,” Nason said.

That being said, several dramatic events during this generation’s formative years have given them common experiences that may contribute to similar attitudes.

Millennials now entering adulthood grew up with the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995; the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999; and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in 2001.

One of the seminal books on the subject is “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” by Neil Howe and William Strauss (Vintage Books, 2000). According to Howe and Strauss, millennials are “more affluent, better educated and more ethnically diverse” than previous generations.

The authors think that millennials will dominate the 21st century like the “greatest generation”—those who matured during the Great Depression and won World War II—did the 20th century:

“They are beginning to manifest a wide array of positive social habits that older Americans no longer associate with youth, including a new focus on teamwork, achievement, modesty and good conduct.”

Howe and Strauss say that millennials:

  • Are optimistic.
  • Are cooperative team players.
  • Accept authority.
  • Are rule followers.
  • Have been more supervised and watched over during their childhood with more structured playtime.
  • Are smarter.
  • Believe in the future and see themselves as its cutting edge.

Those working with local college students say some of those characteristics fit.

Nason agrees that the current crop of students tends to be team-oriented.

With the boom in soccer and other team sports, many children have been part of a team and may start to play organized sports as young as 6 years old.

Nason also agrees that this generation is more likely to obey the rules.

Tell baby boomers not cross a line, and they would run as a fast as they could to jump across it, Nason said. Millennials might go right up to the line but probably not cross it.

Students now want to know what the rules are and expect the college to enforce them. Nason was told by one student that anyone parking illegally on campus should be expelled from school.

“Ten years ago, if you parked legally, you were ostracized,” he said.

Millennials also tend to be more economically advantaged.

“They have more stuff,” Woeste said.

When Woeste, a Generation X’er, went to college in 1984, she had a black-and-white television and a manual typewriter, and thought she was lucky.

Today a student might come to college with a color TV, VCR, DVD player, computer, cell phone and pager.

Parents also may be more protective of this generation of children than in previous ones. That may be a factor of two-career couples delaying families until they are older and more affluent.

Ten years ago, the greatest influences on a student’s choice of college were guidance counselors and peers. Now parents exert the greatest influence, said Karen Everett, director of admissions and records at MSU-B.

Students also seem to remain dependent on parents longer these days, even after moving to campus.

“We love to see parents at orientation,” Everett said. “But I worry that students won’t be able to stand on their own and will have a harder time later on.”

Although MSU-B has a higher percentage of older, nontraditional students than many campuses around the state, a substantial percentage—40 percent—are traditional students, 18 to 21 years old. Another 18 percent are 22 to 24 years old.

Diversity in this generation not only is more accepted, but assumed, Woeste said. That diversity includes different sexual identities and family backgrounds as well as diverse racial and ethnic ancestries.

Mark Moak, professor of art at Rocky, has observed some changes in students over time.

In recent years, attitudes from the consumer society have seeped into education.

Moak characterized that mindset as: “Students pay money for college, and we provide them with a product.”

Students also expect a certain element of entertainment in education. Students whose attention spans have been set by the length of television programs and movies get restless if they have to sit still for longer periods, Moak said.

One thing that does please him is that contemporary students appreciate his favorite music—classic rock and roll.

Vail, who went to college in the 1970s, said that her generation had a dreamy idealism about solving problems of the world that was a little naive.

“Our students now are more practical,” she said.

In one of her recent classes, students discussed community-based health care for the mentally ill. Students were realistic about the costs of such programs, and knew that there were tradeoffs between helping the mentally ill and funding other social services.

Students today also are less likely to expect the government to take care of them.

“Kids seem more conservative than in the ‘60s, but who isn’t?” Vail said.

Everett said that millennials also identify with qualities such as caring, courage and the Golden Rule.

“That’s good,” she said.

Colleges and universities aren’t necessarily changing programs to respond to the supposed collective traits of incoming students, but school officials are finding that some things they have been doing complement the newest generation of students.

Rocky Mountain College did a study several years ago and learned that students who were involved in small groups on campus were more likely to stay in school, Moak said.

Rocky incorporated that idea into its core curriculum for freshmen. Freshmen are divided into groups of 20. Those groups have several classes together so they get to know each other well. That program seems to appeal to team-oriented millennials.

Some of the research shows that millennial students are not as likely to be swayed by big blitz ad campaigns. MSU-B’s personal, one-on-one recruiting approach used in the past is well-suited to attracting and keeping millennial students, Everett said.

Millennial mindset

Millennial students have a certain perspective on the world, shaped events they have experienced.

For several years, Wisconsin’s Beloit College has published a mindset list to help faculty and staff members understand the incoming class of college students. Here are a few items from the list for students in the Class of 2007.

The complete list is at www.beloit.edu/~pubaff/releases/2003/03mindsetlist.html:

For students born in 1984:

  • Ricky Nelson, Richard Burton, Orson Wells and the U.S. Football League have always been dead.
  • Iraq always has been a problem.
  • Paul Newman always has made salad dressing.
  • Gas has always been unleaded.
  • Stores have always had scanners at the checkout.
  • The Jaycees have always welcomed women as members.
  • Directory assistance has never been free.
  • Computers have always fit in their backpacks.
  • There have always been PIN numbers.
  • Datsuns have never been made.

Here’s part of another list written about students born in 1980.

The complete list is at: ctl.stanford.edu/Tomprof/postings/62.html:

  • There has been only one pope.
  • They do not remember the Cold War.
  • They have only known one Germany.
  • They have never owned a record player.
  • Popcorn has always been cooked in a microwave.
  • They have always had an answering machine.
  • The Vietnam War is ancient history.
  • They do not care who shot J.R. and have no idea who J.R. is.
  • They have never heard “Where’s the beef?” or “de plane, de plane!”
  • Kansas, Chicago, Boston, America and Alabama are places, not musical groups.