Were the youth of yesterday really better than the youth of today?

Living in the past can keep you from appreciating the joys of the present

Posted May 17, 2011

It's the lament heard by every generation in one form or another: What's the matter with kids today?  The idea that the current generation is somehow deficient compared to those of the past (including ours, of course) echoes throughout history. The phrase "What's the matter with kids today?" actually became the song title of the 1960s era musical "Bye Bye Birdie," when the father bemoans the rock-n-roll generation of his children. Ironically, though the song referenced the rebellious kids of the day, the kids of the early 1960s were nothing like the kids to follow just a few years later.

The idea that kids "today" are deficient is echoed in another song, based on one of the most famous non-commencement commencement speeches ever written-  "Everyone's free to wear sunscreen." Written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich in 1997, it was originally titled "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young." The speech received widespread fame when, in 1999, Baz Luhrmann released it as a song on his album, "Something for Everybody."  Though the song eventually was to become heavily parodied, its messages remain some of the most outstanding pieces of practical advice anyone could receive: wear sunscreen, floss, stretch, take calcium, and be kind to your knees. If you're going to be successful in the future, you need your health.  This advice probably is wasted on the young, but we might as well keep trying to get them to take it. Unfortunately, most commencement speeches tend to be so abstract and flowery that they put the listeners into a hypnotic trance. The good advice they contain is truly wasted. Schmich's speech contains plenty of wise advice beyond the sunscreen-do things that scare you; don't waste your time on jealousy; don't ruminate over insults.

During college, each year is marked by distinct transformative processes, but perhaps the most dramatic occur right within the very first few months after students hit the campus. One of my students, in writing about his own experiences, reflected (ever so wisely) that the first year of college is the most highly anticipated year of life, and the one also looked upon with the greatest regret after it's over.

Students often do think back on their first year of college wishing they had taken better advantage of the opportunities offered by classes, extracurricular activities, research experiences, or chances to make new friends. More typically, I see that they do mature dramatically during this formative time. The second semester first-year student is altogether a different creature than he or she was on the first day of classes in the fall.  

Not every student goes through the same set of transitions, however, and it's important to remember that there are varying pathways through the emerging years of adulthood and beyond. There are students who struggle with the transitions that face them; unfortunately, college mental health services are often too strapped to help them navigate back to the path to success.

People who don't work with college students on a regular basis often stereotype them as irresponsible party animals who seek the easy road to a degree with the least effort possible. A New York Times opinion piece called "Your So-Called Education" challenged the opinions that students expressed

about how much they felt they learned during their college years.  The data they amassed to support their points included the observation that students spend less time studying than did students in 1960. They believe that student course evaluations contribute to the dumbing down of courses as professors play to the audience for good ratings that will keep them, and their departments, in business.  Though I agree that the "Rate My Professor" website is highly flawed due to its emphasis on ease of courses, higher education's own efforts to systematize professor ratings through valid assessments focus on more substantive issues.

The claim that students work less now than they did in 1960 seems bogus to me as well. In the 1960s, there were no e-books with hyperlinks sending the reader to related pieces of information within the book or online. There were no online databases or resources-if you wanted to read a research article, you had to go to the library, sort through a catalog of index cards, and eventually hope the book or article was where it was supposed to be (which, often, it was not). Then you had to go to the next article you wanted to read based on that one, and so on, sometimes taking an hour just to find that one source. The extraneous time wasted in the search for an article now can be used for actual reading, research, and writing. Time is not an accurate measure of learning.

College students in today's world are striving to make it in a world that offers some inhospitable choices. Do they work to raise money to stay in school or spend time volunteering to boost their resumes? Do they load up on credits so they can graduate earlier or take a normal credit load and face costlier student loans?  Sure, I've seen students bargain for grades, making me feel like a customer service manager denying a refund (or granting one, as the case may be).  But their desire for grades comes out of real-world pressures to be competitive in the job market.

Students who make it through to graduation are also different than the ones who started because they've survived the many threats that keep them from remaining in school. Economic pressures, family problems, and emotional difficulties can cause even the best-intentioned student to fall by the wayside.  Graduating seniors, though they may behave in silly ways during their graduation ceremonies, are more serious today than they ever were. They are just as, if not more, determined to do something with their lives that will benefit others. They do incredible research in labs (boosted by the ability to do online background work), they spend huge amounts of time in community service, and they become amazing musicians and artists. They may be worried, confused, or overwhelmed on the day after graduation, when "real life begins," but many are ready and eager to use their education.

In sum, here are five tips to keep in mind when considering the strengths of college students:

1. College life is full of hurdles.  I don't know a single student who hasn't faced a major challenge at some point during his or her college career.  It's tough getting through these hurdles successfully.

2. College students are adults.  The "emerging adult" is an adult in transition. Many of them respond better when treated as adults; treating them with respect helps also to build their identities.

3. College students appreciate your guidance.  Because they are transitioning into adulthood, college students are very receptive to hearing how they can improve themselves.

4. At times, college students need some slack. College students can certainly get into mischief; it doesn't mean that they are destined to a life of failure.

5.  Faith in the young can help you feel better about your life. It's good for older generations to feel that the world will be in good hands when they are gone.

The strength of our emerging adults should give us all hope that future generations will manage and perhaps even improve the world in ways we cannot yet imagine.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011