The Rise of The Millennials

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

With the “real” start of this election year in the United States, which is being followed with fervor around the world (e.g., “Is Obama or Clinton going to win the nomination?” says a European colleague to me in Ljubljana, Slovenia in April), much of the focus is on the “next generation” of voters. This group, which is affectionately called the “Millennials,” consists of youth born between 1982 and 1992. According to information supplied by my friend and colleague Jay Goff of the Missouri University of Science & Technology, the leading edge of this group graduated from high school in 2000, from college in 2004, and probably currently graduating from their graduate programs. I have a few of them working for me now.

This group is a defining group in our society and differs greatly from their predecessors, the GenXers. They were “so last decade.” I’m not typically one of those who puts much into this branding of groups or generations. But the Millennials are different and are impacting the political race and higher education as we know it.

We first saw the power of the Millennials in the 2004 Presidential Race with the Howard Dean campaign. While Dean lost, due in large part to the “liberal” media showing countless times his town hall screams (which was totally blown out of proportion), he rewrote the campaign finance rules via internet fundraising. Financially, he blew the Democratic nominees away financially, something that Obama has pounced upon. And it was the Millennials who helped push the Internet trend. You could see it in the crowd of Dean and now in Obama. Political campaigns have always required the youthful exuberance  of, well, the youth. It was the saving grace for Kennedy, and potentially for Robert Kennedy, and for Bill Clinton.

To give you a little more political perspective, here is a paragraph from a wonderful February 3, 2008 article in the Washington Post entitled The Boomer Had Their Day. Make Way for the Millennials:

Today’s millennials look a lot like the GI generation, born between 1901 and 1924, which FDR described as having “a rendezvous with destiny” — a phrase Ted Kennedy echoed last week in his endorsement of Obama. In 1930, the GI generation was nearly twice as large as the two previous generations combined. Today’s millennials are the largest generation in U.S. history — twice as large as Generation X and numbering a million more than the baby boomers. Though nearly 90 percent of the GI generation was white, it was diverse for its time. Many members were immigrants or the children of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. About 40 percent of millennials are of African American, Latino, Asian or racially mixed backgrounds. Twenty percent have at least one immigrant parent.

Civic generations are committed to political involvement and believe in using and strengthening political and government institutions. In the 1930s, young members of the GI generation regularly voted in greater numbers than older generations. Similarly, millennials have led this year’s surge in voter participation, especially in Democratic contests.

The last paragraph is defining for the Millennials, because they are truly activist in nature. They are more community caring, certainly more “green,” and truly international not only in their ethnic and racial makeup, but in their interest of the world. This generation does not support the Iraq war and is more inline with what foreigners think about the US than what the Boomers think about the US.

This is the first generation to grow up on the Internet. The Internet came along with Generation X, but Generation Y has known it mostly since they were 8 or 9. It is ubiquitous with their maturation. And this fact, in of itself, is a very telling tale, because in addition to being more activist, the Millennials also have grander, perhaps unrealistic expectations, are not as prepared academically than other generations, and expect things immediately with little patience. I have a little Millennial in me, too.

For higher education practitioners, this is the group of the Helicopter Parents; those who hover around their kids at admissions and sometimes throughout the undergraduate school. Millennials, according to Howe and Strauss (2000) , are special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, achieving, pressured, and conventional. They are optimistic and confident, “moral,” savvy, and competent multitaskers.

However, they are also inexperienced, need above-average supervision and structure, and own a lack of “resilience.” And this is an issue for employers and higher ed staff. I, personally, have seen both sides of the Millennials in the EPI offices, and, in discussion with colleagues from around the country, have found that I am not alone. This generation comes with its own sense of entitlement about what they are to receive and what effort it requires to receive it. Trust me, this is a challenge.

For colleges and universities, it begs the question about what students are expected to learn and how they are to learn it. How much spoon feeding are today’s students getting compared to GenXers or beyond? Are they learning more or less than prior generations, begging Alex Usher’s similar question in last week’s Commentary.

The other night I was rereading Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. (How bad is it when you reread a book and forget some of the main content? I’m really hoping that isn’t just me…). In it he comments on the move, especially-but-not-exclusively at Liberal Arts Colleges, from core learning to elective learning. He suggests that institutions of higher education are becoming (or have become) vocational sweatshops rather than places of higher learning, arguing that the latter is more important for a democracy in a global society. And Bok is clearly right in many ways. Universities have created programs more suited to donors and clients than to greater societal needs and the development of critical thinking. I’m not so sure Wellesley and Williams fall under this category, but then again, the continued investment of business and law programs on college campuses seems to support Bok’s conclusion.

I wonder how well we are preparing the Millennials for both the workforce and society? Have we, and by “we” I mean parents and educators, done them any favors through our helicopter-piloting skills? By providing them with the idea that everything that happens must happen now? That education isn’t about picking flowers (courses) but more attune to sowing a garden (program)?

The wonderful thing about the Millennials is what has already been expressed: they care. And we live in a world where we need more people to care about what cars they drive, how we treat each other, how we feed the poor, and how we become more open to a diverse world of thought, opinion, and philosophy. The Millennials are picture perfect to take these issues on. But as educators, we must also think about whether we are providing them with the skills to further develop their conscience and moral objectives. Like the youth groups involved with political campaigns, the Millennials are voting with their hearts; not with their minds. In time, they, too, will evolve, probably a little more jaded, and as most do, a little more conservative fiscally and socially. Heck, even the hippies became Wall Street brokers! Please, let’s not let that happen.

As opposed as I am to labeling, an art form that we have raised to a new level, we need to look at this group carefully and decide what may be best for them. Because, one day soon, this group will rule the world. I’d rather they be prepared for it.

Have a great weekend, and Happy Canada Day to our Canadian readers. Next week’s edition of Week in Review comes out on July 4th and will feature fellow Winnipegger Alex Usher. I’ll be grilling.


Neil Howe and William Strauss, “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” Vintage Books, New York, 2000

“Millennials, Mayhem & Miracles: Navigating the Floods of Change in Higher Education,” NASPA IV-East Regional Conference, November 2003.

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