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.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011
“The world now has the largest generation of young people in history. I place great hope in their power to shape our future,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told leaders and dignitaries at High-Level Event on the Demographic Dividend and Youth Employment, held at UN Headquarters in New York on June 1st.
Much the world is poised experience a demographic dividend – the economic growth that can occur when a population shifts from one with many dependents and comparatively few working-age people to one of many working-age people with fewer dependents. Demographic dividends have helped produce unprecedented economic growth in several East Asian countries. The Republic of Korea, for example, saw its per-capita gross domestic product grow about 2,200 per cent between 1950 and 2008.
But, as Egypt’s Minister of Population Dr. Hala Youssef told the policymakers and leaders present, “The demographic dividend is not automatic… It is a window of opportunity.”
Igniting the potential of 1.8 billion
To realize the dividend, countries must invest in the empowerment, education and employment of their young people. There are 1.8 billion young people in the world today, representing a staggering amount of human potential. Yet too many of them are trapped in poverty, with few opportunities to learn or to earn a decent living.
“We all appreciate the massive waste of human capital in our world when 74 million young people cannot find work,” said Mr. Ban.
Young people are hungry for better options. “They are rejecting the status quo and demanding a better future. Many of them are claiming their right to a decent living, and they are willing to take risks to do so. We have seen in recent times the high numbers of young people taking risks around the Mediterranean, trying to reach a better life,” said Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA.
But if these youth are allowed to realize their full potential, developing countries could see huge economic gains.
“The more young people grow into well-educated adults with fewer dependants and new opportunities to acquire wealth, savings and purchasing power, the more they will be able to accelerate economic growth and development,” said Sam K. Kutesa, President of the 69th Session of the General Assembly, who convened the high-level event with support from UNFPA and the International Labour Organization.
“It is estimated the African continent could add up to about $500 billion per year to its economy for as many as 30 years,” Mr. Kutesa added.
Steps towards a better future
There are clear steps that can help countries achieve a demographic dividend.
Increasing investment in young people is key. This includes promoting quality education that prepares them for future opportunities. A “diversity of training will be needed – from quality primary and secondary schools to technical training, to two-year colleges and to research-intensive universities,” said Dr. Osotimehin.
Also essential is “empowering women and girls, and ensuring their sexual and reproductive health and human rights,” he noted. “This would enable them to determine when and whom to marry and the number of their children.” When women and girls are able to make these decisions, they are better able to complete their educations and pursue jobs.
Countries must also increase employment opportunities for young people. Daniel Johnson, Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture of the Bahamas, stressed this point. “Many young people will be forced to sit on margins of society, waiting on the train track for a train that may never come,” he said, referring to the lack of employment options available in many communities.
There is also a critical need to involve young people in decisions that will affect them. “We cannot talk about sustainable development without the active involvement of youth,” Mr. Ban said, adding: “When we give young people decent jobs, political weight, negotiating muscle, and real influence in our world, they will create a better future.”
“Let us take these ideas forward to harness the demographic dividend, holding human rights, gender equality, human capital, and dignity at the center of all our investments,” Dr. Osotimehin said at the close of the event. “Only by ensuring opportunities that open the future to all young people do we create a better future.”
Image: Students in Cotonou, Benin. © UNFPA Benin/Ollivier Girard