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Harnessing the Power of Millennials

New education strategies for a confident, achieving youth generation by Neil Howe

To hear many educators tell it, their biggest problem these days is America’s high expectations of school performance.

The media keep repeating how the global economy soon will require nearly all young Americans to be fully prepared for post-secondary education. Legislators keep ratcheting up state-imposed and No Child Left Behind thresholds and dictating whole new teaching methods and subject areas. Most of all, parents are pushier than ever, demanding special attention, more options and, of course, instant results. According to a recent MetLife poll, K-12 teachers contend parents have become their No. 1 professional headache.

Yet there is another problem that is less discussed but probably more serious: America’s low expectations of what the rising youth generation is capable of achieving. It is often assumed that today’s new batch of kids is fated by history to continue along the path blazed first by young baby boomers and then trampled by young Gen-Xers. Toward more selfishness in dress and manners. Toward more splintering in life goals. Toward more profanity in the culture. Toward more risks with sex, drugs and crime. Toward more apathy about politics. And toward less interest in academic excellence and credentialed achievement.

Some pundits—especially marketers—have dubbed them “Generation Y,” as though these kids are merely Generation X on steroids, South Park idiots beyond redemption, the ultimate price for America’s post-’60s narcissism. One poll concludes that only a third of adults thinks that today’s kids, collectively, will someday make the world a better place.

False Notions
How depressing. And how wrong. Yes, there is a new batch of youth coming on stage—the Millennial Generation, born since 1982, whose leading-edge members were the celebrated high school Class of 2000. But contrary to expectations, this generation is a trend-turner. To date, the Millennial track record marks a dramatic reversal of the trends toward dysfunction and disengagement associated with young boomers and young Xers.

• Impression: Children are becoming more violent and risk prone. Fact: Over the past 10 years, rates of serious violent crime by teen-agers have fallen by 70 percent. Rates of teen-age pregnancy are down by 30 percent (to the lowest level ever measured). Rates of high school sexual activity are down by 15 percent. Rates of alcohol and tobacco use in 8th, 10th and 12th grades have fallen to all-time lows.

• Impression: Kids are showing more emotional problems. Fact: The teen-age suicide rate has been in steep decline for the past 10 years, after having steadily risen in earlier decades. Nine of 10 teen-agers describe themselves as “happy,” “confident” and “positive.”

• Impression: Parental influence over children is declining. Fact: More than nine teen-agers in 10 now say they “trust” and “feel close to” their parents. A recent survey found 82 percent of high school teen-agers reporting “no problems” with any family member, compared to just 48 percent who said that back in 1974 when parents and teen-agers were far more likely to argue over basic values.

• Impression: Fewer children than ever care about their community. Fact: A higher share of high school students are community volunteers today (more than 65 percent) than ever before, according to a measurement going back half a century. Today’s teen-agers and collegians are one-third more likely to volunteer their time than are older Americans.

• Impression: Children and young people aren’t doing as well in school. Fact: Since the late 1980s, grade school aptitude test scores have been rising or (at least) flat across all subjects and all racial and ethnic groups. Enrollment in Advanced Placement courses has soared. Fully 73 percent of high school students today say they want a four-year college degree. A growing share is taking the SAT. Even so, the average SAT score is the highest in 30 years.

Generational Traits
So why is the downbeat image of Generation Y so off the mark? For the simple reason that the predictive assumption is wrong. Whatever the era they are living in, Americans habitually assume the future will be a straight-line extension of the recent past. But that never occurs, either with societies or with generations. Every generation is uniquely shaped by its own location in history, and that formative influence has enduring effects.

Reflect for a moment on a few earlier examples. The unusually rule-abiding Silent Generation (today early in retirement) started out as children during the crisis years of the Great Depression and World War II. They defined youth in the 1940s and 1950s, the so-called “golden age” of the comprehensive high school.

The more argumentative and values-obsessed Boomer Generation (today squarely in midlife) started out as children during an era of postwar complacency. They defined youth in the 1960s and 1970s, an era of social turmoil, youth anger and steeply worsening educational outcomes.

The pragmatic and survivalist Generation X (today in their mid-20s to mid-40s) started out as children during the Consciousness Revolution. They defined the youth of the 1980s and 1990s, an individualistic era of market-driven free agency.

Likewise, the Millennial Generation has its own location in history. The first Millennials arrived at a time (the early 1980s) when attitudes toward children began shifting toward a greater emphasis on protection and structure—in families, schools and communities. Gen-Xers became known as a “baby bust” generation, the small demographic product of an America that had simply lost interest in kids. Millennials often are called a “baby boomlet” or “echo boom” generation, the large demographic product of a birth-rate reversal. In stark contrast to Gen-Xers, they have arrived in an era of glorified family values.

These “babies on board” have been regarded as special since birth and have been more obsessed over at every age than the Gen-Xers ever were. In the early 1980s, the Hollywood portrayal of kids did a sudden about-face, from demon-seed children to cuddly babies. The budding Lamaze movement spearheaded the new popularity of “attachment parenting.” When these new trophy kids began entering kindergarten in 1989, President George H.W. Bush declared—and the public loudly agreed—that school reform should be a top national goal.

When Millennials began reaching puberty in the mid-’90s, the public embroiled itself in culture wars over how best to raise these children. Meanwhile, the proliferation of child-safety products and regulations paved the way for a zero-tolerance approach to hazards and misconduct in the classroom.

This new Millennial location in history brings recent shifts in adult behavior and attitudes into sharper focus. Falling divorce and abortion rates begin to make sense. You can understand why harm against children (from child abuse and abductions to hazing and high school violence) are far less tolerable today than 20 years ago. You can appreciate why nearly every political issue of the past decade has been recast into what newsweeklies call “kinderpolitics,” as in: If it’s good for children, do it—and if it isn’t, don’t. Year by year, for officeholders in both parties and at all levels, America’s children became not just a political trump card, but something like public property.

The rising passions of adults crusading on behalf of children and youth help explain why so little of the good news about Millennial behavior gets public attention. Quite simply, the good news is never good enough. Crusaders on the right highlight bad news because it fuels their urgent “family values” morals agenda. Crusaders on the left highlight the bad news because if fuels their urgent fiscal and social services agenda. Surveys indicate, as a result, both parents and teachers have a stunningly higher perception of how their own children are doing than of how children generally are doing.

A Shifting Perspective
Many educators will have no trouble recognizing how this shifting adult perspective has dramatically reshaped their professional environment—the new standards focus, the high-stakes tests, the media glare, the zero-tolerance classroom, the curriculum wars, the pushy parents and the alarmist headlines.

Yet many fail to recognize how this same shifting perspective has governed the upbringing of a whole new generation of youth and has created a new batch of students with a very different outlook on school, family, risk, career and politics than the batch who came before.

Think Millennial and you can reflect more clearly on the broad pop-culture changes that have swept youth in recent years. Like why the new trend in kid-vid, from Barney to Pokemon to Harry Potter, became so energetically team-oriented. Like why kids in public places started dressing the same way and moving in organized and supervised groups. Like why a teen-ager recently told a New York Times reporter that the “punk look is going away, all those bracelets up the arm. … Now it’s clean-cut, like looking ‘nice’ for the day.” Like why Erika Harold, Miss America for 2003, had to battle with pageant officials over her right to talk about teen-age chastity. Like why teens are turning to grand epic themes in their choice of movies—and toward remixes and talented amateurs in their choice of music.

Think Millennial and you also begin to understand which educational strategies are likely to work best for this generation. The evidence suggests that Millennials, compared to Xers or boomers at the same age, are special, sheltered, confident, team-playing, conventional, pressured and achieving. Let’s consider what each of these traits implies for how schools operate.

• Special. From the precious-baby movies of the mid-1980s to the media glare surrounding the high school Class of 2000, older generations have inculcated in Millennials the sense they are, collectively, vital to the nation and to their parents’ sense of purpose. Parents, indeed, obsess endlessly over them. Unlike Gen-Xers, Millennials don’t mind talking about themselves as a “generation.” As Millennials absorb the parental message that they dominate America’s agenda, they come easily to the belief their problems are the nation’s problems. Ask Millennials about their preferred choice of community service, and most often they will tell you it’s helping other people their own age, either at home or abroad.

For educators, rule No. 1 is to get the parents of this generation on your side. Don’t pull rank as professionals or administrators. Get parents to be collaborators; harness their energy; have them sign contracts or covenants. If you wait for them to come to you, you’ve already lost half of the battle because by then their worry already has given birth to suspicion and hostility. Be aware of the greater media attention now given to schools and leverage that to your advantage. When proposing changes, it is better to cast them as sweeping and universal, not incremental and targeted. Worries about trying to do too much rarely turn off the voting public. Cynicism about trying to do too little often does.

• Sheltered. From the surge in child-safety rules and devices to the post-Columbine lockdown of public schools to the hotel-style security of today’s college dorm room, Americans have been tightening the security perimeters around Millennials ever since they first arrived. Like a castle under construction, new bricks keep getting added—V-chips and “smart lockers” last month, carding at the movies this month, graduated driver licenses and bedroom spycams next month. Since 9/11, the protective boundaries have drawn even closer, with national TV blaring out amber alert warnings and home security devices that track teen drivers via Global Positioning Systems. Helicopter parents figure these special children always will require special care, and thus far Millennials have gone along with little resistance—unlike how boomers would have reacted at the same age!

Educators need to assure parents and students, in both message and deed, that school provides a totally safe and protected environment. Younger, market-oriented Gen-X parents will also demand accountability, that those in charge be held personally responsible for whatever happens. The sheltering should be from moral as well as physical danger. The key here is to focus on teacher example and student intent and not to get sidetracked into policing every questionable student wordplay or mannerism (which is often mimicked reflexively from the prevailing pop culture). A major appeal of small learning communities, as a reform strategy, is its promise of looking after students personally in structured groups. Small schools focus on people, not process.

• Confident. Nine of 10 teen-agers say they are personally happy and excited about their future, a figure that has been rising over the past 15 years. “Why are kids so confident?” asked a recent KidsPeace report. “Significantly, the word ‘crisis’ seems not to appear in the teen lexicon.” The Cold War is over. The War on Terror is winnable. Technology can vanquish age-old ills. More than four in five teen-agers (including 96 percent of minority teens) believe they will be financially more successful than their parents.

The teen-age view of success has become more balanced between family and career. Millennial teen-agers are taking a longer view of the future. The share of teens who define success as “being able to give my children better opportunities than I had” has reached an all-time high.

Educators need to stress positive outcomes and replace realism with optimism. With young Gen-Xers, schools often tried to bill new programs as “damage control,” and social marketing often focused (as with anti-drug ads) on “scaring kids straight.”

With Millennials, nothing less than the best will get any hearing at all. And effective social marketing typically focuses on the good consequences of good behavior (like not letting down your friends or family). The new trend in high school reform is discarding the old trade-off between college-ready curriculum and school-to-work applied learning. The new attitude is: Let’s think win-win. Let’s prepare all children and youth for either option.

• Team Oriented. From Barney and soccer to collaborative learning and a resurgence of community service, Millennials are developing strong team instincts and tight peer bonds. During the 1990s, there was a sharp decline in the share of 8 th- and 10 th-graders who said they felt lonely or wished they had more friends, and a growing desire to share the credit for winning.

Today’s teen-agers are much more likely than their boomer parents to trust big institutions like governments or communities to “do the right thing.” High school students now regard team skills (along with technology) as the most valuable for their careers. Kids are transforming technology itself into a group activity, powering up their instant messaging and e-mail servers as soon as they touch a computer and making themselves the most 24/7 peer-to-peer connected generation in human history.

Back in the Gen-X youth era, many educators disliked peer pressure because they associated the concept with rule breaking. Today many are discovering that peer pressure can be harnessed—through group projects, peer grading, uniforms, student juries and the like—to enforce rules better. Educators should look for ways to extend this approach. Encourage students to lead and organize and help them learn by having them help other students learn (as in Coca Cola’s Valued Youth Program, which gets at-risk high school students to tutor younger kids). Recruit community service participants to galvanize public support for your school. Pay more attention to what Millennial-era reformers call peer engagement or connectedness—simple yet all-important indicators of whether children and youth get along well with each other.

• Conventional. Taking pride in their improving behavior and comfortable with their parents’ values (even their parents’ taste in music and clothes), Millennials have embraced a new youth credo that The New York Times calls “neotraditionalism.” As George Gallup Jr. recently commented: “Teens today are decidedly more traditional than their elders were in both lifestyles and attitudes. Gallup Youth Survey data from the past 25 years reveal that teens today are far less likely than their parents were to use alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. In addition, they are less likely than their parents even today to approve of sex before marriage and having children out of wedlock.” Gallup goes on to acknowledge conservative teen leanings on issues ranging from church-going and abortion to abstinence and divorce. Researchers would not have said anything similar about boomers 40 years ago.

In keeping with the idea that most Millennials don’t mind following common rules, educators should emphasize a core curriculum that every student is expected to know and core rules that are clear and enforced. Millennials are risk averse in the sense they fear falling behind these common expectations.

To enable all students to keep up, make sure every task is achievable with directed effort. Retool learning plans to include constant monitoring, feedback and skills mastery. Make sure the object of school reform is consistent with the conventional way Millennials define life success, in terms of family, friends, career, community and life balance.

• Pressured. Pushed to study hard, avoid personal risks and take full advantage of the opportunities offered them, Millennials feel a “trophy kid” pressure to excel. The new youth assumption that long-term success demands near-term organization and achievement sometimes overwhelms Millennials. What a high school junior does this week determines where she’ll be five and 10 years from now. That, at least, is the new teen-ager’s perception—and it’s a reversal of a 40-year trend.

The impulse to plan starts with parents and it begins early. Since the mid-1980s, unstructured activity has been the most rapidly declining use of time among primary-grade kids. At the middle school and high school levels, record shares of young people say they want to go to college, worry about their grades and don’t get enough sleep.

Millennials are used to pressure and don’t mind the heat so long as they are assured that all the careful energy will someday be rewarded. Educators should stress long-term life planning and guarantees over the kinds of short-term opportunities and risks that appealed more to Gen-Xers. Contextual learning in themed or career academies are a reform strategy that works by showing students (boys, especially) how academic skills dovetail with job skills.

Pay attention to alignment between schools, especially the 9 th-grade transition into high school and the freshman transition into college. This is where Millennials are most likely to stumble, get overlooked and fall out of the system.

• Achieving. At a time when higher school standards having risen to the top of America’s political agenda, Millennials take academic achievement seriously. Gen-Xers sometimes playfully celebrated dumbness (who can forget Wayne’s World or the Bill and Ted movies of the early 1990s?). There is no such mockery among Millennials. By vast majorities they agree that “being smart is cool.” Most high school students today support standardized testing and higher standards and believe the best cure for rampant classroom boredom is tougher curriculum.

Showing a left-brained tilt, Millennials demonstrate more interest and improvement in math and science than in the arts or social sciences. At the same time, girls are taking the clear lead in academic achievement over boys and now comprise four out of seven college undergrads.

According to the mission statement at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City, “high expectations and high standards yield high achievement in both the academic and personal elements of life.” This could be a Millennial motto, especially for disadvantaged students for whom most schools used to dumb down the curriculum. The new wisdom is: Charge up the curriculum and turn a vicious cycle of boredom into a virtuous cycle of accomplishment.

Wherever possible, integrate classroom activity into cutting-edge networked technology and understand that high-tech is one broad avenue by which noncollege youth feel they can keep up with their collegiate peers. Focus on objective achievement goals and get everyone—teachers, students, families, community—involved in meeting them.

Great Possibilities
Most importantly, educators need to focus on the big picture. Don’t give in to negativity and despair. Forget what talking heads say to boost their ratings or what politicians say to push their agendas. The real news about today’s young people is that they belong to a new generation that is smart, confident, hard-working, teaming up and doing well overall.

To be sure, there’s a lot of improvement still to be made. The curriculum needs to be more challenging and interesting. Students need to be more personally engaged with teachers and each other. And grade-level requirements need to be much better aligned to prevent students from hitting a wall and then dropping out.

All this and more. But educators should pursue these goals not in the negative context of damage control, but as a means of harnessing the great potential of a new and different generation. Millennials have it within them to become America’s next “greatest generation”—in technology, teamwork and community building. It is up to educators to help make that future happen.

Neil Howe is partner and co-founder of LifeCourse Associates, 9080 Eaton Park Road, Great Falls, VA 22066. E-mail: howe@lifecourse.com. His most recent book, Millennials and the Pop Culture, co-authored with William Strauss, will be published this month by LifeCourse Books.