At least since the time that Gertrude Stein proclaimed Ernest Hemingway as a member of the “Lost Generation,” Americans have been eager to name the different generations. This labeling usually refers to the historical events that shaped this group during their formative years. My parents were part of the “Greatest Generation”; they survived the Great Depression, defeated fascism on two fronts, and built the second-largest and longest peace-time economy in the history of the country.
And they produced the Baby Boomers—my generation. The times defined us, too: the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Viet Nam War movement, the energy and optimism of the Sixties when we didn’t trust anyone over thirty.
Since then, the generation labels have been fired off more rapidly, but the designations don’t mean as much since the characteristics of various generation often seem too narrow. At least I have thought this way until become acquainted with the present generation of college students. Again, the previous formula seems to apply to this group: the events in the country and the world clearly affect their reality.
Undoubtedly, being a college student during the Great Recession is leaving its mark on virtually all students in one way or another. The intensity of student stress about debt, future employment, etc. has made current college students much less likely to take a risk much more worried about making a choice regarding a major, much less appreciate of the liberal arts tradition that educates students to be life-long learners. No one is surprised; economic uncertainty and austerity always creates stress.
Another characteristic of current college students involves the effects of communication technology. Although this observation is far from original, with the recent freshman classes, I have often thought that this is the first generation students who leave home and go away to college but still stay in daily contact with their old friends and family. Now through Facebook, Twitter, texting, students maintain constant contact with their high school friends; it’s as if they never leave them.
When I hear students lament the fact that they have no friends at Bellarmine and I see them walking across campus talking on their cell phone, I want to turn to them and say, “See that kid five feet in front of you? He also feels that he has no friends,” but he will probably be on his phone, too.
Where will it end? I would venture to say that the stress caused by the economic difficulties of our age produce the stress that make students cling all the more to what worked well for them in the past—friends and family back home and thus, the transition to college becomes harder.
Do these observations about college students apply to those whom you know? Am I focused on the right issues that serve to define this generation? What am I missing?