Deconstructing the Millennial Classroom

While I was in the field in the Fall of 2015, Deloitte University Press, a source of authority in business management, released a report titled, “The Radical Transformation of Diversity and Inclusion: The Millennial Influence.” Management consultants and human resource professionals in workshops and conferences cited this and other similar reports at length: Millennials only stayed with a specific employer for three years, they expected meaningful jobs, and they wanted to feel accepted at work. Many consultants and human resource professionals interpreted Millennials’ expectations as unrealistic and a sign of entitlement: They wanted socially and financially rewarding jobs without putting in their time. As I was transitioning out of fieldwork more than a year later, I began to hear in informal settings graduate students and faculty use these narratives to explain situations in which, for example, students turned papers in late, requested grade changes, and complained about—or just didn’t do—their work. Rather than continue down a path that will inevitably alienate our students and future colleagues, I implore us to critique our positionality and to factor in structural and cultural nuances into our teaching and our social practices.

Popular media, employers, and teachers have treated unfairly the “Millennial generation,” whoever that is. The designation of who falls within this category is blurry, although it conservatively encapsulates those born between 1981 and 1997. In less than ten years, Millennials will likely make up over 75 percent of the workforce. While they may not have necessarily been born with a digital screen at their fingertips, they certainly grew up with it. If you have been following social media or have been engaged in workplace chatter, at one point you may have thought that any or all of the following personality traits applied to this generation:

  • Entitled and selfish
  • Narcissist and self-aggrandizing
  • Want to be rewarded for minimal effort
  • Do not understand the value in hard work
  • Disloyal to their employers and mentors
  • Idealistic and unrealistic
  • Expect to be treated (because they act) as children at work

The retroactive narratives used to explain these (largely perceived) behavioral trends need some nuance. Many of those who defend these ideas about Millennials claim that they are the logical conclusions of a particular kind of upbringing. In other words, they rationalize: Because they grew up with the internet and videogames, Millennials have been conditioned to expect immediate rewards; because they had “participation trophies,” they expect praise—not for doing a good job, but for trying; and because they had helicopter parents, they never learned responsibility or critical thinking and leadership skills. These kids, the general sentiment goes, are now adults who do not understand how to act in the “real” world.

Diversity management researchers stress that although some characteristics of Millennials are grounded in facts. Both data and the conclusions drawn are not always accurate. For example, much hype has been made around the finding that Millennial job-tenure with a specific employer is 2.8 years, compared to 3.5 years for their equivalent age group in 1983. Other data reveal serious structural differences between generational experiences. Similar to other generations in the United States, Millennials have what seems to be a narrowing wage gap across genders. In contrast, however, White House research conducted under former President Obama reveals that compared to other generational groups, Millennials are having children later in life, have unprecedented amounts of student debt, and are less likely to be home owners. Critically, this research also shows that many of them are still experiencing the consequences of the Great Recession, as they are seeing the lowest wage growth among college-educated workers in decades.

“Median Tenure with Current Employer,” Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Forbes, “True or False? Millennials Only Stay One or Two  Years,” 2016.

We tend to employ simplistic narratives of “personality” types at the expense of understanding and taking seriously these structural and cultural complexities. In other words, in largely unprecedented times students have debt and they are also likely juggling multiple part-time jobs to meet their basic necessities and/or to gain experience for a cruel job market. Unfortunately, what awaits or limits many is the stagnation in wages and dearth of available jobs that reveals an overinflation of degrees. For many in institutions with a large population of first-generation students, not only are these Millennials less likely to receive support from their parents, but they also more likely to be financially responsible for them. As Angela Jenks (2016) argued in a Teaching Tool article for Cultural Anthropology, between economic and familial obligations students, “make quick decisions about what to prioritize.” Hence, it seems that much of the Millennial personality narrative relies on understandings of child-rearing and nurturing practices historically reserved to a white and wealthy social class.

“Wage Growth for College-Educated Workers Between Ages 23 and 28, by Cohort,” Fifteen Economic Facts About Millennials. The Council of Economic Advisers, 2014.

Structural and cultural conditions are not only limiting, but are productive. In other words, this overly educated student population has also experienced the global Occupy Movements, indigenous resistance to corporate interests, and the first (viable) female Presidential candidate, amongst other historic political movements. The result is something that we have not largely anticipated, and that we have thought little about: politically motivated students and workers. In other words, our Millennial students have the language and educational background to transform these lived experiences into understandings of economic and social injustices in ways that we have not seen before. For example, in the workplace there is a historic demand for work/life balance, better corporate social responsibility, and meaningful jobs. Isn’t this what many of us have spent our entire lives struggling for?

As instructors, I suggest that we become more generous and stand in solidarity with Millennials’ past, contemporary, and future struggles, and question mainstream narratives of abstract personality types and universal American conditioning. This requires that we take seriously how these economic, political, and cultural issues enter the classroom and may structure educational experiences. Critically, we should also stop thinking of them as a homogenous body, and be cognizant of other differences that shape their institutional experiences, including race, gender, and sexuality. To these ends, for example, we can design courses with open access readings and textbooks, we can eliminate ultimatum policies that limit students’ choices, we can organize writing workshops, and we can advocate for the university to invest in resources to level out economic inequities. We can and should make more room for differentially positioned individuals to thrive, despite our unjust and unfair institutions and societies.

Luzilda Carrillo Arciniega is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She is writing her dissertation, Making Corporate Inclusivity: Discrimination and Expertise in Post-Affirmative Action America. Find her on twitter: @luzildac

Cite as: Arciniega, Luzilda Carrillo. 2017. “Deconstructing the Millennial Classroom.” Anthropology News website, August 29, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.585

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