Generational Differences: Do They Matter?

Ann M. Pearson

The entire discussion around the importance of considering generational differences in higher education is interesting to me. I’m as fascinated as anyone else with all the Gen X, Y, Z, Boomer, Millennial articles going around. I’m annually amused with the Beloit Mindset List that for 19 years has cataloged the everyday items and concepts our incoming freshmen have either never considered in their lifetimes or ideas they are not familiar with because since they were born these objects have been obsolete at best and often totally eliminated from the cultural landscape (think rotary phones and card catalogs). That incoming freshmen have always lived in a world with women on the Supreme Court and they’ve never seen cigarette billboard ads are good things. That they aren’t familiar with the vegetable-selling Jolly Green Giant—not so much. My favorite way to elicit angelic laughter from students is to show them pictures of my first portable telephone, which weighed about ten pounds was more akin to an Army field radio than their slick cells.

Usually I see these differences and lists as somewhat humorous but far too generalized and of little actual value in the classroom. I don’t like to label people, and as a long-time teacher, I’m especially wary of projecting self-fulling prophesies on students because I’ve arbitrarily decided they possess or lack some specific characteristic. Of course, generational differences are real—just think of family reunions or Thanksgiving dinners to see how age groups cluster together and silently try to determine if the others are actually aliens (That music! The hair! Those clothes!). Tattoos, piercings, names, acceptable levels of skin exposure, and even creative expletives all illuminate  the generational divide. But enough research is coming out about generational differences that more carefully analyzing what the characteristics of various age groups mean in the workplace and in the college classroom may make a lot of sense.

Always careful not to stereotype, I have more than once allowed identifiable generational differences to help students appreciate varying perspectives. I still smile when I recall a day when the returning student who always looked a little frazzled turned to a group of very young students who were mildly disturbing class and kindly but in a firmly maternal manner told them she refused to allow them to ruin her second chance at a college education because she had waited too long and paid too dearly to sit and let them waste her time. I had been about to intervene, but the younger students responded much better to her sincerity and no-nonsense approach. I didn’t have to say a word, and the entire group got along famously from that point because she meant what she said, and they respected that. These students eventually helped her with computer questions, and she showed them how to keep track of research sources on colored index cards because you could get to them anywhere even without a computer handy. The younger students called it old school and thought it might be worth a try. It was an amazing collaboration to watch.

Allowing all students—regardless of generation or their supposed personality traits—to contribute their strengths to a group setting benefits everyone in the class and prepares them for an increasingly diverse future better than any exam can. If one student excels in organizing ideas but another is better at creating a persuasive display of those ideas, they can both learn from each other and grow. We are not a one-size-fits-all society—a fact that should be celebrated not lamented.

And while it may be an interesting and entertaining sociology exercise to list common traits for specific age ranges, I find it far more beneficial to focus on individuals who can play to their strengths while they’re honing their deficiencies. That’s what learning has always been about, no matter what generation.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on March 7, 2017.