On Our Radar – Great expectations in the new normal

On Our Radar features HEQCO staff and guest bloggers offering their unique perspectives on trends, new ideas and hot-button issues in higher education. The opinions are those of the authors.

Enter the words Millennials and expectations into a search engine and odds are you will be bombarded with a variety of synonyms for entitled, unrealistic and dependent. Leaving aside the irony of the process itself — that as a Millennial I have grown to expect immediate answers for all my questions just by filling out a query box and pushing a button — the take-away of the exercise is made quickly apparent. The public zeitgeist surrounding the Millennials has framed (or condemned) the generation as one unlike any other: demanding, impatient, coddled and devoid of traditional loyalties to concepts and norms bigger than the self.  As a member of the group in question I admit to some sympathy for this general conclusion.

The world that Millennials are entering isn’t likely to offer them much respite; regularly changing jobs and constantly upgrading skills have become de rigueur, the traditional baccalaureate degree provides opportunities but does not guarantee success or stability and levels of debt are at an all-time high.  As with previous generations, higher education is still seen as the incubator for future success, where adolescents become young adults and they learn to think and live independently, but the context, and content, of this process is changing at an unprecedented pace.
As Millennials emerge from our higher learning institutions and bring their full weight onto the labour force, skeptics will claim that the majority of graduates are fundamentally ill-prepared for the harsh realities of adulthood; Millennials live at home and stay in school longer, have unrealistic expectations for achieving success, reject many of society’s conventional strictures and, despite the maverick façade, tend to lack the independence of their forbearers and often rely on parents to fight their battles.  This paints a murky picture of a Me-First Generation that is unsatisfied with the status quo, demands workplace concessions historically considered off-limits, and is more focused on personal priorities and less likely to sacrifice for a career or company not to their liking. As I watch my generation in action, it’s hard to disagree with the sentiments.
However, a more positive narrative not only extols the virtues of this mercurial group, but proclaims their centrality in the largest project of societal transformation since the Industrial Revolution — the Digital Revolution. The current generation of learners is cited as being the most creative and innovative, the most collaborative, the most diverse, and, hopefully, the best suited to deal with an era of rapid change.  To the optimist, Millennials possess an array of truly unique and necessary qualities that actually make them morelikely to succeed in a time of disruption and uncertainty, where traditional institutions and social structures are being re-envisioned and new avenues for innovation are increasingly defining our social fabric.
My opinion falls somewhere in the dreaded middle; I recognize, and lament, that many Millennials have been so coddled by “helicopter parents” that their ability to function as productive, independent members of society has been actively undermined since birth. However, I also recognize that the world adapts to the strengths and weaknesses of each generation. It’s not as though society will up and stop working one day because the Millennials have taken over (Right? Anyone?).
Combining a structural shift in the nature of our economy with a cultural shift in the make-up of our postsecondary graduates, it seems inevitable for universities and colleges to get stuck in the middle; on the one hand employers are asking for more from PSE graduates, while on the other hand Millennials are demanding more support and preparation from their institutions.  For policy-makers and institutional leaders, the measures of response may be one of degrees or one of kind, but either way, the role of postsecondary education in society has never been more apparent or more in question.
Postsecondary institutions need to be able to bend but not break in the face of unprecedented public scrutiny and pressure, and in order to do so they must be empowered to resist the temptations brought on by fancy new widgets, alluring “disruptions” and a generation of students (and parents) who increasingly demand immediate gratification as opposed to earned rewards.  It remains the purview of postsecondary education to prepare our students for the world at large and the world of work. Adaptations need to be made, but change can’t come overnight and it surely shouldn’t come from throwing every idea at the wall and seeing what sticks.
HEQCO’s upcoming Learning to Earning conference will share evidence-based practices and spark debate about the future of higher education in the new normal. Debate is critical because filling out a query box and pushing a button isn’t nearly enough.
-Julian Weinrib, Research Intern

One reply on “On Our Radar – Great expectations in the new normal”

I don’t believe that the thoughtful and articulate Mr. Weinrib is representative of the “Millenials” that Post-Secondary educators worry about. Rather, the generation who leave secondary school with inadequate academic preparation for PSE, teamed with the perception that a diploma is part of their “entitlement package” for entering adulthood, gives me pause. The latter issue I won’t address, but our obligation to prepare them for the new technocracy is a joint effort with primary education. We can’t teach high-level curriculum optimally while teaching remedial math and English concurrently. Any vision for the evolving role of PSE needs a solid foundation to work on from primary education.

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