Every adult generation in history has worried about the young people following in their wake.
Youth have almost always been found wanting, seemingly lacking the attributes and qualities necessary for lifelong success.
That adults are currently deeply worried about the current “Entitlement Generation” follows in a well-established pattern. But, if the experience of many university professors is a guide, adults may be right this time.
The kids are not OK
My experience with universities in North America, Japan, New Zealand and other countries has raised serious concerns about the contemporary academic enterprise.
Campuses are not intellectually dynamic places these days. With the crucial caveat that there are substantial numbers of talented, motivated and engaged students at all universities, the majority of undergraduates seem disconnected from the intellectual life of their institutions.
The symptoms are familiar: poor attendance, lack of attention to lectures, reluctance to read, routine complaints, and heavy demands on professors. Career prospects matter more than ideas and campus idealism has taken a battering.
Welcome to the Entitlement Generation
The Entitlement Generation has arrived, and they are changing the university system around the world.
Young people in the developed world may be among the most spoiled group of young people in history.
Coddled by their parents and the schools, raised with remarkable material wealth and opportunity, laden with self-esteem, technologically connected and routinely promised the world, many young people are ill-prepared for the challenges of university study, let alone the highly competitive, globalized workforce that awaits them upon graduation.
That they insist on being catered to by the system threatens the very integrity of the academic enterprise.
Can universities cope with their students?
The universities themselves are not well-prepared for the realities of the Entitlement Generation.
The academy requires intellectual focus and commitment, elements in short supply among contemporary youth.
Courses require hard work and should reward accomplishment, not student effort and expectations.
This is a time when students routinely challenge their grades, pressure professors for better treatment and offer excuses instead of work product. Many instructors make accommodations, such as reducing reading lists and easing up on grading standards, and often pay with unfavourable student evaluations if they do not.
New arrangements are being offered to support international students, many of them struggling with language requirements, largely in recognition of the high fees they pay.
All universities have pockets of excellence, and many are creating specialised elite programs to attract and hold the attention of the best students.
Pass degrees, with marginal standards and little career relevance, are proliferating even faster, however, as universities struggle to meet parental, student and government demands to maximise accessibility.
The degree myth
Employers are increasingly less impressed with the graduates, and the workforce, flooded by an over-production of graduates, is proving to be an unwelcoming place for many.
Universities made a Faustian bargain years ago when they bought into the dual claim that universities were critical for national economic success and that rapid growth in undergraduate enrollment would pay for the research activities.
The result - bringing in thousands of students ill-prepared for or uninterested in academic work - has been a dumbing down of the university system.
Improving access is vital if financial barriers stop smart students from attending university. However, opening up the universities with falling regard for the intellectual ability and commitment of the incoming students is a recipe for system-wide mediocrity and professorial despair.
Universities need to tackle the challenges of the Entitlement Generation head on. Institutions and the professoriate need to reassert their authority over students and the learning environment.
Standards need to be clearly articulated and honoured. Students must be told, in the first instance, that universities require attention and hard work.
The requirements for substantial reading and intense study must be re-valued and strongly defended. Students must learn that there are two requirements for admission and graduation: ability and a deep desire to learn.
Universities have gone down a path from which there is no easy escape. They try to discern government wishes and to take in the students that state authorities insist be accommodated. They cater to students in order to meet accountability targets and to avoid conflict on campus.
The Entitlement Generation expects the world to respond to their demand for a simple and unchallenging route to adulthood and financial well-being. The mix is an unhappy one.
Campus intellectual vitality is declining, professors struggle to reach increasingly diffident students, and the students in turn complain about boring lectures, heavy workloads and unreasonable expectations.
It is time for frankness in responding to the needs and interests of the younger generation. Catering to students who give too little and expect too much is a recipe for collective disaster.
Parents and government must also take responsibility
Parents, overly supportive of their children, do not want to hear that they and many high school teachers spoiled a whole generation.
As the world’s economy teeters on the brink of calamity, as globalisation disrupts the order of nations, as technology eats away at traditional patterns of work, the world needs a formidable, courageous, innovative and hardworking generation of young adults.
Instead, and with the full cooperation of governments, parents and high school teachers, universities are producing a decidedly mixed bag consisting of a small percentage of highly qualified and motivated graduates, and a much larger number of blatant careerists and ill-educated time servers.
Countries expect universities to take the best and brightest of each generation and convert them into the leaders and specialists of tomorrow.
Would you employ a Gen Y graduate?
Blessed with the fastest and greatest expansion in university education since the Cold War, universities are failing both the students and societies they are honour bound to serve.
Professors might want to try a simple personal test to assess the relative accomplishments and abilities of the Entitlement Generation.
Assume you are using your own money to start a company. How many of the students in front of you would you hire? If the response from many North American professors is a guide, the number is very small.
The failure to prepare students for the near future may, ultimately, be the legacy of the intersection of the Entitlement Generation and the grand experiment in university expansion and accessibility.