Higher Education and ‘The Generation Myth’

Generation myth: why when you are born, it matters less than you think Bobby Duffy

Published in November 2021.

How often do generational stereotypes accidentally plunge into higher education?

Until now, conversations about “digital natives” can often be heard in conversations about the level of comfort with learning technologies.

Although perhaps less public, some technologists still have a secret belief that senior teachers are less versed in software and hardware than their younger counterparts.

Also, in discussions related to higher education, there is no concern for the younger generation. Today’s students are often painted with a brush from generation to generation like snowflakes gnawing in the classroom, and this bias was accelerated by William Deresevich’s 2014 publication. A beautiful sheep.

The lazy thinking of generations, which permeates much of the discourse on social trends and from which higher education is not safe, motivates the wonderful new book by Bobby Duffy, T.Generation myth: why, when you were born, is less important than you think.

Duffy, a professor of public policy and director of the Institute of Politics at King’s College London, has written a well-founded and very compelling argument in the book against over-reliance on generational explanations.

This is not to say that Duffy is against all arguments based on generations. Instead, he reminds us that we need to consider three factors when considering the causes and consequences of group relationships and behavior. These factors:

Period effects: Events and trends that occur at all ages at a particular time.

Life cycle effects: Events that people experience with age.

Cohort effects: Ideas, norms, beliefs and behaviors common to people for one generation.

The application of period, life cycle, and cohort frameworks is particularly effective when considering the impact of Covid-19 on higher education. The pandemic has undoubtedly affected all of us – and every age group – in the higher education ecosystem and throughout it. The effect of this Covid period is also combined with a potentially significant cohort effect, as time will tell what long-term effects the pandemic will have for people who were college students during the emergency transition from residential to distance learning.

In reading The myth of generation, I realized that I don’t have a solid understanding of each generation’s definition. Although Duffy is skeptical of broad generational explanations, he admits that the effects of the cohort can be significant in understanding the challenges faced by particular generations.

It turns out there is disagreement over how to define generations. As for my definitive thinking, I am convinced by the arguments of my dad (now a retired demographer from Harvard) for defining generations within a constant 20-year time frame.

Keeping the length of each generation at 20 allows direct comparisons between generations.

The 20-year approach to generations looks like this:

Baby Boom: Born from 1946 to 1964

Generation X: Born from 1965 to 1984

Millennials: Born from 1985 to 2004

Generation Z: Born from 2005 to 2024

If we follow the above definitions of generations, we will find that higher education is in transition when the oldest members of Generation Z (born in 2005) begin to enter college.

The millennials that Duffy writes about as the most ridiculed of all generations (see Snowflakes) may add to their list the problems of the generations that own Covid as college students. (Such as extremely expensive starting house prices and high average student debt, and these are two).

What will be the implications for the cohort of our current students, College Z students?

Will a Generation Z membership have a prediction or explanation of college student results for that cohort?

And will period and life cycle effects affect cohort-based explanations for understanding trends that will determine the future successes and challenges of the latest generation of students to come to our physical (and virtual) campuses?

As a representative of a generation that no one ever talks about (Generation X), I really enjoyed reading The Myth of a Generation. (Duffy highlights why my generation is largely ignored).

Anyone thinking about the future of higher education would be wise to consider period, life cycle and cohort effects in their mental models.

Reading The myth of generation can help us all avoid our tendencies too simplistic to think about the relationship between generations and higher education.

What are you reading?

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