In a culture where everyone wins a trophy, where A’s outnumber C’s on report cards and where a child’s self-esteem is as polished as the family silver, it’s not surprising that young people feel good about themselves.
Do they feel too good?
Yes, says Arthur Levine, co-author of the new book, “Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student,” a snapshot of the values, lives and aspirations of students enrolled in college between 2005 through current students.
“This is a generation of kids never permitted to skin their knees. If everyone won an award and you never really had to deal with adversity, why wouldn’t you think you were great?” asks Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University.
That coddling, evidenced by parents still intervening for their kids with messy college roommates or demanding professors, is extending adolescence and delaying adulthood for the tightrope generation.
“As one person told us, 21 is the new 16,” says Levine. “This is a generation low in coping skills, low in dealing with adversity and low in autonomy.”
But high in confidence. While today’s college students are the beneficiary of inflated grades, the majority believe their grade point averages underestimate their accomplishments. More than two in five report GPA’s of A- or better, the highest rate in more than 40 years. Sixty percent believe their grades understate the quality of their work. Yet, 45 percent have had to take remedial courses.
They are also assured about their futures, although not about the prospects of the larger world. Despite coming of age amid one of the worst recessions in U.S. history, 88 percent are optimistic about their own fates and nearly three-fourths expect to be at least as well off as their parents.
“I can’t quite figure out how you can be so optimistic and believe that you are going to do better than your parents and yet be so pessimistic about the future of the country,” says Levine, who co-wrote the book with Diane Dean, an associate professor at Illinois State University.
Among other contradictions:
•Despite being in constant touch with friends, family and acquaintances via social media, young adults are weak at personal communications.
•An unprecedented proportion (89 percent) profess to want children, yet most describe social lives of casual relationships and sex.
•They view themselves as global citizens but the majority can’t recognize the names of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Oddly, roughly equal numbers can’t recognise the name of “Daily Show” star Jon Stewart (34 percent) or conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh (36 percent)
When he began the book, Levine assumed that 9/11 would be the defining event in the lives of the tightrope generation. Instead, more students said the biggest impact was the introduction of the World Wide Web (42 percent), followed by the financial crisis (37 percent), 9/11 (29 percent) and the Barack Obama nomination and election (25 percent).
The most recent graduating class in the college-age cohort reflected in the book, the class of 2012, was born into a world of Apple, Microsoft and AOL. By their kindergarten, there were smart phones, DVDs and texting. By elementary school, Google, Napster and had arrived on the scene. Middle school witnessed Skype, MySpace and Facebook. And high school brought YouTube, and Twitter.
“For me, the big epiphany was these guys are the first digital natives,” says Levine, comparing them to children born into the Industrial Revolution. But the industrialization of America extended over six generations. The digital revolution occurred in a matter of decades.
“I don’t know if anyone is well prepared to face dramatic, continuing change at an accelerating pace, but these guys, with their lack of autonomy, their dependence on adults and their desire for some stability, are even less well prepared than generations that came before,” he says.
As a leader in higher education, Levine believes the college experience can help kids grow up, beginning with the academic equivalent of a kick to the shins.
“What would happen if we did away with grade inflation, if all of the students now getting A’s began getting B’s and C’s?” he says. “Would it work as a two-by-four in helping them understand where they really stand?”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog