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And Finally...

Face to Face with the Millennial Generation

by Theresa A. Martinez

2007 Rosenblatt Prize Winner Mary Beckerle
In the fall of 2001that fateful semester when all Americans would be impacted one way or another by three ominous airline flightsI was teaching an introductory sociology course. One of my studentsI'll call him Nateclearly stood out from the rest of the class.

At just 18 years of age, this kid was already cocky. He had the unmitigated chutzpah to say challenging things like, "I don't see the point in this assignment," or, "I know more than you do." One day his mother sat in on the class-a day when I just happened to be calling out her son for talking to his neighbor (I don't tolerate sidebar chitchat). To my relief, his mother backed me up, saying she admired and respected my boundaries. But the incident was unprecedented. In 14 years of teaching, I had never had a parent visit my class.

Over the course of that semester, I slowly grew to admire Nate and to understand that, even though we were from different generations and looked at many things differently, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

Nate and his cohorts are part of what social scientists and commentators have dubbed "Millennials," also known as Generation Y. More than any other preceding generation, Millennials are connected 24/7 to friends and family. They were raised by focused, caring parents who emphasized their children's smartness and specialness, structuring their lives with activities ranging from soccer to ballet and music lessons, and from a very young age. The parents of these Millennials have stayed involved in their children's lives even as the generation has reached adulthood, sometimes to negative effect, i.e., hovering, "helicopter" parents. (Keep in mind that all bets are off on this description if the Millennials we are talking about are on the short end of the digital/class divide.)

Baby Boomers share some of the same traits mentioned above with their offspring, although there are also important differences. The pivotal moments for Boomers like me were the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War, whereas September 11th and the Iraq War frame the Millennial experience. Boomers were children of the Cold War, not children of the Internet. For Boomers, connections with other cultures and countries were not fostered or even encouraged. Boomers were raised by caring parents, but the concept of 24/7 interconnectedness was not an option, which made for a bit more autonomy over the years. Where the two generations seemingly dovetail is with "civic engagement," but with decidedly different tones. The Baby Boom generation was interested in questioning authority and changing the world, sometimes aggressively. The Millennial Generation wants to keep the structure intact but leave its mark utilizing innovation and creativity, and seeks to give back to the community in the more classic sense.

But there is a flaw, I think, in the so-called Millennial character. It is believed that the Millennial Generation is tolerant and inclusive of people of color, LGBT communities, and other marginalized groups in American society. However, as a Chicana/Latina professor who has taught "diversity" courses to Millennial students since their appearance in about 1996, I would suggest that, sadly, their "tolerance" and "acceptance of diversity" does not stand up to a discussion of their privilege. Race/class/gender/sexuality divisions are so ubiquitous, so deeply embedded in this country, that it would take a lot more than giving back a bit to the community to change that-an important cautionary note.

But back to Nate. In true Millennial fashion, he was unequivocally confident and had close interdependent ties to family and friends. He took a real interest in issues for the underserved and was moved to act when convinced that something was unjust. I discovered that he, like so many other Millennial kids, wants structure but also respect more than anything else. These kids seek a challenge but also firm leadership; they desire to be mentored but also to play the role of teacher. And Nate wantedno, he expectedto have a flexible and happy life. He epitomized an evolving American identity with all its glories and all its flaws.

In welcoming new Millennials to the U and to classes at universities across the country, teachers, researchers, and administrators should be aware of their complex character and mindful of the gap that separates the generations while also looking for new ways to challenge and collaborate with this confident bunch.

I think it's okay to suggest to this new generation that they question the status quo and strive to truly make a mark beyond their expectations. This is, after all, what a Boomer would do.

—Theresa A. Martinez is assistant vice president for Academic Outreach and associate professor of sociology.

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