Lost in the blizzard: students of Generation Z

Are today’s students really self-absorbed snowflakes or are lecturers merely experiencing the other side of the intergenerational perspective?

August 29, 2019
Trapeze artists
Source: Alamy

The idea that there is something fundamentally and dangerously wrong with young people has become one of the most familiar discussions of recent years.

Snowflakes used to fall from the sky. Now the notion of self-absorbed, fragile and anxious young adults is a standard discussion point for an ever more animated collection of talking heads.

It is often accompanied by the suggestion that universities are compounding Generation Z’s frailty by pandering to them, and in particular to their supposed intolerance.

The idea that the next generation differs from those that came before is not new, but there are certain accelerants superheating the most recent outbreak of intergenerational panic.

Technology is the obvious one – the impact it is having on social interaction, on careers and on mental health are all live questions (although these are not limited to the young).

Related are the shifts in politics, the emergence of new existential threats – first among which is the climate crisis – and the financial strain that is being loaded on to young shoulders.

So what is it like to teach Gen Z students? How much truth do those spending time at the front of the classroom find in this popular analysis? Are today’s students melting like the polar ice, or is the snowflake narrative a lot of hot air?

In our cover story, we ask six scholars for their perspectives, with contributions from Australia, the US and the UK. As one would expect, they offer a range of thoughts, but one thread running through several is the sense that everything has changed, but fundamentally very little has changed.

Mark Aspinwall, who has worked in senior roles at universities in both Scotland and Mexico, acknowledges that it is “hard to know how objective we are being when we judge the current generation” because “if we feel students are getting more irritating, perhaps we are just experiencing the other side of the intergenerational perspective”.

While he notes that students do seem needier in terms of the feedback and level of instruction they require, and far more cite special circumstances than he has experienced in the past, “in terms of actual learning, I don’t see any real change”.

His conclusion, ultimately, is that “the best way to help students is simply to be there for them. Whatever else we do, we’re responsible for their development. This requires time – as well as sensitivity, compassion and patience.”

This sense that it is time and attention that is needed most is mirrored in a new book, The College Dropout Scandal, by David Kirp of the University of California, Berkeley. It argues that the shockingly high non-completion rate in the US – and it is shocking that 40 per cent of students who enrol do not graduate – is being allowed to fester when potential solutions are clear.

“Some students leave school because of money woes, others realise that college isn’t right for them,” Kirp writes. “But many depart because the institution hasn’t given them the ‘we-have-your-back’ support they need.” Non-completion may be an extreme manifestation of a failed bond between student and university, but the lessons are relevant more broadly to the needs of today’s learners, and mirror comments in our cover story.

While the solutions to the US dropout crisis “do not need to be fanciful”, they do require intensive and sustained attention – to “be there” for students, to repeat Aspinwall’s words – and that is the central problem Kirp identifies: that for too many colleges, other priorities come first.

This is the institutional equivalent of the lack of time that many scholars feel they have to engage with their own students in the way that they would like to – or to the degree that students need.

Resolving this, then, requires buy-in from the top down. As Kirp puts it: “Unless university leaders are up for the challenge – unless they regard student success not as a risky business but as a moral imperative – the dropout problem won’t be solved.”

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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