Meet iGen

You will be hearing a lot about a new book by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. A decade ago, she wrote Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before (Free Press, 2006). Her new book is iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (Atria Books, 2017).

Based on these titles you can see why some reviewers call her the Eeyore of generational studies.

The author was recently interviewed by Eric Hoover in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Please have a look.

There is plenty of room for skepticism about labeling generations as discrete cohorts. The issue of arbitrariness has been covered here before. But we now have a generation of young people who grew up completely with smart phones and social media. For professor Twenge, that’s a big deal. She believes screen time for kids should be treated as junk food. A Twinkie now and then isn’t a problem, but a steady diet of those little devils and it spells trouble.

The most disturbing aspect of the author’s findings is that iGen members are less happy than their predecessors. This may confirm observations many of us have made about our students. The young ones appear miserable, even afraid, when looking at their screens. Afraid of rejection? Afraid of criticism? Bullies? Why do they seem to have trouble making eye contact with real people?

Those of us from previous eons must be careful about judging. When we look back on our high school and college days with nostalgia, we tend to gloss over the anxiety. But if we older folks, who may rarely use smart phones, and need remediation on how to download an app, can find happiness (or at least contentment), while disease, decrepitude, and doom march inexorably toward us, why can’t these kids just lighten up a little? Where is the joy?

Abstinence from electronic devices will work about as well as it does with sex. But you will note that smart phones offer little or no fun at all, based on the research of Dr. Twenge. That’s not fair. Have a look at the kittens and laughing babies on YouTube. It can make your day, if you are old.

The author’s findings are not all about smart phones and such, so please read the entire interview. Here is a key passage of particular interest to college teachers:

What do people in classrooms need to know about iGen?

Textbooks need to be shorter, more interactive. It’s so common for faculty members to say, “Oh, my students won’t read the book,” and it’s not surprising, given the decline in reading during leisure time. In a college course, that’s distressing, and it needs to change. But it’s not just students who need to change. The materials need to change, too.

Where’s the line between adapting and capitulating to the perceived whims of today’s youth?

It’s finding a balance between giving students what they want but also giving them what they need for long-term success. The good news is there are many things you can do in the classroom to accomplish both. One involves this generation’s extrinsic focus on goals. You have to use carrots and sticks a little bit more, whether that’s a quiz on the reading, points for class participation, or maybe an electronic textbook that enforces a deadline. They respond to that.

I shifted to an electronic textbook in my classes a year ago, and I was shocked that several students said they liked having to complete readings by a certain time. And I was like, “Did you just say ‘Thank you’ for making you do something by a deadline? Are you sure you’re a college student?” But it’s a reward, and they respond to that.

As faculty, we can’t do that without also saying, OK, we need to have some joy in here, too, some intrinsic motivation, too. That can come through encouraging discussion and meeting this generation where they live, which is often video. Short videos have to be pedagogically sound and relevant, but some video that’s engaging is really essential these days.