Beki Grinter

Millennials

In academia, research, social media on July 28, 2009 at 12:59 pm

I’ve been hearing more and more about millennials.  Millennials is the latest name for a generation, the one after the baby boomers (perhaps the one that is the product of what happened when the baby boomers themselves had babies).

Millennials are now entering the University, so this is one context in which I have heard this argument.  So what is the argument.  The argument is that millennials are different. And that that in turn should influence education, science, and product design/development.  Which one depends, of course, on what it is precisely you want to accomplish/argue for.

But, let’s pause for a minute.  Millennials can be used in such a way that it buries a set of phenomenally important questions.  Questions about change (often the attractive answer) and questions about stability and “business as usual” (usually the less attractive option).

So one of the reasons I am skeptical about the millennials arguement is evolution (a theory to which, dear reader, I subscribe—always worth saying in the United States I think).  Evolution doesn’t suggest change quite as quickly as the millennials argument does. Given that evolution has turned out to be a relatively robust theory of explaining how humans have evolved over millions of years, I’m going to bet that arguments that turn on evolution would suggest that for the types of things that evolution can explain, there’s very little, if any difference, between millennials, baby boomers and even their 8Xgreat grandparents 🙂

A second reason I want to inspect the millennials argument is institutional. The institutional arrangements in which millennials operate are not so different than the ones that their parents did. Yes, they have bank accounts, drivers licences, need to find gainful employment (mostly), … the patterns of life, the rhythms of what happens, when and why, are still being shaped by institutions (cultural, legal, governmental, etc…) that don’t change that rapidly.

That said, it is here in the more institutional analysis that we can also begin to look at where some changes might exist. One example is the increasing use of technology to accomplish some of these activities, and what that might say about the genres. Let me give an example. Students now, frequently, use email to interact with me (as a faculty member at the University).  This is both graduates and undergraduates. I reflect on how I used email as a student, which was never with faculty, but only with other students (oh, and of course I am old enough that I only used it with students, because there were very few if any dotcom email addresses, the Internet was a largely educational-military-governmental technology). I think that email has undergone a genre convention, from being an informal medium of communication to a far more formal one. That happened as soon as it shifted from being a medium for peers to one that is now formalised. Additionally, that various legislation came to pass that suggested that what I put into email was part of the State record, and could be used as evidence in a court. I think that changes the nature of the genre, our expectations of how we use it, and when, and why.

So maybe millennials have never experienced email in the informal mode? Surely they have. But they came to email with many different possible uses of email, all as being part of email usage. Unlike I, I have acquired different uses of email as I have used it for 20 years.

OK, stepping back.  I’m not saying that millennials aren’t encountering technologies in ways that I did not. But, that’s the level of change, we need a type of granularity to the millennials argument that gets glossed over when we evoke the term and move on as if it alone is enough to explain and justify change.

What we risk when that happens is that we can proceed to design for a type of proximate, but never actually occurring future, without actually critically examining the future we are in fact going to experience and are indeed participating in building.

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