The Language of the Millennials

I now declare to the world that I don’t want to hear any more librarians try to tell me that college students today are so vastly different from normal human beings that no one can communicate with them. Since when did adults become such anxious ninnies about college students? I hate to make generational generalizations, but is it a boomer thing? Were they obsessed with their self-proclaimed specialness as youths and are now obsessed with their children? Or is it librarians who themselves feel out of touch who then tell the rest of us that we’re the ones out of touch?

Recently I heard from a librarian that it was as if college students today were from another planet and that they knew much more about all this techie stuff than anyone in the room. Um, sure. Speak for yourself, buddy.

The straw that broke this camel’s back was at ALA. Normally I’m in so many committee meetings or discussion groups that I don’t get to many programs, but I had an unexpectedly free slot and went to a program on “speaking the language of the millennials.” I went, thinking I might learn something and might also get at least a blog post out of it. Besides, I knew one of the speakers.

It started with one of the organizers reading from the Beloit College Mindset List. Though this list might raise a chuckle, it’s hardly a piece of keen sociological analysis. We were told that these kids today don’t remember the Berlin Wall and that Michael Moore has always been around and apparently the Beloit College people think he’s funny. I just took a quick look through the list, and, in the letters of my generation, BFD.

Were college professors and librarians such anxious ninnies when I started college? Did they have lists like the following: The class of 1991 doesn’t remember where it was at when Kennedy was shot. Either one! It doesn’t remember the Civil Rights Act, the moon landing, the Watts riots, the Stonewall riots, the Summer of Love, Woodstock, or the Vietnam War. There have always been The Pill and calculators. For them, cut and paste is a metaphor, and they write their essays on computers! Steve Martin has always been a wild and crazy guy. By the time they graduate, more time will have passed between then and Happy Days than between Happy Days and the era it depicted. How are we ever to communicate with these kids? I don’t remember anything like that.

It was with the first speaker that I knew I was in the wrong demographic for this talk. He started with a list of eight questions. I can’t remember them all (mind slipping in my old age, I guess), but I think they were: How many of you have a cell phone? Use IM and/or text messaging? Have a digital camera? Post photos to Flickr or something similar? Watch Youtube? Post videos to Youtube? Have a Facebook/Myspace profile? And something else I don’t remember. Almost everyone raised a hand at almost every question. Even me. An entire audience of tuned in, plugged in, socially networking, socially softwaring librarians coming apparently just to make sure they weren’t missing anything, anxious to learn how to speak like these millennial people. The speaker seemed taken aback. He paused for a moment, then said “Oh. Then you’re a lot like the college students I see coming in every year.” So much for difference. The first slide, and first statement after the questions, was something like, “the Internet is an important tool for modern communication.” At that point I walked out. I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I work with new college students every year. I teach them in class, I see them in instruction sessions, I meet with them in my office. Somehow I never seem to have any problem communicating with them or speaking a language they can understand. Where I work the language of the millennials is English (for the most part). Is that not the case elsewhere in the country? Yet we librarians are bombarded with claims that these students are so vastly different from “us” that we need to learn some special language to reach them, or that they’re so much more tech-savvy than we benighted librarians. It’s come to the point where I’m not sure whether to believe them or my lying eyes.

12 thoughts on “The Language of the Millennials

  1. I am in gen-x (remember that?) and they freaked out about us too. The tatoos, the green-day hair, etc. I would so love to never hear the word millennial again.

  2. Funny post and right on. I’m either the end of the boomers or the beginning of the gen-xers, depending on whose numbers you use, but I don’t have a big problem communicating with my students as a librarian or in the past as a teacher. I think using the same technology as the millenials helps, but I just don’t buy all the generalizations about them either.

  3. Extracted from a google search:
    Perhaps the oldest continuous theme in adult commentary is to deplore the younger generation as worse than its grandparents. An hieroglyphic taken from an ancient Egyptian tomb, circa 4,000 BC, reads: “Today’s young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They have no self control.” If earlier cave-wall inscriptions could be translated, doubtless they’d read that today’s boys can’t hunt and girls don’t gather like their halcyon ancestors of yore.
    In 700 BC, for example, the Greek poet Hesiod proclaimed “no hope for the future of our people if they are to be dependent upon the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words, exceeding ‘wise’ and impatient of restraint.” Socrates complained that youth love luxury, bad manners, tyrannizing their teachers, gluttony (and, apparently, him). Plato accused the young of being lawless, disrespectful, disobedient, and morally decayed. By 400 BC, adults were already running out of epithets. None of the older-younger vitriolics regularly repeated since has improved on ancient tirades.
    In 1700, American religious icon Increase Mather declared that “if the body of the present generation be compared with what was here forty years ago, what a sad degeneracy is evident.” Youth of 1850 were derided by elder erudite George Templeton Strong as “so much gross dissipation redeemed by so little culture.
    I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give the younger generation or give me a double bacon cheeseburger, hold the ketchup and a large fries.

  4. That’s very funny, Walt. I’ve read some of the before, but not concentrated in one place. It does seem to be the perennial complaint. The new book “The Dumbest Generation” seems to be making it all over again. I think most of us forget what self-absorbed ignoramuses we were as teenagers. I certainly was. Thus when we’re older and have a bit of experience and maybe learned some stuff, we look at these kids and think, hey, how come they’re not old like me?

  5. I avoid these sessions like the plague. But they are hard to escape. I attended three different programs at ALA which had nothing to do with generational differences that slowly descended into the same old discussion of “Those darn kids! They are so different from us!!”
    Plus, it appears we have a new term: “Screenagers”. Screenagers, as my ALA presenters informed me, are very young Millennials who are even more connected and tech savvy than their older brothers and sisters.
    Unfortunately, I suspect it is only a matter of time before we see presentations on “How to Connect with Your Screenage Students” and “Screenagers vs. Millennials” at ALA.

  6. If I heard anyone use the term “screenager” I might have to become a screamager and run screaming in terror.

  7. Two things: the Beloit list isn’t so bad if you take it as a yearly reminder that your frame of reference–the things you take as common knowledge or almost-current-events–may not resonate with 17-24 year olds. Not that they are so incredibly different, but, as I recall Michael Berube writing once, that your Elvis Costello reference won’t resonate.
    Second, I think many students come to college–particularly to Princeton or to private liberal arts colleges like the one I work for–with the expectation that their experience and interactions will transcend pop culture and technological fetishism.

  8. Steve, I agree on the Beloit list (except for some of the entries, which just seem dumb), but in the context of “speaking the language of the millennials,” it was just too much. I realize my cultural references don’t necessarily work on students, but this is just part of getting older. It’s nothing special to these college students. I always tell them that I know they won’t get my references, just like in the song “Hey, Nineteen!”
    And it could just be the students I see. They’re certainly addicted to Facebook and text messaging, but they’re usually smart and curious and don’t confine themselves to the relative bubble of their age group.
    This reminds me of a rhetoric class I taught about fifteen years ago. We were workshopping an essay, and one of the students had made a reference to something that happened during the Vietnam War. Another student opined that none of the students should make references to anything that happened before they were all born. I pooh-poohed that suggestion, though, arguing that if readers don’t get the reference of a writer, then the burden is on the readers to educate themselves. The students were then 18 then and they’d now be about 33. Probably some of them now know about events that happened before they were born.

  9. Two things get me about that session (I didn’t go, because I expected it to be about how you describe–I’m not sure whether I’m pleased or disappointed that my expectations appear to have been met): one, yet again the theme that millennials are just so, so different, and two, that this difference is primarily use of technology.
    I can’t say that I know many of our students well; I’m a pretty reserved person and I teach mostly one-shots. But the ones I have gotten to know remind me pretty much of what I was like at around that age, albeit with a different life context and different toys. (Though I probably text as much as they do: it’s less disruptive in the library and is a great way to send pictures!)
    And, geez, it’s not like the Internet spontaneously erupted just a few years ago. I’ve been online since 1994, and though the tools have changed, the way people interact isn’t all that different from the days of BBSes and Usenet. What, it’s not a social network until it’s on the Web?
    Sorry, I’m ranting. Great post, as usual.

  10. *applause*
    Wayne, I love you for saying this out loud. Thank you.
    I hate this sort of thing with a white-hot passion. If you’re that worried about connecting with the
    “kids,” it’s not that hard to do. I do it working with actual OLD books…and they don’t seem to have any trouble understanding me or thinking that my materials are cool. Even at the “ripe old age” of 33.
    *rolls eyes*

  11. Hi Wayne,
    I am the guy at the ALA conference who asked those eight questions. Too bad you walked out so early. I was just getting warmed up. Besides, the other speakers were even better than I was and they provided two very different and interesting perspectives. Oh well…I know how you felt. I went to the NECC Conference in San Antonio the very next day and had a similar reaction to a librarian spouting off the same kind of craziness. Please!
    Ironically enough, I agree with you. I don’t buy into any of that generational nonsense myself. I think it is all a bunch of marketing psycho-babble (but don’t get me started!). Anyway, I firmly believe that students today do not necessarily act or behave any differently than students behaved in my day (1960-70s). Some are more technically proficient than their parents; some are not. But, they do have different tools and resources than we did twenty, thirty years ago and that’s what I was trying to speak to. The point I tried to make after you left was that, yes, the Web is central to most if not all of our communications, but that the way the information on the Web is accessed and shared today is changing very quickly. Forget desktops and laptops, we need to be focused on handhelds!! The wireless Internet market is booming. Are you prepared? If organizations today – and that includes libraries – do not have an effective communications strategy that considers how information is accessed and retrieved on the Web with handhelds, then they need to re-vamp their plans immediately.
    The other key point – and this is a big difference – is that the changes in the way people of all ages communicate and collaborate in the marketplace is radically different today. With wikis, Google Docs, VR systems and other such Web-based collaborative tools, disparate teams of people in various parts of the world can now work, communicate, and collaborate on the same projects. This is how the global economy works today. Consider the recent changes in supply-chain management, aircraft manaufacturing, software development, motion-picture production, and more, where products and services are produced and delivered globally using dispersed manufacturing/production teams in various parts of the world. (Not to mention Google books, Worldcat, etc.)
    Students need to know how to work and communicate in such an environment and as educators we need to help students learn how to be competitive in such a communications environment. It has nothing to do with generations but everything to do with the current tools and networked infrastructure of our global marketplace. It’s not so much about speaking to Millennials (whatever) in their language as it is about using the right communications channels and protocols.

  12. Bradley,
    Thanks for commenting. I’ve been meaning to respond earlier, but work and life have been crazy.
    I wasn’t necessarily criticizing the panel so much as pointing out that I’m definitely not the right audience for it and shouldn’t have attended in the first place. I appreciate your point that you were addressing communication tools, and not some “language of the millennials,” and I think it’s too bad that was the title of the program. The reason I probably shouldn’t have attended is that I already know about and use more recent communication tools. What my library can do, I don’t know, but I know I search our OPAC on my phone and I’m as ready as anyone for positive changes.
    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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