In 2008 Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, endured a barrage of criticism after publishing his biting treatise on millennials, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. The book was both hailed and savaged in the national press, with Newsweek arguing that his cultural diagnosis was premature. So we asked Bauerlein if he’d like to revise anything eight years later. Here’s what he told us:
Millennials in America today are the most socially conscious, hard-working, knowledgeable, skilled and savvy, globally aware, workforce-ready, and downright interesting generation in human history. Just ask them.
More of them go to college than in previous generations, and they earn higher grades. They care more about the earth and show greater tolerance for others. They give themselves high marks in cognitive skills and work ethic, too.
If all of that were true, I’d have to shelve my thesis in The Dumbest Generation that youths are too caught up in social media to outgrow adolescent ignorance. But it isn’t. Things have gotten worse.
When I was writing the book in the mid-aughts, phone calls were still more popular than texting. Now people average more than 3,500 texts per month. Selfies didn’t exist yet, but now if I see one more smilingly oblivious 20-something taking up the sidewalk with arm outstretched, I’m going to scream. I disallow screens in my classes and make freshmen write papers by hand, preferably in cursive. Between classes, I sit on the quad and count the kids rushing from one building to another as they focus on that tiny screen to see what monumental things have happened during their 90 minutes offline.
It’s easy to cast old-school guys like me as tiresome elders grumbling about the young. I got a lot of that after Dumbest was published. At one debate, a youth researcher pointed to rising test scores for fourth graders and predicted they would blow grumps like me out of the water when they hit high school and college. People applauded. I’ve been booed and mocked many times.
But the evidence doesn’t match millennials’ confidence in their educational achievements. SAT reading scores are at their lowest in 40 years, and writing scores have fallen nearly every year since that section was added in 2005.
Yes, millennials go to college, but as many as 40 percent end up filling remedial courses. On the 2014 ACT, only 44 percent reached “college readiness” in reading, 43 percent in math.
The workplace data are just as bad. In one survey, more than two-thirds claimed high writing talents, but only half of hiring managers agreed. In another, 66 percent rated themselves strong critical thinkers, but only 26 percent of employers agreed. As for that stellar GPA, hiring managers don’t trust it. When nearly half of all college grades are an A, the scale doesn’t mean much anymore. And despite their boasts of industriousness, students spend less time doing homework than they used to—much less. At the high school level, half of students report spending an hour or less “reading/studying for class” per week!
This isn’t a generation that works hard and reaches intellectual heights boomers and Xers never scaled. No, millennials are a cohort supremely self-congratulatory. They enter the workplace with high expectations, but not the kind that pleases bosses. “Millennials strive for work-life balance, but this tends to mean work-me balance, not work-family balance,” says a story in Harvard Business Review. “They want time for themselves and space for their own self-expression.”
It takes a lot of chutzpah for 23-year-olds to set the terms of life and work, but they’ve gotten positive reinforcement for years—from themselves. They walk around with hundreds of texts documenting their week, and more than 60 percent of them have a selfie as their small-screen wallpaper. In a way, I envy them. When I was 18 and had an atheist conversion, the meaninglessness of life often crushed me. If only
I could have broadcast my despair through the social network and found my peer support group.
But that wouldn’t have made me grow up. It would have been an indulgence. The best advice we can give the young isn’t “Get a life!” It’s the opposite: “Lose your life—and find some truth.”
This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.