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A Generation Raised at the Circus

Arthur Levine has methodically studied changes in the American college student for over four decades. His newest book, “Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student” (Jossey-Bass September 2012), is a collaborative effort with Diane R. Dean that sheds light on uncomfortable truths about today’s college-educated Millennial generation. Judging from the picture they paint in the preface, the authors have assessed the challenges confronting my generation with a great degree of accuracy. They write that this generation of tightrope walkers:
[…desperately] want the economic opportunity that their parents enjoyed, but are coming of age during a deep recession with diminished career prospects… They want to be autonomous grown-ups but seem more dependent on their parents and the adults around them than any modern generation. They want intimacy—a partner and a family—but they are isolated, weak in face-to-face communication skills and live in a hook-up culture… This is a generation that thinks of itself as global citizens but knows little about the world and acts locally.
Levine and Dean’s assertions about the great degree to which twenty-somethings depend upon their parents grabbed my attention. Millennials maintain significant contact with their parents, and while that contact has its positives, it has created a generation of young people who have little experience solving life’s inevitable hiccups on their own. Sadly, the Millennials emerge from college ill-prepared to handle life’s setbacks or the challenges of the workplace. Generation on a tightrope The importance of developing coping skills to handle difficult situations reminded me of an article by Paul Tough entitled “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?,” which appeared in the New York Times’s education section about a year ago. The article describes the philosophy of Dominic Randolph, the headmaster of one of New York’s most prestigious private schools. Randolph eliminated high school AP classes and discouraged putting too much emphasis on tests, arguing that it is the inculcation of character which will teach students how to be successful humans. In connecting good character to success, Randolph reportedly said, “‘Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,’ …  ‘Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure.'” Perhaps the prescription for a generation of tightrope walkers is not only cultivation of character but teaching them that while it is okay to have a safety net, everyone needs to know how to handle a fall.