Generation Map

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Author: William Schmitt

They’re watching Fox News on LaFortune’s big-screen TVs. They’re using cell phones as umbilical cords to double-check decisions with their parents. One professor reports they’re often unnerved about seminar classes, where the goal of lively debate seems to repeal their usual model of avoiding candid disagreements that might hurt someone’s feelings. “They’re deferential, almost to a fault,” says another professor.

These same students are starting up their own newspapers to assertively defend Catholic orthodoxy in debates about abortion and The Vagina Monologues. “When I’m defending a difficult point of Church teaching,” a priest says of his classroom, “I get the feeling they’re rooting for me.”

Today’s Notre Dame undergraduates impress a lot of people as somehow different from their predecessors of five, 10 or 20 years ago. From my vantage point—firmly planted in midlife and largely frustrated about American culture’s coarseness and self-centeredness —I draw an unexpected hope from traits I see in these students. But there’s also a puzzlement I share with a lot of people my age: How could this new generation be the offspring of parents whose high school and college memories include Vietnam War protests and Watergate scandals, rebellion against authority, and the celebration of the “me” and the “now” in contrast to time-worn traditions and institutions?

My recent reading of a few insightful books has reassured me that a pendulum has indeed swung, and I’m not imagining a set of new tendencies on campus. The explanation is as old and unsettling as the history of intergenerational tensions; it’s as new and invigorating as a challenge to the stagnant status quo.

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s God on the Quad captures this mix of friction and hope in an exploration of a so-called “missionary generation” that has emerged among the students in this country’s approximately 700 religious colleges and universities. Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, by William Strauss and Neil Howe, presciently describes a “millennial generation,” born since 1982 and now entering the college scene. Sequels by Strauss and Howe, particularly Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, carry the description further, suggesting how and why current undergraduates see the world differently and place greater value on such things as institutional rules, orderliness and community-mindedness.

A perusal of the books’ key points offers a theoretical view of the people who shape our present and our future. The reality has arrived on campus, and the books seem to be correct: The times, they are a-changin’.

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God on the Quad, which devotes a chapter to Notre Dame, is hardly a definitive study of American undergraduates. Published early this year, it is a work of journalism, not sociology, based on the author’s visits to 20 religious colleges. Riley’s description of a surging missionary generation—rejecting “the spiritually empty education of secular schools,” “the sophisticated ennui of their contemporaries” and “the intellectual relativism of professors” —may refer disproportionately to the growing populations of conservative students at relatively new, small colleges marked by evangelistic, if not evangelical, zeal.

The analysis glosses over the fact that America’s 230 or so Catholic colleges and universities are a significant phenomenon unto themselves. By one count, they produce at least half of the 1.3 million students who graduate each year from all 700 religious institutions. But the book does indicate that, even among Catholics, this generation of students seems to be different from preceding ones.

More significantly, when Riley focuses on Notre Dame, she zooms to the heart of a subject that has distinctive appeal to both the generation and the school she is writing about. “Notre Dame is at a crossroads,” she says. “Will it become more secular or more Catholic?” The question launches the author into wide-ranging snapshots of attitudes toward sexuality, social justice, diversity, service learning and more. The University admirably leaves room for debates on these issues, she reports, coming to a conclusion that is perhaps correct but superficial. “Though they may be religious and conservative, Notre Dame graduates do not become what many think of as religious conservatives. They are more likely to end up like graduates of East Coast Ivy League schools, as professionals in the cultural, financial, and political centers of the country.”

The role of Catholic tradition, spirituality and values in the formation of such graduates—factors that might make them truly different from either the “religious conservative” or “Ivy Leaguer” stereotypes—is a more complicated matter than Riley’s 17-page chapter can grapple with. But the book does quote Notre Dame anthropologist Rev. Patrick Gaffney, CSC, as suggesting that the role of Catholicism in students’ development has changed. An earlier generation came to Notre Dame already acculturated into Catholicism but inclined to use their college years as a chance to break out and explore other perspectives and experiences, Gaffney says. “By contrast, now kids are coming with a longing for a faith tradition.” More than 80 percent of Notre Dame students are Catholic, but Riley notes that only a bit more than 40 percent attended Catholic high schools.

Although they may stand and deliver the Catholic answers on today’s cultural hot topics, she observes that they often lack the “Catholic intellectual formation” that would provide theological and philosophical underpinnings for their stances. David Solomon, director of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, is quoted saying that students acknowledge liking his courses “because I show them why their arguments are right.”

Can Riley’s generalizations about Notre Dame undergraduates be extended to include other Catholic colleges, which represent quite a spectrum of approaches and demographics? Is the “missionary generation” at religious schools an overblown exception when one considers the entire student population at public universities and nonsectarian private campuses?

A study reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education in April implies that Riley’s discovery of a religious renaissance does indeed extend beyond explicitly religious schools. A survey of 112,232 freshmen at campuses around the country, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California at Los Angeles, found that 79 percent of first-year students say they believe in God; 69 percent say their religious beliefs “provide strength, support and guidance”; 80 percent say they have discussed, occasionally or frequently, religion and spirituality with friends; and 64 percent say their spirituality is a source of joy.

There are some counterweights among the findings. Fully 48 percent of these freshmen describe themselves as “doubting, seeking or conflicted,” as opposed to 42 percent who are “secure” in spiritual/religious matters. Only 40 percent say they consider religious teachings essential or very important in everyday life. Nevertheless, HERI reports that students have “high expectations for the role their institutions will play in their emotional and spiritual development.”

The article quotes academicians worrying that many universities have not recognized their students’ craving for discussion of basic, universal questions—a craving that doesn’t fit today’s usual parameters of intellectual inquiry. An associate professor of religion at Swarthmore says three times as many students sign up for his “Religion and the Meaning of Life” seminar as he can accept.

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Generations, an engaging analysis of age-group traits as they reappear cyclically through American history, offers some ideas about why today’s undergraduates might have caught their professors off-guard. A new generation of young people—those born between 1982 and 2002—has indeed taken center stage at colleges and universities in the past few years. These “Millennials,” as the authors call them, now have replaced (at least among undergraduates) the so-called Generation X, born in the 1960s and 1970s. The Millennials are the children of Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers, this latter parental group now aged roughly between 45 and 62.

According to the sweeping vision of the authors, the combination of Millennials’ reactions to Boomer parenting and other historical experiences and forces has made them distinct from the generations before them; this is the stuff of which generation gaps have been made throughout history. The sense of change and tension that arises on a university campus when a new age cohort arrives on the scene is nothing more than a society’s generational reshuffling in microcosm. Since Millennials will constitute the student body for almost the next two decades, it behooves all other members of the Notre Dame family to get to know these Millennials better.

The picture Strauss and Howe paint of this up-and-coming generation is remarkably compatible with Riley’s picture of the “missionary generation,” but the focal point is different. In their four books focused on the subject of generations, the authors seldom delve into religion. However, in their Millennials Rising, published in 2000, a brief section is devoted to Millennials’ religiosity. The authors make points that may ring true about current Notre Dame undergraduates—and which suggest to me some broader truths:

• “Millennials think and talk more about faith, and do more with it, than older people realize.” God and church do matter to them, although their upbringing has often treated churchgoing as a family activity, not necessarily as an exercise in individual faith development.

• “When Millennials do get to church, they are preached at to behave more than to believe—a message they are taking to heart.” Boomers, who grew up in the spiritual free-for-all of a highly secular era, have not transmitted much theology or spirituality to their offspring, but parents have incorporated the notion of religious values when issuing codes of conduct and agendas for action.

• Religion matters most to Millennials “when they can apply it in the usual Millennial manner—by organizing it themselves, by forming clubs, by bearing witness collegially, by focusing on team deed-doing ahead of solitary spirituality.” This observation may help to explain why Boomers and Gen-Xers, two generations of individualistic, anti-establishment types, have been surprised to see young people gravitate toward the Catholic Church, both as a global institution and as a collection of local institutions that serve as launching pads for clubs, teams and other forms of community activity.

Strauss and Howe make a number of other generalizations about Millennials that offer useful insights into the “missionary generation” template, as well as the students who are now becoming part of the Notre Dame family.

The authors acknowledge that plenty of counterexamples exist to their usually upbeat observations about Millennials, and plenty of forces are active in history other than the cyclicality of generations. They recommend that readers focus on the new direction taken by each successive generation as a group, and the different center of gravity for each generation, rather than expect any immediate sea change or reprogrammed typecasting of every human heart.

Some new directions are clear, as are their root causes. Millennials have been the recipients of strong parental protection. With a low child-to-parent ratio, Millennials generally have had close relationships with their parents and were raised to be “good kids,” shepherded to team sports by soccer moms. They have been governed by careful timing and thorough organization of their activities, all intended to yield good order, use time efficiently, avoid the ambient social chaos and ensure eventual high achievement.

Remember that the Boomers who parented these kids grew up at a time when America was enjoying a hope-filled sense of stability and solidarity after its victory in World War II. As we Boomers entered our teens and 20s, our idealism found expression in a rebellion against our elders—the “Silent Generation” that had been born during the Great Depression or wartime, and the “GI Generation” that fought the war. Our parents had learned the virtue of pulling together sacrificially into a cohesive civic unity for a good cause.

As generations will do, Boomers came to see a dark side in the virtues of the past. We resisted the “establishment” and its call for conformity, especially as it was expressed in the debate about the Vietnam War. Disillusioned by our elders’ misdeeds, we wanted to forge a better path that expressed our individuality and fulfilled personal goals. Gen X was born during our time of rebellion; they picked up this message of distrustful individualism and ran with it. We Boomers have remained idealistic but, finding ourselves largely impotent in improving the world en masse, have focused instead on making life better for ourselves and our families. We gave birth to Millennials, who think it might be nice to give cooperation and social cohesion another try.

Strauss and Howe argue that this cycle of rebellion and return is nothing new. History tends to repeat itself in seasons that follow the rhythm of generations as they pass through the four principal phases of life (each roughly 20 years in duration)—from childhood to young adulthood to a mid-life peak of institutional power to an advice-giving, tone-setting elderhood, then retreating from the public stage of life’s active phases into the dim afterglow of advanced age. The four cohorts “on stage” at any one time always have their own personae and intergenerational dynamics. The four personae, as described in Generations, are the civic, the adaptive, the idealist and the reactive.

Today’s grandparents, now slipping away from us, are largely the GI Generation. Their persona was the civic generation, with community as their watchword—interested in team spirit, playing by the rules, aspiring to heroism and service to the common good. News anchorman Tom Brokaw has honored this age segment as “the greatest generation.”

Four groups are currently active in the arena of public affairs. As described by Strauss and Howe, the cohorts show these general tendencies if not individual traits:

The Silent Generation,

now in their 60s and 70s. Their persona is adaptive, with pluralism as their watchword. Their team spirit tends toward responsiveness to individual expertise and specialization. Their consciousness of “the other” takes the form of a desire for social justice and fairness. Their peak of institutional power may be waning, but they still influence what is valued, what is invested in.

The Boomers. Their persona is idealist, with principle as the watchword. They want to do what’s right (by their own lights). Education and the world of ideas are important to them. Many become writers, preachers and teachers, but this doesn’t always lead to team or community commitment, and they’re not good joiners. They are now at the summit of influence in government, business and other institutions.

Generation X. Their persona is reactive. Their watchword is liberty. They want to be autonomous and unfettered. Pragmatism is valued, partly because they are anxious about survival in a chaotic, competitive world. In their current phase of life, they provide much of the au courant energy reflected in everyday culture.

The Millennials. They are the new, rising civic generation, and they’ve already spotted the need to update their predecessors’ thinking. I’m reminded of an essay in the new edition of Fresh Writing, the Notre Dame publication highlighting the best work from First-Year Composition classes. The book’s sampling of commentaries reminds us that Notre Dame students are individuals, not marching in lockstep with any author’s (or authority’s) decrees. But freshman essayist Gregory Wagman, for one, also captures the directional shifts between generations as he critiques the U.S. Army recruiting slogan “An Army of One” (viscerally GenX in tone), which replaced “Be All That You Can Be” (perhaps a bit more Boomer). He now recommends a slogan both more honest and Millennially compelling: “A Band of Brothers.”

A new generation to follow the Millennials may be just aborning in hospital delivery rooms, but it hasn’t been named yet. If patterns hold, it will be a silent generation, shaped by a childhood lived in a time of major crisis. That crisis, too, remains temporarily undefined.

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Strauss and Howe thereby give us an elaborate lens through which to study not only the behavior of the Millennials but also the perspectives and attitudes of other generations in relation to our new undergraduates. We non-students can hardly be mere spectators in this century-spanning saga of rebellion and return. As in an ideal family, our cross-generational relationships help to shape everyone’s future and even extend to the very old.

It is instructive that the Millennials and the Greatest Generation share the same civic persona. This helps to explain the remarkable attraction young people felt for Pope John Paul II, with his summons to community both locally and globally and his drive for clarity about reasoning, rituals and rules around which people can unite. He also made young audiences feel cherished as important emissaries. Youths looking for models of stability in a chaotic world preferred this out-front leader over Boomers simply improvising their own private, spiritual quests.

It is humbling to think that a generation’s search for larger-than-life heroes must stretch back four generations, back to a cohort that isn’t even on the society’s radar screen anymore. But it is also comforting to note that, at least according to Strauss and Howe, it has always been thus. They write: “The affinity between grandparent and grandchild is universal folk wisdom.”

It is also stirring to think that an institution such as the Catholic Church is a place where young people—indeed, members of every generation—might constructively look for role models. Some see the Church’s pursuit of doctrinal continuity over time as a sure way to exacerbate generation gaps by stifling the need to modernize. Others see this persistence of belief and belonging as the best way to_ bridge_ generation gaps. This latter view comports with my experience of seeing the admiration on Notre Dame students’ faces whenever Father Hesburgh makes an appearance. At such moments, a torch is being passed; faith and hope become not only tangible but timeless.

This generational analysis also reminds us that no single age cohort has the last word. We are all products of the historical experiences and formational influences we have shared. The Millennials may well be seeded in an enviable position of being future heroes, ushering in a springtime of civic awareness and community spirit on a global scale. Or they may be in the unenviable position of being the “special forces” during a time of great crisis when the stakes are no less than society’s survival. Both scenarios may be true, and Millennials need and deserve to be prepared for these.

If this “missionary generation” is hungry for faith so as to properly value life and love in a materialist marketplace, then we had better give it to them. If they are clinging to parental protection and in danger of trusting “conformity” or “authority” too blindly, then we had better overcome our own insularity and broaden their experience—sharing our best examples of the Silent Generation’s pluralism, the Boomer’s idealism and the Gen-Xer’s independent pragmatism. The successful “missionary” needs a complete set of equipment.

If Strauss and Howe are correct, the drama of world history is written such that, during any given cycle of 80 years or so, a society has access to four distinctive, rich reservoirs of capability and perspective. But it takes time for generations to pass through life’s phases, to learn from mistakes and chastisements, to reap the integrity that’s incipient in the system. Societies too often have focused on the cycles of cross-generational rebellion —or on the myopic expectation that tomorrow will mirror today’s trends. A resilient culture needs generations that relate and respond to each other, work and learn together in the here and now.

Today’s Notre Dame students already seem to have an instinct for intergenerational relating and responding. They trust that advice and support are only a phone call away. Now they’re eager to find those resources on campus.


William Schmitt is communications manager in the Office of Public Affairs and Communication at Notre Dame.

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