Reflections on the Changing Population of College Students Since 1982

Demographers Claim Millennials Are Not What Students Used to Be. But Are They?

By: Dr. Ann Major, Faculty Advisor

I began teaching college courses in 1982 about 12 years before most of my current students were born. Several students have asked me how today’s students differ from past generations. It’s a good question and it raises the issue of demography and how it relates to the practice of public relations.

Demographers provide critical information for public relations planning. As social scientists, they study populations and generational differences focusing on “birth, migration, and death” according to Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research.

Understanding demographics helps us communicate more effectively with our diverse audiences. However, a caveat is in order. When we review the results of demographic studies and assume that all members of one generation share the same behaviors, beliefs, and cultural values, we forget the importance of individual differences.

The Pew Research Center reports that Millennials are very connected to their social networks but are less likely to be affiliated with traditional political and religious institutions. One in three Millennials consider themselves political independents.

One of my 1999 graduates recently called me asking for interns for an opening she has. She began her career at the Los Angeles Fleishman-Hillard office. After a few years, she moved to Disney’s gaming PR division. She was emphatic that I suggest students who could work with limited supervision.

“I need a self-starter,” she said. “Five years ago, I could give an intern an assignment, and 30 minutes later, the report would be on my desk, no questions asked,” she added.

She told me she asked her current intern to call a reporter, and the intern asked her for the reporter’s phone number.

“I was stunned. I told her to look it up!” she said. “I need interns who know what to do and how to find information,” she added.

In March 2014, The New York Times writer Mitchell Hartman reported that employers find Millennials lack motivation and are not dependable.

As I reflect on my 32 years of teaching experience, I agree and disagree with the demographers about Millennials.

I’m a Baby Boomer, a label, I’ve never really liked but have accepted. According to demographers, Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964 and are anti-establishment and politically active. I’m not sure that I’m either. I’ve always been a pragmatist and am interested in what makes businesses and people successful. Do I think there are problems in the government and the corporate world? Of course, I do. However, I don’t believe that the answer to making our world a better place is destroying the “establishment.”

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I work with Millennial students and I don’t really like to label my students as Generation X because I work with them on a daily basis and I see them as individuals. I don’t view them as a generation as a demographer would.

I have some lazy students but I have more highly motivated students. I have students who don’t read the assignments but I have more students who read the assignments. Overall, I enjoy working with my students. They are enthusiastic and hard working.

During the past five years, I have witnessed serious attendance issues in my 9 and 10 a.m. classes. That would never have been an issue in 1995. So that is a generational issue. I have students tell me that they expect to earn an “A” in my class when they have missed 10 or 14 classes and have not completed assignments. In 1995, that didn’t happen.

Having worked in Emergency Medical Services for five years, I know what is going on but it’s the elephant in the room and no one is willing to speak up and identify the problem.

The other issue that I see and I don’t think is necessarily an issue associated with Millennials is a sense of over-confidence. I have watched students destroy career opportunities because of conceit. That is a trait that is despised in the corporate world. It’s despised everywhere.

Demographers have described Millennials in their studies and in doing so they have captured some characteristics of some Millennials. However, they have not captured the essence of all Millennials.

Demography is a tool that can assist us in our work as PR practitioners. However, we must always be vigilant that we never stereotype our audiences simply based on demographic research findings. We are, after all, individuals and we must not forget that.

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