Generation X, Generation Y (now the Millenials), Generation Z, the MTV Generation (between X and Y), and Generation Next (between Y and Z) – the labels keep popping up, slicing generations into ever smaller groups. We seem to be in a rush to name generations and ascribe behaviors, attitudes, and character traits to them – but is that useful in higher education or primarily for advertisers and pop culture? In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (More than ‘Millenials’: Teachers Must Look Beyond Generational Stereotypes, Oct. 11, 2009), Mano Singham discusses how the accelerated naming of generations may be giving us a false sense that we know our students by learning the traits ascribed to their generation.

Fundamentally, when we stop to think of it we know that can’t be true. We’re stereotyping these groups based on their age, which is something of a shift that began with Generation X. The Baby Boomers were defined not by generalizing their character traits and behavior, but by significant demographic trends. Interestingly, Singham points out that while we’re generally very sensitive about racial and gender stereotypes, we rarely recognize generational stereotyping. So what does that mean for those of us in higher education?

It means that we’re doing a disservice to our students by assuming that we know what ‘Millenials’ think or how they will act. We should remember that students are individuals, not generalizations, and make the personal contacts with them that we – and they – will remember and appreciate into the next generation, whatever we call it.