The Breakfast Club and Barney: Advising the New College Student
College students no longer fall neatly into the 18- to 22-year-old age range of days gone by. Whether they returned to school to find a better career, delayed entry to save money for their education, or any of a multitude of other reasons, nearly “three-quarters of college students today fit the definition of the ‘nontraditional’ student” (Jaschik, 2010). Although several characteristics are considered when identifying a student as nontraditional, this article focuses exclusively on age. A nontraditional student is defined as someone who “delays enrollment (does not enter postsecondary education in the same calendar year that he or she finished high school)” (Choy, 2002, p. 2). In the 1999-2000 school year, 45.5 percent of incoming students delayed enrollment (Choy, 2002). As the rate of nontraditionally aged learners rises, different generations of students are meeting in the classroom and interacting on campus as never before.
As the age of college students fluctuates, colleges should acknowledge their students are from two very different generations—Generation X and Generation Y. Strauss and Howe (1991) defined Generation X (also called the Thirteenth Generation) as students born between 1961 and 1981, and Generation Y (also called Millennials) as students born from 1982 to 2002. The purpose of this article is to examine the crucial differences between Generation X and Y students and to explore the implications of these generational differences for academic advisers. While this article will provide an overview of the commonly agreed upon traits and characteristics of these generations of students, it does not aim to generalize or reinforce existing stereotypes about these generations, as every student is unique. Much can be learned, however, from examining generational differences.
Generation X and Y Overview
Strauss and Howe (1991), leading experts on generational issues, explore the characteristics and life experiences that define generations X and Y. These children were raised in very different environments, with very different expectations for themselves and from society.
Generation X grew up in a turbulent society. They came from unstable families: “A 13er child in the 1980s faced twice the risk of parental divorce as a Boomer child in the mid-1960s—and three times the risk a Silent child faced back in 1950” (Strauss & Howe, 1991, p. 324). They were left alone to fend for themselves after school more than any previous generation. “Through the 1970s, the number of ‘latchkey’ children under age 14 left alone after school roughly doubled” (Strauss & Howe, 1991, p. 325). As children, Generation Xers were not sheltered and protected from the realities of life but instead “… were deliberately encouraged to react to life as you would hack through a jungle: Keep your eyes open, expect the worst, and handle it on your own” (Strauss & Howe, 1991, p. 329). Citing the movie that defined this generation, Strauss and Howe (1991) reported, “Like a whole generation of Breakfast Clubbers, 13ers face a Boom-driven culture quick to criticize or punish them but slow to take the time to find out what’s really going on in their lives” (p. 332). Like the characters in the classic movie, The Breakfast Club, this generation was raised to depend on itself and not to accept authority as possessing the right answers. Some of the traits attributed to Generation X include “a powerful survival instinct, wrapped around an ethos of personal determination. … Thirteeners are constantly told that whatever bad things strike people their age—from AIDS to drug addiction, from suicides to homicides—are mainly their own fault” (Strauss & Howe, 1991, p. 322). The children in this generation were locked in the library on a Saturday, ignored by parents and principals, and generally told they would amount to nothing. Generation X did not experience a nurturing childhood and did not grow up to expect a benevolent world. They did not trust adults in their lives, because, as portrayed in The Breakfast Club, they were convinced “when you grow up, your heart dies” (Friesen & Hughes, 1985).
Conversely, Howe and Strauss (2000) described the childhoods of Generation Y as protected. “Not since the Progressive Era, near the dawn of the twentieth century, has America greeted the arrival of a new generation with such a dramatic rise in adult attention to the needs of children” (Howe & Strauss, 2000, p. 32). These were the children of car seats and child safety locks, whose parents and the media treated them as precious gifts. While Generation Xers were described as “unwanted, at-risk, throwaway, homeless, latchkey … [Millennials] were now to be desperately desired, to be in need of endless love and sacrifice and care” (Howe & Strauss, 2000, p. 33). Unlike Generation X’s latchkey kids, Millennials spent “their afternoons getting shepherded from one adult-supervised activity to the next” (Howe & Strauss, 2000, p. 169). Their childhoods were spent watching the television series Barney that featured a compassionate purple dinosaur who sang messages of love, and reading about boy misfits who grew into powerful wizards in the Harry Potter series. Clearly, two very distinctive generations are mixing on college campuses and universities today, and advisers must be prepared to work with both types of student.
Implications of Generational Differences for Academic Advisers
Now that some of the basic generational differences have been discussed, we now turn to discussing the implications of these generational differences for academic advisers. Suppose a Generation X student and a Millennial student approach an adviser for help in selecting a major. The Generation Xer enrolled in a four-year college after high school but withdrew after a year, because he felt he was not ready for college and that further education was not a meaningful goal. As a returning learner from a generation that has traditionally been defined as castaway, individualistic, unburdened, and experimental (Howe & Strauss, 2000, p. 44), what sort of preconceived notions does he bring to campus, both about himself and about authority? Compared to a Generation Y student, the Generation Xer was much more likely to be a latchkey child after school and to have done his homework alone at the kitchen table without supervision as both of his parents worked. Given these experiences, Generation X students will likely look for more autonomy and for a variety of options they can select for themselves. Guidance will take the form of presenting numerous ways the student can solve a problem rather than providing answers. These students were going to elementary school when “… educators decided there was no single body of knowledge, so they didn’t teach it” (Howe & Strauss, 2000, p. 157), and therefore Generation X students are far less likely to believe there is one single correct path to accomplishing goals, such as selecting a major.
In contrast, the Generation Y student who makes an appointment has different expectations of advisers. This student was scheduled from the time she arrived at school until after dinnertime, participating in team sports, clubs, playgroups, etc. (Howe & Strauss, 2000, p. 168–169). She is used to working with other students and her education was team-based. “‘Collaborative learning’ has become as popular as independent study was for Boomers or open classrooms for Gen Xers,” reported Howe and Strauss (2000, p. 155). They also said, “Kids do projects, and are often graded, in groups” (p. 155). The students her age grew up with a single standardized version of events they were tested on yearly. “By degrees, standardized testing is becoming just about the only measure of academic quality that really counts in many school systems” (Howe & Strauss, 2000, p. 158). Because of this, the Generation Y student may be more willing to look at an adviser as an authority on knowledge, while a Generation Xer will see an adviser as offering possibilities rather than a single truth. This is not to say the members of Generation Y are simple-minded and unable to think for themselves. They just trust that authority will not mislead them, because they grew up to believe that parents and guardians wanted the best for them. Howe and Strauss (2000) wrote, “… adult Americans fell in love with babies again in the 1980s, a decade in which people committed themselves to having, caring for, and celebrating children … thus have Millennial kids become the largest, healthiest, and most cared-for child generation in American history” (p. 76). Generation Y children were always provided with everything they needed to thrive and always treated as special and protected, so they have no life experiences at this point that would lead them to mistrust authority. Thus, they may more likely want academic advisers to just select their majors for them.
Perhaps the best way to distinguish the differences in needs between these generations would be to realize Generation X students were raised to be survivors, and Generation Y students were raised to be believers. Young adults who grew up depending on themselves and being ignored by authority will likely not respond well to the more sympathetic ways used on their younger peers. If advisers want to connect to Generation X students, they must show the students that their ideas are respected and valued because these students are more likely to trust their own beliefs and opinions than the dictates of an authority figure. Accustomed to being seen as problem children, they grew up sympathizing with Jud Nelson’s character John Bender in the movie The Breakfast Club who felt threatened by authority and stripped of control. Lacking the adoring parents of Generation Y, Generation X students did not get along with their parents, as is illustrated by a line in the movie: “You’re an idiot anyway. But if you say you get along with your parents, well, you’re a liar, too” (Friesen & Hughes, 1985). The Breakfast Club students, who felt isolated and alone, are now in class with the generation of students who learned from a giant purple dinosaur to respect and love each other.
The isolationism and mistrust of authority felt by Generation X is in sharp contrast to Generation Y students who grew up learning the importance of depending on family and each other. Barney told them every day “I love you/You love me/We’re best friends like friends should be/With a great big hug and/A kiss from me to you/Won’t you say you love me too?” (Leach, 1992). If they wished hard enough, Barney would appear to play with them after school and take them on magical adventures. This is not to say they were only exposed to happy, healthy children of privilege when they looked around. Some of their media peers were misfits in the style of Generation X; however, these misfits were often heroes. Orphaned, struggling, and lonely Harry Potter became the most beloved children’s character in decades with his firm adherence to doing what was right and for sticking up for the underdog. Yes, he relied on himself and had no familial support like a Generation Xer, but he also was optimistic, friendly, and willing to put himself in danger for the good of society. While he lacked a nuclear family, his bonds with his friends were what allowed him to survive and flourish
The authority figures presented to Generation X and Generation Y were polar opposites. Instead of a Principal Vernon (Friesen & Hughes, 1985) screaming at them about wasted potential, the Millennials had Albus Dumbledore telling them “… we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided … we can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.… Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open” (Rowling, 2000, p. 723). They learned that they had great potential and that “… it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be” (Rowling, 2000, p. 708). Millennials instinctively trust authority figures and need to be challenged to avoid becoming complacent in the knowledge they receive. Although they have the skills and technology to double check every fact presented, they also were raised to trust the wise adults who help them transition to adulthood.
What are the implications of these generational differences for academic advisers? First, academic advisers of Generation Xers will likely need to take more time to build rapport and trust with these students because of their tendency to mistrust authority. Advisers will also need to consider spending more time discussing options with students and educating them about pros and cons, because Generation X students will want to make their own decisions. Advisers can use their knowledge of the independent Generation X students to their advantage by teaching them how to research internship and job options, select majors, and become involved on campus while knowing they will be more likely to follow through on things when they feel they are in control of the situation. Being supportive but not authoritative will help Generation X students feel at ease with their advisers.
Academic advisers of Generation Y students should bear in mind that these students will likely ask for the right answer instead of exploring options on their own, or could come to advisers with several ideas and want the adviser to choose for them. Accustomed to standardized tests and teamwork, they have not been given many opportunities to think as individuals. If advisers brainstorm with them to generate a list of possible majors, Generation Y students will be comfortable knowing they have approval for several options and will appreciate the ability to illustrate their individuality.
Campuses now provide opportunities for Generation Y students to interact with Generation X students. The Generation X’s John Benders who are fighting to be seen and waiting to be knocked down meet the Generation Y’s Harry Potters who were raised to believe they were powerful instead of powerless. Being exposed to different lifestyles and opinions will only make these students stronger in the future and give them more viewpoints to consider in their interactions with others.
Every student is different. All Generation Xers are not angry misfits and all Generation Yers are not optimistic do-gooders. Generational overviews can be like horoscopes—vague enough to fit everyone without really describing anything, but at the same time they do present an interesting lens to view student subpopulations. Armed with basic information about generational differences, however, academic advisers can use this knowledge to empower all students to achieve their common goals of pursuing a high quality education.
Friesen, G. (Producer) & Hughes, J. (Director). (1985). The breakfast club [Motion Picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.
Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Jaschik, S. (2010, March 9). Moving to scale. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/03/09/gates
Leach, S. (Creator). (1992). Barney and friends [Television series]. United States: PBS.
Choy, S. (2002). Nontraditional undergraduates: Findings from the condition of education 2002. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/2002012.pdf
Rowling, J. K. (2000). Harry Potter and the goblet of fire. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.
Strauss, W., & Howe, N. (1991). Generations: The history of America’s future, 1584-2069. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
About the Author(s)
Ashley Gutshall is a graduate student in the University of South Carolina’s Higher Education and Student Affairs program. She is also a graduate assistant in the university’s Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention and Prevention office. She can be reached at email@example.com.