A classic song from “Bye Bye Birdie” asks “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? What’s the matter with kids today?” If you read those lyrics with the tune in mind, you are definitely well on your way towards retirement. Most of today’s students not only do not recognize that parody of Elvis Presley, but they are also clueless about “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story.”

Grieving over the young generation has a long history, going back to the Greeks and Romans. But the changes in culture are accelerating. The Zeitgeist or “spirit of the time” is changing more dramatically as technology, music and clothing styles evolve ever faster. So we classify students into generational groups.

The Silent Generation is the cohort of persons born before 1946 and after approximately 1928. They are now 72 to 90 years old. Most grew up in the Great Depression. They are frugal, hard-working and do not waste food. Surviving World War II produced loyalty. And the G.I. Bill provided returnees an education. They were optimistic and expected their children to live even better, just as they experienced a better life in post-War modernization.

The baby boomer generation was born between 1946 and 1964. Colleges and universities expanded — and in some cases overbuilt. A high school education came to be expected of most. Larger numbers attended college. From President Eisenhower through Kennedy, the Cold War was ever-present but the race to the moon inspired many Americans. A series of assassinations ended the optimism and SAT scores plummeted. Baby boomers are now in the midst of retiring.

Generation X or “Gen-X” was born between 1965 and 1976 (or some say 1961 to 1981). Unlike baby boomers, they are more likely to borrow money and are less certain that Social Security will be there when they retire. By this time, both parents had to work to maintain an average standard of living; thus many came home from school as “latchkey kids.” No longer sure that their future will be better than their past, they are portrayed as more pessimistic. Some pundits have labeled them the “slacker generation.”   

Some describe a Generation Y or “Gen-Y” for those born between 1977 and 1984.

But the generation that came of age after the turn of the century were the “millennials.” Born from 1981 to 1996, they are now 22 to 37 years old. Millennials are the first generation to grow up with the internet and smart phones. Nearly half are still living at home with their parents. If they marry, it is usually later in life. For many millennial boys, videogame addiction resulted in higher school dropout rates and extensive lack of employment

The young students attending college this fall are the first wave of “post-millennials” or Generation Z. They were born between the late 1990s through 2010. While many remain “technology-addicted,” they appear to be aware of how isolating digital media can be and prefer to communicate face-to-face.

For over two decades, Beloit College issued an annual “mindset list” that described to professors the experience base of this year’s first-year college students — it will end after this year as a Beloit College product. It helped professors understand that these new students have always had a “phone” in hand that was both videogame and library. They have always had Wikipedia available and used emojis, etc. And Prius had always been on the road, etc.

To the teacher, whether K–12 or university level, understanding how students’ experience base is changing is critical to effective teaching. To communicate clearly and correctly requires common experiences that provide common meaning. When the next generation no longer shares experiences that were common among prior students, a teacher has to seek common ground through classroom discussion and exchanges, provide labs and field trips, and attempt to supplement the experiences lost to students immersed in a virtual or evolving world.

As a child, I remember the news reporting the death of the last Civil War child-soldier, who had lived past 100. Today’s students would now think of World War I in the same way. Boy, do I feel old!


Dr. John Richard Schrock is the editor of the Kansas School Naturalist and former chairman of the Biology Department at Emporia State University.