HomeOpinion & AnalysisIn defence of ‘ Generation Y ’

In defence of ‘ Generation Y ’


ASK any ten young people what their generation’s most important goals are, eight will choose getting rich while only two will settle for becoming more spiritual.

For those born from 1980 to 1990 the idea that dominates them entirely is that the greatest love of all is loving yourself.

This rise in individualism is summed up by the YouTube slogan “broadcast yourself” which best describes what marketers term the “Generation Y”.

In the late 1990s consumer psychologists predicted this burst in self love warning of the resulting intellectual, economic and civil catastrophe. Since that time, the old have been wringing their hands about the young’s cultural wastelands and ignorance.

Although this quarrel between the past and the present has been raging for centuries, the trump card for every new generation is that they did not start the fire and if anything they have been trying to fight it.

Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein asserts that Generation Y holds the least knowledge. In his provocative book The Dumbest Generation, he concludes that “no cohort in human history has opened such a fissure between its material conditions and its intellectual attainments”.

To support his assertion he cites a 2003 manager’s survey which found that some companies are spending millions of dollars each year to teach employees basic writing skills.

The gen years are considered to be not only the dumbest, but also the most self absorbed and selfish. They favour short term relationship and have unrealistically high expectations. Therefore, if they are disappointed that could eventually end up leading to anxiety and depression.

There is a paradox in that, they do not value close relationships yet close relationships are one of the best inoculators against depression and anxiety.

Bauerlein is more aggrieved by the fact that many Gen Yers are unapologetic about their ignorance dismissing the idea that they should have more facts in their heads as a pre-Google and pre-Wiki anachronism. A student who failed an exam because of absenteeism will say “but I really tried!” forgetting that grades are not related to trying.

If Bauerlein’s definition of dumb means lacking such fundamental cognitive capacities as the ability to think critically and logically, to analyse an argument, to learn and remember, to see analogies, to distinguish fact from opinion then here he has missed the turn. Although Gen Yers care less about knowing information than knowing where to find it, their exam marks have been rising since the late 1990s.

This presents a strange twist to Bauerlein’s argument since exams do not measure knowledge but pure thinking capacity (what scientists call fluid intelligence in that it can be applied to problems in any domain).

This means Gen Yers’ ignorance of facts or facts that older people think are important reflects choice not dumbness. Who is to say they are dumb because fewer of them than of their grandparent’s generation care who Willie Musarurwa was?

Bauerlein is not the only the only scholar to pin the blame for the younger generation’s intellectual shortcomings on new technology (television anyone?).

San Diego State psychology professor Jean Twengle indictes the digital age in her 2006 book Generation Me.

She argues that YouTube and MySpace exerts a disproportionate influence on teenagers as evidenced by the countless hours spent on these sites.

However, there is no empirical evidence that being immersed in instant messaging, texting, IPods, video games and all things online impairs thinking ability.

According to Neuroscience Research they are changing how people’s brains process information. In fact, basic principles of neuroscience show that we are gradually changing from a society of callused hands to that of agile brains.

Put simply; in so far as when information technology exercises our minds and provides new information, it has to be improving thinking ability.

Societies should respect the difference between correlation and causation. Just because the ignorance of Zimbabwe’s rivers and literary figures got worse when the digital age dawned does not mean that latter caused the former.

To establish that one needs data. The ideal experiment is hard to pull off. To study the effects of digital technology on cognitive processing in a rigorous way needs randomly assigning groups of young people to use it a lot, a little or not at all then follow them for years. What are the chances of getting teenagers to volunteers for the “not at all” group?

The only plausible criticism of Gen Years is the practice of multitasking.

Multitasking impairs performance in the moment. For example talking on a cellphone while driving one has more trouble keeping the car within its lane and reacting to threats.

Research shows that multitasking forces the brain to share processing resources. So even if the tasks do not use the same regions (talking and driving do not) there is some shared infrastructure that gets overloaded.

Chronic multitasking, texting and listening to your iPod and updating your Facebook page while studying for the exam on the Shona and Ndebele uprising might also impair learning.

As a 2006 study suggested, multitasking adversely effects how you learn, even if you learn while multitasking that learning is less flexible and more specialised such that you cannot retrieve the information easily.

Difficult task such as learning simultaneous equations or reading on the Second Chimurenga will be particularly adversely affected by multitasking.

David Meyer psychologist at the University of Michigan concluded “when the tasks are challenging there is a big drop in performance with multitasking what kids are doing is learning to be skillful at a superficial level”.

While it is true that young people have a sense of entitlement, the world has become much more competitive. There are a lot of challenges faced by young people that older people did not have to face.

They are just as smart and motivated as ever, if they be also the dumbest it is because they have more diversions and because screen activity trumps old fashioned reading materials.

Anyway choices can change with maturity, with different reward structures and with changes in the world their elders make, let’s cut them some slack.

 Harriman Chidawanyika is a consumer psychologist.

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