Friday, July 18, 2008

Generation Dumb?

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same Lord who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use. (Galileo Galilei)
As I watch my digital native children swarming over their Nintendo DS and Wii machines, without any recourse to the instruction manuals, I feel so very old and so very stupid. But then I sit reading a pile of CVs from recent graduates, or better yet, I interview a bunch of them, and I start to feel very smart indeed. Smug almost.

So when I came across Emory Professor, Mark Bauerlein's analysis of his despair when it comes to the young people of today, I smiled a rueful smile. Bauerlein's book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future is very worrying indeed. It seems there are eight reasons why you can't rely on anyone under the age of 30:
  • They actively cut themselves off from the realities of the world. Bauerlein contends that this is full-fledged wilful ignorance. In conversation with my 21 year-old nephew, his response to that was, "I delight in the fact that I can find anything out any time I want." My 9 year-old daughter's take on this was, "Why should I learn all the rivers in Ireland off by heart daddy? If I ever need to know that, I'll just Google it."
  • They have no interest in books. They're not illiterate (although a significant minority, sadly, have become so) - they're aliterate. The web is a monsoon downpour from the heavens of the greatest knowledge, the best thinkers and the brightest ideas on the planet, but this generation seems to navigate their way around in galoshes carrying a big umbrella. The exceptions? MySpace and Facebook. They're all happy to dive in there. And the content there? 99% mindless gossip, celeb-watching and pop 'culture.' Deep sigh.
The Hills - where people's teeth are more animated than their minds.
  • Writing or expressing yourself well is ridiculed among this generation. As a result, the writing on Facebook and MySpace is largely incoherent and disorganised. These kids have the opportunity to express their ideas and get feedback on those ideas like no preceding generation - but they seem to be racing toward a lowest common denominator approach for fear of being seen to align themselves with previous generations. Being online in this way "habituates them to juvenile mental habits."
  • Console games. Bauerlein avoids the obvious correlation between the rise of the console and the rise of obesity levels; rather he focuses on the fact that universities are having to offer remedial reading and writing classes to high school graduates and that these self-same freshmen are the gurus of Grand Theft Auto.* (A 2003 survey in the US found that employers were spending $1.3 billion to teach basic writing skills.)
  • RAM, not hard disk storage. Even when they do ferret out information, they don't hold onto it. It's the copy-and-paste project phenomenon. They zoom around the internet to find the information they need, they find the article (with pictures) about wallabies and they copy and paste it into their Word document. One quick scan-read to change a bit of the language and they hit the print button. There's no storage of the information in the mind - they "retrieve material and pass it along. The internet is just a delivery system."
  • No-one is reining them in, so they can immerse themselves in SMS, IM, and the lowest common denominator of the web 24/7. On a recent hiring exercise, I was instructed to lower the entry standard to allow for up to three errors on the application form; because otherwise we would have had no candidates at all to interview. People who can't read or write at an adult level are graduating from second level education. Why? Because apparently it's bad for a young person's self esteem to be labelled a failure - even when they fail. Maybe I'm a bit curmudgeonly, but it seems to me that lying to a young person about their abilities is far more damaging. At some point that deluded young person is going to run headlong up against reality in the uncaring, unfeeling world of work. Wouldn't it be better to equip them with the necessary skills to compete and some insight as to where they rate on the bell curve?
  • They absolutely cannot spell. Full stop, end of sentence, 'nuff said.
  • Because they are young. We now know that the frontal cortex of the brain does not achieve physical maturity until the early 20s. So prior to that, decision-making and judgement are based pretty much on sticking a wet finger in the air. And I don't know about you, but when I came out of college in my early 20s, I barely had enough common sense to come indoors from a rainstorm unless a grown-up told me to. That being said, I could write, spell and punctuate, and my degree had equipped my inquisitive brain with the ability to assimilate large amounts of information and to quickly and critically evaluate that information. Overall, Bauerlein argues, this generation suffer from the same vagaries of youth, but without the critical faculties to progress much beyond that.
My take on this? I inevitably found myself nodding a lot as I read the Professor's findings and thoughts. And, if I am being honest with myself, I would readily admit that I had very little political or social context when I was in my early 20s, rather I just saw politicians as a shower of corrupt, brainless weasels. Now that I have a great deal of political context and I am a user of many government-provided services, I can see that the hard-working politicians who lead us really are corrupt, brainless weasels, so maybe my ignorance back then wasn't such a bad thing.

And that's the fundamental problem. These kids aren't stupid, they're ignorant. Are they more ignorant than previous generations? It would seem so, and that is a shame. I have long held the view that stupidity is an unfortunate consequence of a bad roll of the genetic dice, whereas ignorance is a choice. As Frank Zappa said, "Stupidity has a certain charm; ignorance does not."

So how does this affect you in your career? Let's just take the microcosm of a job-hunt. There are certain things in life you can cram and swot up for the night before and there are certain things you can't. If an employer expects you to have certain knowledge; if some of your competitors for the job have that knowledge, and understand the background and context that has put that employer in whatever situation they find themselves in today - then you'd better have that knowledge and context and you'd better be able to express it all cogently and coherently - both verbally and in writing. If you find you can cram all that knowledge into your head the night before an interview, well and good. If not, you've probably been getting more than a few 'Dear John' phone calls from recruiters. Knowledge is power. Always has been, always will be. Has anyone ever written a pithy aphorism about the advantages of wilful ignorance? I certainly haven't found one, and I think I may know why ...

Remember this exchange from West Wing?:
"I can't make up my mind. Are you ignorant or are you just apathetic?"
"I don't know and I don't care."
* I used to instruct a traditional Chinese martial arts school in my old College. In the first class of every academic year, we would teach the freshmen how to stand up straight with lung-expanding posture and how to breathe properly. And every year, some poor soul would faint, just from breathing. I well remember the first year the 'console generation' arrived in UCD. They were a lot heavier and a lot softer than the kids we normally taught. A lot of them had those 'water wings' under their arms. And when it came to standing up straight and breathing properly, we lost eight of them. Eight out of about 90 kids keeled over as a result of breathing slowly and deeply for a few minutes. If the Martians ever attack, we'll be fine for the space war, but if they manage to land, we're going to be in deep trouble in the hand-to-hand battles.

[By the way, in case you hadn't guessed, the reason for the length of this post is so that anyone under the age of 30 will give up after a few lines and the only commentors will be like-minded ranting curmudgeonly types. Bwu-ha-ha-ha-ha!]


The Great Nobby said...

I have a niece in her early twenties. She has been passionate about horses and show-jumping since she was a child. She takes her equestrian duties very seriously and is a hard worker.

But she is probably typical of her age group in many other ways.

A couple of years ago, I happened across her MySpace page where she talked about her interests. All of the gerunds finished with the letter "n" rather than a "g", except when she mentioned "showjumping". At that point, her writing suddenly matured.

That clearly shows that ignorance is a choice.

When did ignorance become cool among those in third-level education? It addles my brain.

It seems to me a combination of a lifetime of good living for the teens and twenty-somethings, combined with politically correct molly-coddling is to blame. Why should they bother being excellent when nobody pulls them up on it and they can get a job anywhere.

Leaner times will ultimately benefit us all, I suspect.

That and lining up the molly-coddlers and whacking them all in the back of the head with the edge of a hurley.

Sarah M Dillon said...

Hi Rowan

I've commented on your post over at my blog

And it's Bauerlein, with an "e". (Darn typos, right? ;) Thank goodness for Google)

All the best


Rowan Manahan said...

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for the heads-up on the typo and moreso for your excellent response. Working as I do with curmudgeonly decision-makers every day, and observing the ineptitude of the kids Bauerlein is writing about, I can't agree with your view; but I will say that I think it's going to be a very interesting world when this generation is running things ...

Rowan Manahan said...

Interesting point Nobby - "Why should they bother being excellent when nobody pulls them up on it and they can get a job anywhere?"

I notice the gap really opening up in the late 20s. Those who have realised that they are below par and who have actively sought to remedy this stand out head and shoulders above the majority who continue to wend their merry, clueless way along ...

For me the 'war for talent' is drawn up along very simple lines and those who have taken the trouble to get-a-clue start with a biiiiig advantage.

Kev_N said...

Hi Rowan,
At the tender age of 27, I feel an odd sense of pride at finishing that post now.

Any you have proven to me that I am curmudgeonly beyond my years.


Declan Chellar said...

My niece has just finished university and I pointed out to her that just by ensuring correct use of language in her CV, she will have a head start on her competitors.

Rob said...

I'll admit to being more than just a bit curmudgeonly these days. Perhaps the most maddening thing about these ignorant young adults is that when they enter the workplace, a shockingly-large proportion of them do so with an easy air of entitlement that beats anything I've ever witnessed before. They saunter in the door with an almost perceptible "I'm here, now what're you going to do for ME?" attitude. And they feel terribly overworked yet at the same time terribly underpaid for their tremendous contributions. Disgusting, really.

We need to make some major changes in how we think about children & technology. Our society has developed a cavalier & overzealous emphasis on pushing computers & technology on kids. We've allowed ourselves to be conned into believeing that simply exposing kids to tech will somehow enable & empower their digital futures. This may be not unlike expecting that, by just showing them a photograph of a bicycle, we've trained children to ride a bike and to do so responsibly & safely.

We need to ensure that kids foremost have the opportunity to learn how to interact with the real world & develop true interpersonal social skills. We need to foster creative thinking and problem-solving. Then the tech will take care of itself. Teaching Kindergarten kids to build PowerPoint presentations - yes, some American public schools are doing this - isn't going to produce young adults who're more capable of adapting to tech... It's just going to produce a newer generation of mindless business-suit-clad, bullet-point buffoons.

Gen Y is already cooked, half-baked and pulled from the oven to cool. We're going to be stuck with the gooey mess to cleanup for decades to come. But we still have time to save Generation Z. I urge everyone to read "Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology" ( from the Alliance for Childhood. It's an eye-opening look at the misguided emphasis on tech in the classrooms.

Vico said...

Thank you Rowan for the delightful ending line. I just can't find an English word complicated enough to properly end my comment.

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Rowan Manahan said...

Kev_N - welcome to the dark side Kevin!

Declan - Head and neck

Rob - Bullet-point buffoons? I am so stealing that phrase! Excellent points all Rob and expressed in a wonderfully curmudgeonly way. I would stand on a rooftop and shout, "Curmudgeons of the world, unite!" but I reckon all I would geet back would be a heartfelt "Bah! Humbug!"

Technical literacy is and is going to continue to be a basic survival skill in this century - until the whole Mad Max, post-apocalyptic thing comes to pass. But you are on the nose with your thoughts - if you can't play well with others, I really don't get too impressed by advanced geekery. (And this from a geek - a curmudgeonly geek)

Rob said...

I'll admit that I've become something of a curmudgeonly geek too, Rowan. But I never touched a video game until I was already out of high school - they didn't yet exist - and I didn't have a cell phone until just this year (and I only gave in because I needed to keep tabs on an ailing family member and was on the road quite a bit). Yet despite my lack of exposure to all the latest & greatest techno-gadgets, I earn a very decent living as a Systems Analyst.

My point is, my core strengths (which have nothing to do with technology, per se) enabled me to excel in a technology-saturated environment. Children don't have to be neck deep in digital doodads to be able to be tech literate or capable of being quite proficient with technology.

Critical thinking and skillful (analog) communication skills are far more important than specific software experience - they're worth their weight in gold!

Nicole said...

As a 27 year old I understand where the stereotypes emerge from, but I also find it horrifying that the old and "wise" would buy into it. Yes there are a great number of young people who use slang and utilize technology in ways generations before never have. Does this mean this is a generation of entitled, illiterate, lazy professionals? I am proof to the contrary and I am not alone.

If you look at it from a big picture perspective every generation has worried about the next generation and how they will ruin the world in the future. I am certain the parents of the children at Woodstock looked around in horror wondering how we would survive when the free loving hippies were running business. I know that each of us can probably summons an example of how awful some professionals from Gen Y are and how they fit perfectly the stereotypes. I pose the question though, can’t you think of someone from each generation in your office that fit the stereotypes (can’t adapt to technology, management by dictatorship, can’t multitask)? I certainly can. I can also think of professionals in every generation that directly defy those stereotypes and they are generally more common than the sterotype.

My point is that while I can text with the best of them and I do have a Facebook page I am also extremely driven and hardworking. I read 52 books a year and very few of them are fiction. I hold an important position in my organization that reflects my ability to adapt to corporate demands and excel at delivering value to my company. I meet with my friends like almost every generation before and complain about politicians and have long and deep conversations about the future of the world.

For anyone who holds this view (of the post) I would recommend talking to an admittance counselor from one of the better universities they might offer that it is more competitive than ever and this generation is not as ignorant as this post would have you believe. Alternatively, spend some time talking to corporate recruiters that frequent the top universities during college recruiting season. It is quite impressive and might build your faith a little that not all hope is lost.

I would say that like every generation before the landscape has changed and that society will probably change with it. This change will precipitate both good and bad. And as always with every other generation in the history of the world there will be lazy morons and their will be intelligent, driven hardworking professionals. I wouldn’t write us off quite yet.

Prashant said...

Part of my job description is to mentor new employees just out of school (graduates/undergraduates) and bring them up to speed over a set timeframe.

Every so often I receive an official email that is totally incoherent. sure, if I make an effort maybe I will be able to decipher it, but like them, even I do have a choice, don't I :)

What I usually do is shoot a brief, terse reply saying "please send your email again to all the recipients, and please use the English language - the way it was before the advent of IM". Believe me, it works...

On another note, my daugher is just over a year old. The future is full of possibilities for her, but some of them make me afraid. Very afraid...

James Schneider said...

Dear Rowan,

Loved your closing line. Bwu-ha-ha-ha-ha right back at you. (I never knew the correct spelling of 'Bwu-ha-ha-ha-ha!')