The next three to four weeks will see hundreds of thousands of freshly minted university graduates launch from the haven of their academic institutions into the world to make a positive difference. As they await the conferral of their degrees, they will be told to remember the lessons learned on the journey, and to go and change the world. We use this forum, among other things, as a way to discuss how the world needs to be changed and how we will accomplish it. But how ready is this millennial generation to begin changing the world, really?

I’ve been working in higher education for 15 years. Others who blog here (and many others who attend this online forum) have much more experience than that. What’s different about students today, and should we have cause for concern? Here are just a few of my observations:

  • Changing the world begins with changing one’s self. For many, college has only taught them to be more self-absorbed than when they came in as freshmen.
  • They are less independent, partly due to mom and dad following them everywhere on their cell phones and helping them problem-solve at moment’s notice.
  • Their swagger and sometimes even their words tell us they are ready to do BIG things that will be earth-shattering, but they are not willing to serve by executing smaller, more mundane tasks that may not receive any applause. Some think they should be CEO not in 15 or 20 years after getting extensive experience, but in more like a year or two; possibly as many as five, after earning a graduate degree. Delayed gratification isn’t in the vocabulary.
  • They have a reluctance to commit: from keeping weekly appointments to long-term relationships, they say “ok, maybe,” in the hopes that a better opportunity will come up at the last minute.
  • Recent research by Twenge, Freeman, and Campbell strongly suggests millennials are more “generation me” than “generation we,” than previously thought. The study points out in the millennial population “a decline in civic interest, such as political participation and trust in government, as well as in concern for others, including charity donations, and in the importance of having a job worthwhile to society.” See here for more here.

Certainly I do not intend to paint in brushstrokes that are too broad; there are indeed some exceptional young people out there ready to rise to the next level of leadership, thanks to their hard work and to the professors and mentors they’ve had in their university journey. I’ve taught and mentored this kind of student in my current station, and it is because of them that I am hopeful. I am also encouraged about the intentional work being done at innovative and rigorous graduate fellows programs such as The John Jay Institute, where the aim is to form leaders for the public square who stand on principle and who work faithfully towards a just and virtuous society.

Still, if there is any truth to the points I’ve listed above, there is much yet to do. The possibility of reclaiming a rich sense of the common good and re-humanizing our society assumes that we have enough leaders in the making with the kind of sterling character to whom our children will look as heroes and role models. What have you noticed, and what suggestions do you have? These are just some trends I’ve noticed over the course of my time in academic environments. What is your experience?