Deconstructing the Millenials for Fun and Profit

“Who are the Millenials?” As Eric Hoover points out in his recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, this is, quite literally, a multi-million-dollar question: one that has led well-compensated consultants to spill buckets of ink for countless universities around the country, all in the interest of tailoring admissions mailings, extracurricular activities, and even dining hall menus to the microscopically scrutinized “Millenial” generation born between 1982 and 2004.

Hoover’s 7,000-word article—an in-depth look at how a book on Millenials published in 2000 by Neil Howe and William Strauss gave rise to a major current in today’s higher ed zeitgeist—is worth a read for any number of reasons, but one of its most intriguing arguments has to do with the changing face of higher education itself. Hoover not only examines the authors and pundits who form the supply side of the Millenials consulting industry but also asks why universities are so eager to demand their services, and his conclusions are intriguing.

He writes, “As the 21st century began, higher education was evolving in ways that made the time ripe for a new and tidy explanation of contemporary undergraduates.” The first major change, he notes, was that colleges were embracing marketing as never before. Selective colleges needed to gain an edge as competition for top applicants intensified, and even second- and third-tier schools sought to expand into new markets and reach out to more diverse students.

Secondly, the rise of online college applications produced a boom of so-called “stealth applicants,” students about whom universities had little information since they often had not attended the in-person interviews and recruitment fairs that were central to the evaluation process in the pre-Internet era. As a result, the schools sought new ways to make easy judgments about students’ behaviors and attitudes.

Hoover argues that the Millenial hypothesis of Neil Howe and William Strauss filled the void by offering seven “core trait” adjectives that allegedly characterize today’s college youth: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving. He goes on to imply that such neat labels might not be entirely accurate, a rational if commonsense critique. Yet his analysis really seems to shine not when he tries to dismantle Howe and Strauss but when he investigates why we care about them in the first place.

Daniel Fromson

Daniel Fromson is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly. He previously interned at Harper's Magazine, and he has written for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.