Long on Diagnosis, Short on Viable Responses: A Review of Generation iY

Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future
by Tim Elmore
228 pp.  Poet Gardner Publishing.  $16.99

Tim Elmore came to Emmanuel College in early August as our guest speaker for faculty workshop week, and every faculty member present got a free copy of this book.  His workshop presentation derived more or less point-for-point from the book, and I could tell that he imagined the speaking tour and the book as two parts of one whole.  (For what he’s doing, that’s not a bad thing.)  I’ll admit that I’m more impressed by the book than I was by his talk–for whatever reason, his talk spent much more time on the “side charts” that aren’t part of the book’s central argument, and I fear that he missed an opportunity to advance what in the book stands as a fairly clear-minded analysis of things.

Elmore’s diagnosis of Generation iY (those born between 1990 and 2001) is somewhat bleak, reminiscent of Mark Bauerlein’s in The Dumbest Generation. (Not coincidentally, Bauerlein and Elmore are friends.)  Their attention spans are shorter than those of earlier student cohorts, their sense of morality will condemn a litterbug but shrug at someone who falsifies information on a resume, and their sense of entitlement makes them nightmares to have in a classroom or to hire as an entry-level employee.  (It’s gratifying to read that folks in the corporate world, who hold a paycheck over their heads, also can’t get anywhere with them.)  Elmore, an evangelical Christian and longtime friend of Emmanuel College, points to certain tendencies among these kids’ Generation X and Baby Boomer parents as the root causes: the parents of affluent teenagers and twenty-somethings (I’ll get to my critique of his apparent sample later) have tended to be parents who refuse to let their kids taste even a small bit of failure; who overschedule their kids’ lives so that they never have to decide what to do with an afternoon; who run damage control so that there are never any consequences for unwise decisions; who inflate their kids’ egos and expectations of the world in an overreaction to (what I see as) the Social Darwinism within which they grew up; and who put attention-sucking electronic devices in kids’ hands and then fawn over how “tech-savvy” they are (any college teacher who’s ever assigned even a rudimentary web project knows how funny this claim is).  He’s not all gloom and doom, of course.  (If he were, he’s just be plagiarizing Bauerlein.)  He thinks that this group of students adapts just as well to adult responsibility and perhaps has an even more developed sense of morality than us jaded Gen-Xers; their main problem is that adults, and especially parents, have kept them from developing such capacities.

One of the striking images he provides for this (not that his stories are uniformly helpful) has to do with a butterfly emerging from a cocoon: As a child, as Elmore tells it, he discovered a cocoon on a branch just as the organism inside started to make its way out into the world.  Being the helpful soul he was, he used his fingernails to help the little booger force the cocoon open a bit wider.  When the butterfly still did not emerge, he forced the opening a bit wider, and when that still did not yield a butterfly, he broke the cocoon entirely open.  What emerged, in the story, was a deformed animal, nothing like a butterfly but without the promise of a true caterpillar.  It died shortly thereafter.

The point of the allegory is clear enough: he was acting as so many parents have, and the overgrown children that have resulted are not ready to fly.  Elmore diagnoses nicely a generation of American youth that’s at once overscheduled but without much of an aim in life; convinced that they can do anything they set their minds to but without the discipline to set their butts down and study (I’ll save the joke about whether they have minds); and ruthlessly amoral one minute but moralistically self-righteous the next.  His solutions for parents, unfortunately, seem to hinge upon the assumption that every middle-class parent has access to the social connections to which he, as a corporate trainer, has access.  He tells stories about how he introduced his daughter to Congresswomen and surgeons to act as short-term mentors but has few suggestions for folks (like me) who don’t have personal connections with Congresswomen.  When he gets to his son the boasting gets even more grand: he had Tony Dungy talk to his son and some of the neighborhood kids; had USMC colonels visit with them; and received personal letters for each of the neighborhood’s teenage boys from the President of the United States.  (He doesn’t specify which one, but that’s not material to my point.)  I can imagine rough analogies to these experiences that a small-time English professor might bring to bear, but if I were to go strictly from the text itself, I’d assume that Elmore knows that there’s going to be an aristocracy, based on the ability to expose one’s children to the powerful,  that rises out of this moment, and that he’s the proud papa of two of those aristocrats.

But not all is that far over the top.  For college teachers (and I are one), these changing realities within the students we teach (and I’ve been at this long enough to teach the last Gen-Xers at the outset of my teaching career and observe the early Gen-Y shade over into the text-message-addicted iY) mean that students are going to complain more, do less of the traditional work assigned, and otherwise buck against the ways of teaching that have certainly changed with the advent of mass-printed textbooks but nonetheless have remained basically static for a couple hundred years.  His pedagogical solutions actually strike me as more helpful than his parenting tips: he calls for teachers to adapt as the students will have to, not trading content for toys but imagining how differently to frame and deliver the content (as in the fifth canon of rhetoric, not as in UPS).  It’s a philosophy of education I was on-board with even back in 2000, when I constructed rudimentary html pages for my composition courses, and although I’m less optimistic about Len Sweet’s EPIC model of communication than Elmore is, I do agree that education, because a historically contingent practice, gains and loses horizons as history happens, and clinging to horizons no longer available is not properly conservative but antiquarian.  And although I love me an obscure old text as much as the next guy, I know full well that such things are the province of the specialist researcher, not the dedicated educator.

Although the book’s diagnosis of the glut of electronic distractions, and especially his solutions to the problems, tend to center almost exclusively on affluent suburban American (and to some extent western European) families, he does note well that, due to rising birth rates and sharply dropping infant mortality rates in the last twenty or so years, this global age-cohort has actually eclipsed the vaunted Baby Boom of the early automobile age.  And as geographic mobility became easy and accessible (so that young men could easily enough leave town when girls got pregnant) and social mobility declined (so that fewer and fewer could support a family financially), giant swaths of this enormous global younger generation have known nothing of life with a present father.  (If any feminists are still reading at this point, I’d love to read your take on the complexities of this reality.)  In America, where that global swell of mobile-but-desperate human beings has meant that the wealthy and powerful can find abundant desperation to exploit (they call the phenomenon “cheap labor” and attribute it to “global economic forces,” but I for one prefer to call it what it is), this has translated into a job market for the children of affluence which rewards the intelligent and tenacious but which cannot seem to find any tenacity.  And in the two-thirds world, this has meant a deterioration of the wisdom of the elders and a ready supply of young, bored men for warlords, terrorists, and other postmodern criminals to exploit. And they have.  The book does not say nearly as much about women of this generation, and for that reason, again, I welcome feminist reactions to the book and to this review.

Overall, although the book tends towards alarmism at points and towards boasting rather than solutions at others, the diagnosis end of things is worthwhile–Elmore recognizes that whatever moral and professional shortcomings “kids these days” exhibit are best studied with an eye on the complex interactions of global economic/political trends, changes in the mindsets of parents, and an array of other variables.  For college teachers and youth ministers and other such folks, this easy-reading book is not a bad place to continue our thinking on such things.

4 thoughts on “Long on Diagnosis, Short on Viable Responses: A Review of Generation iY

  1. Mr. Gilmour,
    I see you posted this over two years ago, so I’m not sure how relevant this response is today.  Further, I have not read the book by Mr. Elmore, so I cannot even comment on that.  The reason I found myself here was I was looking for ANYONE who might disagree with Mr. Elmore as most of the reviews I’ve seen about his book and comments on his blogs are equivalent to a “hallelujah” chorus.
    Some background:  I am a 48-year-old mother of an almost 9-year-old.  I am old enough to have gone to school back when you remained in your seat, said “yes ma’am and no ma’am”, went to the bathroom twice a day when your whole class did, and had teachers that taught you what you needed to know IN SCHOOL.  Those same teachers had expectations of their students and DID NOT blame the parents when a student did not read well or could not tell time proficiently.  To be honest, there were very few children that had problems reading when I was in elementary school.  Now, at least 30% of a classroom has children in 2nd and 3rd grade who cannot read a basic Dr. Seuss book fluently.  And who is to blame?  Parents, of course.
    What sent me on this rant?  Mr. Elmore wrote a blog post (which was then shared on Facebook) about how kids who are not allowed to break their arms and chip their teeth (i.e., they have risk averse parents) have lower standardized test scores and are less likely to go to college.  Mr. Elmore’s proof of this was an article written for a Scottish economics journal.  I paid $35 to read the article (written in 2010) and found out that it was based, in large part, on data compiled by the University of Michigan (my alma mater) back in 1996 as part of a PSID (Panel Study of Income Dynamics) study.  
    The study asks parents if they would switch jobs if they had a 50% chance to increase their income (as much as double it) in a year but also had a 50% chance to decrease their income (by as much as half) in a year.  How parents answered this question was then somehow translated into a risk aversion number.  The Scottish journal article interpreted the data as parents who are more risk averse have children with lower standardized test scores and children who are less likely to go to college.  Mr. Elmore expanded this interpretation to include “helicopter” parents who don’t let their kids get hurt or fail (I’m simplying here because I am already running on.) 
    What struck me is that a “low income” family is more likely to reject the 50% possibility of doubling their income because they have an equal chance of dramatically reducing their income.  The fact that they reject the possibility does not prove that they are going to hover over their children on the playground, yell at teachers if their children are given bad grades, or do their children’s homework for them.  It just means, in my opinion, that they don’t make enough money to make the risk worth it.  Further, there is a long established correlation between income and test performance.  Anyhoo…….
    ……deep breath…..I found myself looking for more information on Mr. Elmore to see what HIS credentials were as it seemed to me that he was really trying to sell his book.   I stumbled across your review. 
    You wanted some feedback from “feminists.”  That is such a dirty word today, but I think I qualify.  If I work hard and carry my weight, I expect to be paid the same as a man.  I expect to have the same rights to do both the good and bad things men do with only God as my judge.  I expect that my daughter will not be discouraged from being an academic but I also expect that if she wants to be a wife and mother that she will not be judged negatively for that either.
    I don’t think anyone can disagree that there has been a decline of the family.   Divorce is easy.  Men abandon their children and that is, apparently, O.K.  Further, most of the blame is placed on women; they are too easy, too lazy, too self-centered, you name it.  And it is not just men who judge women.  Other women, usually “happily” married, Evangelical Christian (I am one, so I think I can comment) women are often the worst.  But is feminism to blame for the fact that children are performing poorly in school and aren’t prepared for the simplest tasks?
    No.  In my opinion the problem lies squarely on the public education system as it exists today.  Teachers do not have expectations of children in elementary school.  I pushed back from Kindergarten through Second Grade regarding the “whole language” approach to reading, writing and spelling.  In my opinion, “whole language” is almost single handedly to blame for poor performance.  So much time is spent moving from “station” to “station” in elementary school and building up the children’s “self esteem” by encouraging creativity as opposed to “learning”, that teaching has gone by the wayside.  The parents are expected to get their children “proficient” in reading, writing and arithmetic at home while the school merely introduces them to the concepts.  I could go on.
    In any event, I am homeschooling this year.  Many parents make this decision for religious reasons.  Ours was made to give our daughter the best opportunity to perform well academically and provide her with as many opportunities to “learn” as possible.  Furthermore, if I was going to be blamed if my daughter was not proficient in an area, then I was going to make sure I had as much control over the situation as possible.
    I am not anti-teacher.  I loved school.  I loved my daughter’s teachers.  They just are not allowed to operate in an environment that produces the results that everyone seems to want.  Yes, social media, computer games, disengaged parents, etc. do not help the situation, but even children from those types of homes could be taught effectively if schools used curriculums like the ones used when I was in grade school.

    1. @cindybogner First, thank you for visiting and commenting.
      I’m not sure whether you took my measured praise and targeted criticism as another “hallelujah” or not, but as I said, I think that his “solutions” are fairly exclusive to those with extensive monetary and social resources and little help to those without.  The main reason I solicited responses from feminists (and I welcome your response) is that Elmore’s main solution seems to be the rise of a sort of late-industrial super-father, again something rather hard to manage in cases where the biological father has abandoned the family (a situation that I have seen over and over in my own work with teens in churches).
      Turning to your response, I don’t fault anyone for homeschooling, whether for religious or other reasons.  The CHP’s own David Grubbs was homeschooled, and his friendship makes a compelling case for the practice.  I do insist, though, that homeschooling tends not to be a viable option for all families, and if all families went that route, I would argue, some kids would suffer rather than benefiting.  (Again, that assertion rises from my own experience of working with kids, in church setting, whose parents were drug dealers, prostitutes, or effectively nonexistent, in cases of total abandonment.)  My own wife is a sixth-grade public-school teacher, and she confirms that those cases come through her classroom regularly.
      All of that is to say that I tend to make home background a more powerful variable than your response seems to.  The fact of the matter is that I teach public-school graduates every year who are perfectly capable and ready to learn, and I teach public-school graduates who aren’t.  I graduated from a public high school in the nineties and should be, according to some home-schooling apologists, a lost cause, yet I’ve earned three graduate degrees.  My own tendency, when I think about educating the young in a pluralistic moment like our own, is to treat it as an inherently and massively complex question, not one that readily lends itself to one-variable or even six-variable solutions. 
      And honestly, that’s what troubles me most about Elmore’s book.  I think, on the diagnosis end, he treats the complexity well, though as I said, he’s alarmist where I don’t see cause for alarm in places.  But on the deliberative end, when he proposes ways to confront the situation, his ideas only work for those who have the social and (sometimes) the monetary wealth to do things like homeschool.  I suppose my own concern with such proposals is that they leave out so many whom I’ve seen and who seem to become invisible when some folks set out to “fix” education.

      1. @ngilmour
         Mr. Gilmour,
        Actually, I think your point about the problem with solutions that are mainly targeted at those with wealth and/or power (connections) is spot on.  And although my post did not make it clear, it was one of the failings I saw in elementary school. 
        I helped out wherever I could when my daughter was in school.  One of my volunteer efforts was to help struggling readers in the 2nd and 3rd grade.  During our “training”, we were instructed to first have the children look at the “pictures” (tells you what kind of books they were reading) if they did not recognize a word to help them “guess.”  The next thing we were to do is ask them to finish reading the sentence so that they could once again “guess” the word by the context of the entire sentence.  The last thing on the list was to have them try and sound the word out.
        Many of the children who needed help were kids that came from struggling homes or homes where both parents worked and had little time or ability to devote to teaching their kids at home.  Therefore, the most at risk children fell further behind.  The curriculum is aimed at presenting the material (practice, practice, practice is not valued except to the extent that this should occur at home and over the summer) while the parents are to make sure the kids master the subject.
        My daughter had many problems with the Whole Language approach reflected in spelling.  She was and is a good reader, but would revert to invented spelling when writing (something they encouraged even into 2nd grade.)  If she didn’t have a mother and father with the ability and resources to recognize the limitations of the curriculum specifically to our daughter’s learning style, she would, no doubt, have suffered at some point academically.
        I don’t know about the book, but the article which I mentioned puts so much of the responsibility of students’ lack of abilities to achieve academically on the parents when they have so little control over the 7 hours per day, 5 days a week they spend in school. 
        I don’t disagree with you that home background is a major influence on how well a student does today, I am taking exception with the fact that it HAS to be that way.  It is only that way because the curriculum is designed to make it that way.  I did not have a very good home life when I was in elementary school.  School was my haven and my chance to focus and learn without dealing with dysfunctional parents.  That is really what a good public education system should tryto be – an effective educational tool for all students, not just those with “good” parenting.

        1. @cindybogner I’m not trying to contend that home background is the only variable; I’m just insisting that it remains one.  So do personal motivation (our desires develop differently, even within the same household), curriculum, dedication of classroom teachers, and all sorts of other things.  In other words, I think that we agree that the question always involves an array of variables; where we seem to disagree is the extent to which this or that variable cancels out others.
          Again, I’m going from personal experience, not from control-group, peer-reviewed experiments, but I’ve seen students come through phonics-based reading instruction and not wind up strong readers, and I’ve seen students come through whole-reading programs and end up strong readers.  I’d defer to scientific studies on the statistical trends for each, but I do think that we’re dealing with a complex reality that encompasses curriculum, neither ruling it out as a variable nor swinging only on that one hinge.
          To be honest, I’m not inclined to re-read Elmore’s book (it wasn’t that great), but I do remember that he treats the sources of the “generational crisis” he describes as polyvalent, not coming exclusively or even overwhelmingly from JUST schools or JUST home or even JUST economic conditions but a strong mix of all those and some more.

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