Are the kids really alright?

     I’m starting to pay closer attention to what’s happening on university campuses.

It’s part of the research I’m doing for my next book, in which I argue that not only are the Baby Boomers going to dominate politics and public policy, but that the younger generations – particularly the so-called Milennials – are in no position to compete for influence and power.

There’s been a lot of evidence – and for some time now – that universities are not adequately preparing students for life in the real world. I suppose it’s an old complaint – probably similar things were heard when I was an undergrad – but it has a lot more bite in today’s economy. There’s even some early signs that students themselves are beginning to recognize the problem, and rejecting programs that don’t seem relevant to job prospects. In the USA, there is starting to be a pushback against sky-high tuition fees for courses that don’t produce job offers. Many universities – already in financial trouble due to huge losses in their endowments due to the 2008 stock market meltdown – are being forced to take a harder look at programs, at administrative costs, and even at previously-untouchable policies such as….gasp…tenure.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on this trend, because it materially affects my argument that much of the future is going to be a battle of the generations, competing for scarce resources (money, of course) and policy attention. If “the kids” are starting to wake up to just how disadvanataged they really are, it will make things interesting.

At the same, though, there’s a lot of evidence to support the idea that “the kids” are not allright – that they are not waking up, and that they are ill-equipped to deal with increasing demands on their brains and their energy. University professors continue to report an astonishing lack of skills on the part of a meaningfully large number of undergraduates.  A recent letter published in the National Post is a good example.

It was written by Heinz Klatt, professor emeritus of psychology at University of Western Ontario. He deplored the problem of “our crowded universities, which cater to unqualified, unmotivated, semi-literate and parasitical students” and gave a concrete example:

Some years ago I discussed with a colleague the question of how many undergraduates belong and deserve to be in our classrooms. My colleague suggested that perhaps 25% of students are properly qualified and sufficiently motivated. I found my colleague’s estimate overly optimistic, as I believed most university students possess no intellectual curiosity, but just feel entitled to higher education and do not know what else to do.
We decided to test at least one aspect of our contention: the lack of intellectual curiosity. It was decided I would announce in my second-year child psychology class that the next lecture would be mostly a debate and not cover anything that would be tested in any examination. Students were advised to come only if they were interested in a better understanding of some particular issues. The class was attended by 18 out of 120 students (15%). According to most participants, and myself, it was one of the best classes of the year.

He concludes:

Characteristically, our universities “advertise” like soap sellers. The University of Western Ontario brags about the “Western experience” (number 4 on Playboy’s party list!). Other universities lure students with pretentious and dishonest slogans claiming to offer “excellence” in education. I see no solution other than to insist, at the very least, on admission exams.

If he’s right – and his alarms are consistent with a lot of other observations I’ve seen and heard – then there will be even less “retirement on schedule”  on the part of Baby Boomers. Consider all the forces coming together at the same time:

– The Boomers are already financially ill-prepared for retirement, even more so given increased longevity

– In addition to financial need, the Boomers are attitudinally hostile to the idea of retiring because it means disengaging and becoming less important

– The economy is struggling to produce more jobs

– The younger competition is numerically weak, under-educated and under-motivated

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out.


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. Vice President, Zoomer Media Ltd. . Author of "The New Old" . 30 years experience in marketing communications, advertising, media . Speaker, writer, commentator on the revolution in aging and how to market to Boomers and seniors

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