There are movies that help define a generation. For baby boomers, they are included A graduate, Easy Rider, Five easy plays and of course Bonnie and Clyde (“They’re young… they’re in love… and they’re killing people”).
For Generation X it was Breakfast Club, Beautiful in pink, Mean Girls and The Matrix. For millennials, coming-of-age tales have been particularly infamous Children, Thirteen, Slut, Fight Club and Reality Bites.
What movies define today’s students? The titles may be less familiar to you, but these films share a common theme – the painful journey to adulthood: Frances Ha, The Hunger Games, Real Women Have Curves and Darkness.
Now, perhaps less than in the past, cinema is never just entertainment. These pictures reflect the moment they are created, shape how young people see and understand society, and help young people define their identity.
I can’t help but watch this century’s coming-of-age movies and wonder what they say about the 80 percent of traditional college-age students. What I see is not just inclusivity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, but an understanding of the world that encompasses this overused and racially biased word “dark”: gross, disgusting, nasty, moody, provoking anxiety and worry.
The mid-life crisis went like this. It has been replaced by the quarter-life crisis, when many 20-somethings go through the difficult, uneasy transition into the real world of early adulthood.
The 20s are a time of exciting opportunities, self-exploration, and a concerted effort to establish independence, but it’s also a time when many young adults stumble through adolescence, moving to a new city, holding a succession of toxic or casual jobs, pursuing a succession of casual romantic or sexual relationships. ties, and sometimes returning to the parental home. It is in this decade that too many young lives are derailed, with long-term consequences for their careers and personal happiness.
Popular literature offers many revealing and fascinating descriptions of what it’s like to stumble at a young age. There is Franny and Zooey, Description of J. by D. Salinger in 1961.the emotional stress and trauma of entering adulthood“,”crippling self-awareness” that some young people feel when trying to define an adult identity. Then there’s Sylvia Plath’s 1963 semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jarwith an unforgettable portrait of the post-college protagonist’s anxiety and disorientation as she endures a series of professional setbacks and traumas only to discover her inability to conform to cultural ideals of the average woman.
Additionally, there is Douglas Coupland’s 1991 cohort definition Generation Xwhich describes life in the 20s after the baby boom mired in “low-wage, low-prestige, low-wage, futureless service jobs” and “their fanatical individualism, pathological ambivalence about the future, and unsatisfied longing for maturity, love, and a home of their own.”
More modern accounts, such as Candace Carthy-Williams, winner of British Book of the Year 2019 Queenieis also about the struggle to chart a direction in life, find a job and form meaningful relationships, and define an individual separately and independently of parental expectations.
As historian Harvey J. Count argued convincingly: “Growing up was always difficult. It’s getting harder and universities are not helping much.” How so?
- Reaching the markers of full adulthood is much slower than in the past. It’s typically not until their late 20s or even 30s that young people find steady work, get married, have children, and buy a home, leading to a long period of uncertainty that separates graduation from adulthood.
- Transitioning through the 20s lacks a well-defined road map of expectations as young adults navigate these difficult years, in stark contrast to the post-World War II generation, which followed a clear sequence of development into adulthood.
- Intense age segregation in today’s society means that many 20-somethings have few adult role models or mentors other than parents to offer advice or support.
- Colleges and universities do too little to prepare graduates for the realities of post-graduation.
Furthermore, Graf astutely observes, there is a cultural dimension to contemporary student angst that contrasts starkly with the grand optimism of his generation and mine. He describes a sense of anxiety, uncertainty, and even depression about the future that is not only in students’ minds, but is indeed a defining element of their lived reality. This sense of anguish, fear, and longing is not the product of individual psychological disorders, but rather the result of the Great Recession, the pandemic, societal retribution for racial injustice and inequality, climate crisis fears, debt burdens, and a loss of trust. to government, business and higher education itself.
According to Graff, colleges and universities must do much more to help today’s “a lost generation.” But how?
A recent book by American University Provost Emeritus and Professor of Business Administration and Policy Scott Bass offers his advice. Administrative Drift argues that today’s bureaucratically fragmented universities, with their siled services and rigid organizational divisions of responsibilities, are ill-equipped to meet the non-academic needs and expectations of today’s students.
The book’s proposed solution is three-pronged: more guidance and support from faculty and staff, a proactive case management approach to identifying and responding to students who have drifted off course, and a campus climate that prioritizes caring, belonging, and inclusion.
I certainly agree that colleges need to educate students more holistically and that institutions need to remove barriers that “complicate their efforts to help students.” I also share Bass’s view that the rigid, inflexible distribution of responsibilities for advising, career services, student life, and academics has contributed to a campus culture in which no one is held accountable for student well-being in multiple dimensions.
But in an environment of limited resources, understaffing, and conflicting faculty priorities and incentives, how can institutions provide the comprehensive support and assistance that Bass calls for?
Are single student service centers, data dashboards that aggregate student information and identify risk trends and automate outreach and faculty and staff training enough to address the challenges that Administrative Drift describes? Not, I think, without a profound shift in student culture that really places a much higher priority on mentoring and advising, faculty-staff-student connections, and career identification and preparation.
For all the talk about personalizing the student experience, the sad fact is that too many students are going with the flow and campuses are not doing enough to combat feelings of isolation. The result is an overwhelming and unsustainable burden on those faculty and staff who devote much of their time to teaching.
What can institutions do? Here are five initiatives that promise to make a difference.
- To recognize and reward teachers and staff involved in mentoring. A small number of faculty and staff, disproportionately women and people of color, take on greater responsibility for supporting and engaging students, often at the expense of their careers. Campuses should ensure that these individuals receive rewards commensurate with their commitment to student success. This means not only a one-time career reward, but also an ongoing salary increase.
- Encourage departments to expand engagement initiatives for majors and minors. A celebration for graduating high school students is not enough. Interactions should occur on a regular basis and may include convening a departmental honor society, regular faculty luncheons or potluck dinners, or a department-sponsored trip to a movie, concert, or museum.
- Place as many students as possible in a cohort program where they have access to a dedicated teacher. These range from first-year learning communities and meta-majors to opportunity cohorts, research cohorts, and pre-professional support centers in fields such as business, computer science, law, and early childhood education.
- Expand programs that promote student-faculty interaction. Student engagement initiatives, including invite-the-professor-to-lunch programs, guest lectures, and off-campus field trips to cultural or research institutions or field trips, are inexpensive but have high returns in terms of morale of students.
- Integrate and infuse personal development throughout the curriculum. I believe this is the most important step an institution can take. Literature and film departments may consider survey courses that examine novels, short stories, and films that explore the moral and psychological development of young characters, including the loss and conflict they experience as they struggle to define their identity and move toward adulthood .
Departments of anthropology, history, and sociology may offer classes that examine changes and cross-cultural variations in the life course, initiation rites, and coming-of-age challenges. Psychology faculty can design a course on biological, cognitive, emotional, and social development to focus more on the specific challenges faced by young people of diverse identities and backgrounds. A wide range of departments can offer variants of the Stanford Designing Life and Yale Science of Wellbeing courses.
Not surprisingly, the popular media is filled with references to the quarter-life crisis—the sense of disillusionment, anxiety, insecurity, and confinement among young people that is portrayed in popular movies and popular novels. Modern society has cultivated among today’s youth a profound pessimism about the future, cynicism about national myths, mistrust of government, and wariness of the intentions of older people who are too often untrustworthy, selfish, controlling, and just plain selfish, and which manifests itself in the gerontocracy that presides over the executive, legislative, and judicial branch of government.
The worries of the younger generation about their economic, political and climate future are not in vain. This makes it all the more important that we, the faculty and staff and academic administrators, do much more to mentor, inspire, prepare, and support our students as they navigate life’s greatest drama: the painful transition to adulthood.
Stephen Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.