Are young adults today a less curious lot than the previous generation? I’m not asking if they’re less odd (that’s a debate for another time). I’m asking if they’re less inquisitive, if they ask fewer questions and if they have less of a desire to understand the world around them.
My best friend and professional mentor Les Potter recently blogged about this subject. Les is a few years into his new career as a visiting professor of public relations and integrated communications at Towson University. He brings to the classroom more than 30 years of experience as a communication professional with organizations large and small. He’s also widely known in our industry as the leading expert in strategic communication planning. Les’s students are fortunate to be learning from a master of our profession — and most of them know it.
But Les blogged about what he sees as a disturbing lack of curiosity among many of his students. This past semester, Les had about 75 students in four classes. “Yet in all of these interactions, only occasionally will someone ask a question of any substance,” he wrote. “Few make observations that capture insightful interest in or understanding of things. Most never even comment on their surroundings. They seem oblivious to a deeper exploration of ideas and concepts, not only the abstract or obtuse, but the practical as well, like how to get and keep jobs in communication/PR/IMC. In short, they seem to be devoid of curiosity.”
I’ve witnessed the lack of curiosity Les laments. It’s not across the board, but it is noticeable. I have a theory (unproved) about why so many students — and young adults just entering the workplace — lack the kind of curiosity that is so vital to success in any business discipline, especially communication.
It’s social media’s fault — at least partly.
Really the problem began with a generation of parents who made their little precious ones the center of the world. Reacting to previous generations of parents who said children should be seen and not heard, the parents of today’s young adults raised kids who are seen, heard, catered to, bestowed upon and generally worshipped. This is the generation of “helicopter parents” who swoop in when their babies (at age 20) are having a hard time with a college professor. Many young adults of this generation are ill-equipped to deal with the harsh realities of the world around them because mom and dad have always fixed their problems.
And this generation was perfectly poised for the explosion of social media. Kids who were raised to believe the world revolves around them find that it truly does on Facebook and MySpace. “What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks, and its users figure the world is just dying to know.
I realize I’m generalizing. Not every 20-something is so self-absorbed. I know quite a few young adults who are socially aware, intellectually curious and mindful of the needs of others. But my generalization holds true for many — like the students Les described.
Also, I feel well qualified to comment on the self-focus perpetuated by social media because I’m guilty of it myself. I have a Facebook account. I’ve done my share of sharing too much about what I’m working on, who I’m dating, what my kids are doing that drives me nuts and what I’m doing this weekend. Why? Because I can. Because it’s fun. And maybe because there’s some deep-seated need for engagement and the recognition of others. That might be a therapy issue. But I do catch myself from time to time and I try to use Facebook as much to learn about my friends, their families, their interests and their needs as to talk about my own.
Then there’s this blog — the ultimate in self-gratification, where I can write pretty much anything that’s on my mind, hold public discussions with anybody who takes the time to read it and even delete any comments I don’t like. (For the record, I haven’t done that yet and hope I never do. But hey, it’s my blog!)
This is the real “Me Generation” and, unlike its ancestor from the last century, this one has the technology to enable its self-absorption. The result is a focus on our own little worlds at the expense of the world around us. If we’re not careful, social media can consume our thirst for knowledge about anything other than ourselves.
Update 5/28/09: Readers interested in this topic might find this column in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch interesting. It’s from Matt Thornhill of the Boomer Project and it deals with the life goals and priorities of the Millennial generation compared to Gen-X and other previous generations.