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PSS Fall '09 - From Theory to Practice

Hill & Quad

Generation Comparison

Class of 1960

Class of 1960

Class of 1985

Class of 1985

Class of 2013

Class of 2013

by Cynthia L. McVey

The Classes of 2013 arrived on campus this August on a wave of electricity - literally. They brought with them laptops, iPods, cell phones, video gaming systems and even electronic readers for their textbooks, all of which fit together within a space less-than that consumed by a typical micro-fridge.

Members of the Classes of 2013 were born in either 1991 or 1992 and are part of the generation dubbed the "New Silent Generation" or "Generation Z." We surveyed this digital generation, who has always had its temperature taken with an electronic thermometer, to take their social temperature. We also surveyed alums who will be returning for their 25th and 50th Reunions this summer - the Classes of 1985 and the Classes of 1960.

Our question: Are the incoming students tuned out to their HWS predecessors, or are these multi-tasking humans really more like alums than one might think?

According to the more than 290 members of the Classes of 2013 who filled out the survey (about half the entering first-years), this group is actually as frugal as their parents and more often than not shares their parents' political views. "We see almost eye-to-eye on everything. Weird, huh?" jokes first-year Kristen Desmarais.

For this generation, agreeing with their parents isn't weird at all. In fact, many members of the Classes of 2013 reported that their parents understand them (how often do you expect a teenager to say that?) and describe their parents as their best friends.

Some age-old barriers do still exist. Noah Lucas '13, for example, says that his parents don't always understand, "That I really am trying to do everything I can to both help myself and others." Others report that their parents don't understand their commitment to being 'green' or their need for a later curfew.

Among the alums, the largest misunderstanding reported is that their children don't realize they were young - and even cool - once. One alum from the Classes of 1985 wrote, "My kids don't realize that I have been through everything that they are going through and that I do understand."

Despite the misunderstandings, we found that the generations share similar fundamental ideals but differ, not surprisingly, in their use of and reliance on technology. For instance, alumni and alumnae were "PC" people while a larger percentage (61%) of our first-years identify as "Mac" folks.

While all generations report tuning in to the news every day, both the students and Classes of 1985 chose the Internet as their primary news media. Half of the respondents from the Classes of 1960 selected television as their primary source of news.

When they're watching the news, it seems that all three generations have similar concerns. All reported the "single most important political issue right now" was the economy. Last fall, the majority of all three groups voted for Barack Obama as the man they wanted in place to address their concerns (more than 70 percent of all respondents).

Even with America's first African-American President in office, no one group believed we live in a post-racial society but the majority of respondents rated their own racial identity as either not important or only moderately important.

"I believe we have the potential to be a postracial society, but people always fear that which is different," wrote Emma Meiggs '13. Many respondents wrote similarly that we're getting there but we've still got a way to go.

As for social issues, educational access, literacy and poverty were listed as priorities for all groups - and all were pitching in to improve situations where they could. The majority of respondents from all three generations volunteer at least monthly if not more frequently.

Among similarities: Don't ask an HWSer to choose a favorite book! "There are too many to name," and "I read all the time, can't think of a favorite," were reflective of the bulk of all groups' answers. The Classes of 2013 favored the "Twilight" and "Harry Potter" series, "The Great Gatsby," "The Kite Runner," "Catcher in the Rye," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Pride and Prejudice."

And, while they're probably more likely to be reading their books on a Kindle than their HWS predecessors, current students and alums are at least reading some of the same books. The Classes of 1985 reported "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Pride and Prejudice" and "Catcher in the Rye" among their favorites as well.

Of course, if all else fails, all three generations surveyed have one very important thing in common: Hobart and William Smith.

Click here to view the results from the survey.