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Stuck in the middle with us?

Jim Dickinson thinks through generational shifts and the possible implications for universities.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

When a new generation of students join universities, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on their preferences, attitudes and tendencies – not least to check whether the investment in lecture capture, apps or a fancy new social learning space signed off a while ago is likely to land well.

Over the summer both Pearson and MORI released studies focusing on “Generation Z”, now replacing millennials as the generation unpacking their bags into halls of residence this September. Among some of the more intriguing findings were:

  • Despite concerns about the graduate premium and exhortations to try vocational alternatives, just 25 percent of Generation Z students say they believe they can have a rewarding career without going to university
  • Generation Z rank YouTube second only to academics as a learning tool. In fact, YouTube is ranked well ahead of lectures, collaboration with classmates, learning apps, and “books”. Time to get filming, folks!
  • They rank academics as top influencers for their personal development – much higher than parents or their peers
  • And Generation Z are more likely to say they want to make it to the top of their future profession one day versus Millennials.

There are also some interesting social trends:

  • They are altruistic. Sixty per cent said they want to help people less fortunate than themselves, compared to 48 per cent of Millennials
  • They aren’t especially mistrusting of institutions. That decline is age agnostic. Yet in personal relationships they are nearly twice as trusting of other people than Millennials were at the same age
  • Sixty per cent agree that having diverse set of friends makes them a better person. And their norms of sexuality and gender are changing: they are much less likely to identify as solely heterosexual and have much greater contact with people who don’t identify as just one gender
  • There’s a clear negative correlation between social media use and mental health, but it’s still unclear whether technology use is causing it
  • And they’re savvier (or arguably more cynical) when it comes to news – far fewer than ever before believe most or all of what they see on news websites and apps.

Growing out of it

The lingering question in the press is when they will “grow out of it”, and of course one of the unspoken purposes of UK HE is that of the finishing school. Speeches at graduation ceremonies are full of the folklore – they arrive at university as older children, but emerge as full-blown adults ready to take on responsibility and graduate level employment. Key metrics in the TEF measure these – like the attainment of a graduate level job within a few years. Yet the press tropes no longer match the rhetoric – lazy and entitled millennials, special snowflakes who can’t cope and graduates returning to the family home. Post-war baby boomers seem permanently baffled by it all, and the papers delight and disgust their dwindling clutch of readers with lurid lambasts that suggest the way onto the property ladder is to buy less lattes.

There are macro-level trends that go some way toward explaining this. Universities are led largely by post-war baby boomers – a generation which came to expect continuous improvements in living standards and life prospects. But economic growth in western countries has been slowing ever since the mid-70s, as has the share of GDP which goes to employees. We’re living longer, which inevitably means the taxes of the workers have to support growing numbers of retirees. Mass HE might mean that we’re better educated but when there are plenty of graduates around, it depresses graduate wages.


The three classic signals of “adulthood” in the UK have always been marriage, parenthood, and property ownership. When baby boomers entered HE they expected to achieve all three soon after graduation. But the age of attainment of all three has been on an inexorable rise since the seventies, particularly for graduates – the average marriage age is now over 35, and both first-time buyers and new parents are almost all over 30.

For years academics like Jeffry Arnett have been arguing that we’re seeing the creation of a new “middle stage”. Originally believed to be experienced between 18 and 23, it begins with the end of secondary school and ends with the attainment of “full adult status”. There are five key characteristics:

  • Identity exploration – where young people decide who they are and what they want out of work, school and relationships
  • Instability – repeated residence changes and multiple careers
  • Self-focus – freed of parental, school and society-directed routines young people try to decide what they want to do, where they want to go and who they want to be with- before those choices get limited by marriage, children, career or property ownership
  • In between – they are taking responsibility for themselves, but don’t completely feel like an adult
  • Possibilities – belief in a chance of upward social mobility or living better than their parents did.

Any of us who follow students on social media or interact with them regularly will recognise some of these characteristics. The issue is that wider economic and social changes inevitably mean that a stage that was assumed to be over by the mid-twenties is now lasting much longer. In other words, what was assumed to be a life cycle effect – where some of our views are driven by our life stage and shift as we get older – is at least in part also becoming a cohort effect – where distinctive attitudes, values or behaviours stay with us as we grow older.

Scary movie

For politicians – particularly conservatives – this is scary stuff. The older end of the electorate views young people with derision and suspicion, and wants its extended old age to be paid for – hence political fear at dealing fairly with the costs of social care. At the other end, while the “youthquake” of the 2017 election turned out to largely apocryphal, there was an uptick in participation and support for the left amongst those in their twenties.

In HE, dalliances in political correctness and Marxism might have largely been regarded as inconsequential when 1 in 30 students graduated and became “adults” by 23. But given YouGov estimates the Labour/Conservative crossover age is now at 47 and rising, the fear is that the increase in the participation rate for HE is not just upskilling the younger generation, but rendering them permanently socially liberal and left wing. This explains Sam Gyimah’s not so secret young conservative mission, his wider concerns about an HE political monoculture and Theresa May’s knee-jerk raising of the repayment threshold at last year’s party conference.


But whatever the political implications, the extension of delayed adulthood also raises questions about what HE is preparing students for. There are obvious issues- pushing students into defined careers when they’re unlikely to settle on one for some time starts to look strange. Expecting students to be tolerant of or willing to enter into debate with those who espouse intolerant views (particularly in relation to diversity) also looks problematic. And accepting (and to some extent welcoming) deeper involvement from parents looks inevitable when they’ll be bankrolling them and having them back for the rest of their twenties.

In teaching and learning, some academics are arguing that techniques previously seen as novelty should probably become essential. These include cooperative activity, problem-based learning, community research, field work, study circles, and world cafés all can contribute to a wider set of purposes that set students up for the middle stage by bringing the world into the classroom (relevance), bringing the student into the world (revelation), putting an onus on the student (responsibility) and being together in learning (relationships).

But there are broader issues too. If HE is part of an extended “middle” stage, we might usefully ask whether the default is that it should come at the start of it. David Willetts has often argued that subject specialism in UK HE is limiting, and looks even worse through the optic of the need to experiment in the middle phase. And if emerging adults view adulthood as the end of a sense that anything is possible, shouldn’t we stop being patronising about “adulting” classes and do some work preparing them for it?

One response to “Stuck in the middle with us?

  1. Very good blog: grounded on data and presented in a clear and balanced way – thanks for posting.

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