“You’re so dumb!”: The Next Generation

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for
authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in
place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they
contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food
and tyrannize their teachers.”

Socrates complained about the younger generation. St. Thomas Aquinas lamented that the world would be left to an ill-prepared and slovenly youth. A year after I was graduated from college, I read Steve Allen’s Dumbth which “humorously” recounted tales of how Generation X just didn’t know how to think.

Twenty years later it’s the Millennial Generation’s turn with The Dumbest Generation. “According to recent reports from government agencies, foundations, survey firms, and scholarly institutions, most young people in the United States neither read literature (or fully know how), work reliably (just ask employers), visit cultural institutions (of any sort), nor vote (most can’t even understand a simple ballot). They cannot explain basic scientific methods, recount foundations of American history, or name any of their local political representatives. What do they happen to excel at is – each other. They spend unbelievable amounts of time electronically passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, savoring the thrill of peer attention and dwelling in a world of puerile banter and coarse images.”

The crux of the “dumb generation” argument is that their generation just doesn’t have the knowledge that our generation has with the implication that our knowledge is inherently superior. It reminds me of summers that I spent at my grandparent’s farm where I was pitied because I didn’t know how to milk a cow, can vegetables, or could identify all the trees on the farm. “Didn’t I know anything?” they asked. Then we bought them a microwave oven, a VCR, and hooked their TV up to cable. Now I got to mutter under my breath, “didn’t my grandparents know anything?” As our workplaces become more multi-generational, I am sure there is a lot of muttering about the limitations of the different generations. And that is a misleading issue.

The real issue is how to transform our organizations into learning organizations so that we capture the knowledge we already have and determine the knowledge that we need. We produce new data and information at an astounding rate and it is growing faster every year. The challenge is to determine what knowledge we need to keep, what knowledge we need to discard, and how to find the new knowledge we need. Like the way I cling to 80s rock, knowledge we already have feels comforting and empowering but we need to have the courage to let some of that go and embrace the new knowledge that is being produced. Even so, we also need to recognize that not all old knowledge is useless and should be discarded.

Others on GovLoop have written that the best learning is in our workplaces and with conversations with our colleagues. We can learn a lot from each other and our organizations desperately need our efforts to keep the organizational memory growing and thriving. That means younger workers should not just immediately dismiss current practices and processes because that is how they used to do things. And older workers should not be defensive and dismissive when younger workers suggest new ways of doing the organization’s business.

Back when I worked at a state agency, I had a colleague who insisted on using Lotus 123 for his spreadsheets despite the fact that we had Microsoft Excel. He would complain bitterly when they tried to install Excel on his machine and we would have to support Lotus 123 even though it was getting harder to do so every year. I then hit upon a strategy of having him teach me his spreadsheets. I would go over to his cubicle and learn the macros that he created. I would recreate the macros in Excel and then show him how much more powerful they were and how the reports looked better with charting available to Excel. He was reluctant at first but I believe what sold him on upgrading is that he would not lose the original knowledge he had in his spreadsheets and macros but that they would be faster and more effective in a newer environment. A couple of years later, he relished his role as the “Excel Guru” who was the go-to guy about the intricacies of Excel spreadsheets.

So, maybe what is needed are less books about how stupid the other generations are and more books on how much we can learn from each other.

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Stephen Peteritas

I really like this post. It’s rather hilarious that every generation thinks it’s the height of civilization but as we continue to progress it’s extremely important to capture what those who have come before have done. I’m a big believer in history, once it’s forgotten, repeats itself and we all know on a world wide and a personal scale that’s not always the best thing.

Michele Costanza

The author of the book, The Dumbest Generation, put pen to paper and wrote the sentiment that many college instructors feel. As a former college writing instructor and secondary level teacher of students identified for special education, I don’t take issue with the cognitive skill level of the Millennials. I question the lack of research presented by people who promote the Millennials as “digital natives.” Compared to the “digital immigrants,” the digital natives are those born completely into a digital world where technology has supposedly changed their cognitive thinking patterns to the point where they can no longer successfully learn in the same manner as previous generations. See works by Marc Prensky, who started out as an inner-city teacher then earned a Harvard MBA and became a K-12 “learning game designer” and salesman.

Think about this. If the cognitive thinking patterns of the digital natives have changed so drastically because of the technology they use, why do so many enjoy reading the Harry Potter books? Did J.K. Rolling write a novel first, or develop a video game or produce a movie first? The reading and the writing came first.

These other forces are at work:

1. A belief in the last ten to fifteen years that digital technology, such as computers, video games, and other forms of multi-media, would actually make the children who use them more advanced intellectually and cognitively than older people. Recommendations bordering on fear were that students in public schools in the U.S. had to have access to the internet, and each student had to have a laptop in order to learn and keep up with other industrialized countries. Has that proven correct? How do we know that if they first don’t have a foundation in the basics of reading, writing, math, and science, that they will easily acquire those skills simply by using a laptop computer or playing a video game or surfing the web?

2. Unlike prior generations, the digital natives have consumed more media in the form of television, video games, and the internet, than previous generations. Children and young adults today watch more television than in the past. Just like with food, younger people especially are susceptible to the ill-effects of an unbalanced diet of media. We live in a culture that celebrates celebrity for the sake of celebrity. People like Heidi and Spencer from The Hill are famous just for being famous. That is the premise behind the book The Dumbest Generation.

3. The number of years it now takes the average college graduate to finish what should be a four-year degree has extended by about two years. It’s now practically a necessity to obtain a college degree to find a full time job with benefits. More students are entering college, which means a wider range of skills and abilities. Students need to spend time, energy, and money on remedial courses in college.

4. College professors with doctorates are typically prepared at Research-I universities to conduct original research and to publish, not to teach freshmen and sophomores remedial skills. Imagine how frustrating it must be for a person who spent years in school earning a doctorate in Elizabethan poetry to then be assigned part time work with no benefits at three community colleges, where the students are reading and writing below a high school level. Add in the “helicopter parents” who haggle with college professors about their adult children’s grades and write doctor’s notes when their adult children skip class, and one can understand why a college English professor would write a book called The Dumbest Generation.

Matthew B. Strickland

Great post, Bill.

I remember when I was just starting out and didn’t know anything about “the business” I used to make it a point to help out the older workers who weren’t as computer savvy (rather than just snicker at their ignorance). As an entry level engineer I didn’t have much social capital built up to help get things done, but I realized that, being fresh out of school, my computer skills were my best currency.

I’d spend a few minutes here and there patiently walking them through some basic steps in Word or Excel and when I needed something expedited late on a Friday afternoon they were always more than happy to help me out.

I ended up learning far more from them than they did from me.

Peter Sperry

From a historical prospective, Greece was overrun by Macidonia shortly after Socretes complained about the effete nature of its youth and the younger generation of clerics who followed Aquinas were so incompetent they helped promote the Protestant Reformation. Every once in awhile the older generation’s judgement of the younger is spot on. From what I’ve seen of the most recent generation, I would highly recommend they learn either Mandarin or Hindi because overblown entitlement is not a survival skill in a 21st century economy.

Charles Johnstone

Excellent post all! I can relate to Matthew’s experience. I did the same thing when I was a young and stupid hot shot just getting started out. PCs and my technological prowess helped me immensely to help others and build social capital and social skills.

Michelle: I just picked up the book referenced. Gotta love Ebooks and their immediacy!

Michele Costanza

In my rather long posting, the point I was making is that I can picture the author of the book The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein, after grading one too many college freshmen composition papers where “according to Wikipedia,” starts every paragraph. Bauerlein has just received his tenth email from one of his students’ parents, demanding to know why her child didn’t receive full credit for an assignment. He reads course evaluations where the students rate him based on whether or not he resembles the main character of “King of the Hill,” and decry the purchase and use of the MLA handbook in his course. He sits down at his computer, and begins to write his book, called The Dumbest Generation.

I’m not saying I agree with his theories, just that I can understand his perspective. I agree the title of the book is harsh. It does get attention, although not as much attention as books by Howe and Strauss, like Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. Bauerlein was writing his book in part as a response to the media blitz regarding the Millennials.

Here is a C-span debate from the two authors on the topic of Millennials.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Peter – From my reading of Greek history, it would seem that the Sicilian Expedition during Socrates time is what weakened Athens (along with a plague) and allowed Sparta to dominate Athens after Socrates died. I don’t believe it was the weaknesses of the succeeding generations but the divisions between the Greek states that led to Phillip II’s domination of Greece. But then Alexander the Great unified the Greek states and led to the resurgence of Greece’s power.

And there was a a 300 year gap between the death of Aquinas and the Protestant Reformation. I also might argue that the reforms brought about by Luther were a good thing (but I am biased because my fiance is Lutheran).

We’ll have to see how history treats the current generation. Opinions about Generation X were not kind twenty years ago but that has shifted toward the positive in the last few years.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Michele – Having been a college professor for the last ten years, I can certainly understand the frustrations. But I wonder if it is more Bauerlein’s problem than his students’ problems. I have met many academics who bemoan the fact that they have to teach students when they would rather spend time engaged in intellectual conversation with their colleagues at the faculty club. Suffused with their own “brilliance” (often unacknowledged by the rest of academic community – so they imagine), these academics lament their mission of bringing enlightenment to the unenlightened.

Not everyone can be a teacher because it takes a strength to shape a person’s mind while having the humility to learn something in turn. This is why I don’t like terms like guru, ninja, rock star, or other terms that denote that one person’s knowledge is superior to another. What I prefer is the term “sensei” which loosely translated means “one who came before.” I see my experience and knowledge as me just being ahead of my students on the trail and I am just telling them what is ahead.

I am sure he got attention by calling another generation dumb but I fail to see how he is teaching anyone anything.

Tricia Adkins

“I am sure he got attention by calling another generation dumb but I fail to see how he is teaching anyone anything.”

-Right on! Most of my professors in college weren’t there to teach and it was the thing that they had to “put up with” in order to do their research at a large university. I have heard the same complaint from others who attended large schools in other parts of the country so it doesn’t appear to be limited to one school. The grad students did more for my college education than the professors. Maybe it’s because they were less removed from the experience or didn’t have the years of “wisdom” to become jaded.

Excellent article!

Joshua Salmons

I enjoyed the post and subsequent discussions. Thank you. As a member of the dumbest generation, I try not to take the thrown stones too personally.

Scott M. Patton

Thank you Millenials. As a Gen Xer, I’m glad to no longer be among the dumbest.

My experiences with Millenials has been mostly positive. They treat their mobile devices like a prosthetic brain and with it, they can retrieve any information while maintaining dozens of conversations simultaneously. It baffles me. Many of the frustrations of their elders is largely (I think) because they have little respect for things like rules, traditions, institutions, even location. There is a pretty big plus side to calling these things into question. Example: they seem to completely ignore race, creed, color, sexual orientation, etc. (Unfortunately, they do still recognize age.)

While very intelligent, I do find Millenials to be less capable of handling deeper issues like justice and morality. It’s difficult to gain much understanding on these in 140 characters.

Makes me wonder – if Socrates were a Millenial, would he tweet his dialogues?

Scott Span

I think this point is key – “The real issue is how to transform our organizations into learning organizations so that we capture the knowledge we already have and determine the knowledge that we need.” This point goes beyond generational issues. The most successful organizations I’ve worked with have been those who have mastered the art of retaining institutional knowledge and developing ways to transfer that knowledge to the new folks as the old ones leave (most of the time for reasons other than age/retirement). Some knowledge and ways of doing things are worth transitioning, some are worth improving, and some are worth getting rid of all together!

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I speak and write on the topic of generational conflict in the workplace, and I try to put the spin of focusing on similarities and not differences and raising awareness for mutual respect. To put this in generational terms, I have colleagues who like myself work in organizational development and change. They focus in diversity work and have written many books. Their firm has a term which I often use in my work “Passing the Baton.” We all have a lot to learn from one another, and learning keeps us all smarter, so we need to take the time to be aware, listen, and seek to understand why others (generational or not) do things the way they do, think the way they think, and view things they way they do.

Jaime Gracia

We should be able to constructively criticize each other, but the end-game is institutional transformation through knowledge transfer. With the growth and power of technology mediums, we are overloaded with data. We need to prioritize our knowledge, and figure out how to move forward, which requires having to look backward to know where you have been to strategically map out the future. Generational gaps will exist, but they need to be bridged by understanding the value each generation brings, and leveraging strengths to advance the organizational mission. Focusing on weaknesses does nothing but irritate and cause greater animosity and division.

melissa peery

Excellent post! And you know what, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you think the next generation is brillant or dumb. They WILL inherit your job and be running your organization. It’s just a matter of time. And somehow the world keeps turning.

Michele Costanza

Younger people are competing on a more global level than previous generations.
Is it really a given that the younger generation in the U.S. will automatically “inherit” jobs from the older generation? Part of the angst from unemployed Americans is that manufacturing jobs in this country have all but disappeared and probably won’t be returning. Another form of angst is the expectation of possessing a college degree in order to find a full time job with benefits. New jobs really need to be created. I don’t think any one will care which generation creates those jobs.

A Brookings Institution report on education attainment ranks the Washington, D.C. metro area first in the nation for number of people with college degrees. For those of us who live and work in this region of the country, we need to try to see the perspective of other people.


Watching retro movies/TV shows from the 1940’s thru 1970’s, the same comments about youth “…(having) bad manners; contempt for authority;…disrespect for their elders… chatter in
place of exercise; …tyrannize their teachers; etc” by older adults were made. Since such observains are made for every emerging young generation, I’m sure any of today’s “slacker” kiddos will soner/later wake up and rise above self-imposed/endured negativity.
After all, individual humans (and generations) DO perform and blossom at differing speeds.

Sandy Evans Levine

Excellent blog, Bill!! We actually provide a presentation on ‘The Intergenerational Workforce,’ talking about leveraging the unique skills, expertise and approach of each generation, and insights that help folks across different generations work more effectively together, particularly for government organizations and companies selling to the government. We present this session for a very reasonable fee, if anyone’s interested, just contact me and we can get you more details: [email protected].