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Millennials aren’t “traditional” undergraduate students today; they might be faculty colleagues

Attending a recent event focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), I heard a speaker discussing how millennials eventually will be entering the academic, non-student workforce.


Wait… I couldn’t be the only millennial around, could I?


Most of the talk centered on comparing millennials’ attitudes towards DEI to “everyone else.”  Who were these others, I wondered?  Baby boomers?  Generation X?  I remain uncertain. I knew I was a millennial, but I wasn’t sure how this group is defined.  Millennials generally are considered individuals born in the 1980s and 1990s.  More specifically, the PEW Research Center defines this group as today’s ages 23-38.  Importantly, millennials are no longer in the majority of undergraduate students.  “Traditional” age undergraduates (18-22) are not millennials, but instead are now Generation Z.


However, millennials are dominant portions and present in other spaces within academia.  The average age of a graduate student (all fields) is approximately 32 years old.  In 2017, over 75 percent of PhD recipients in the STEM fields were millennials.  This means that the academic job market is “booming” with millennials.  Similar to the broader economic conditions, it appears that millennials as a whole have inherited the current perils of the academic job market.


Since diversity, equity, and inclusion discussions usually start with introspection and a critical examination of experiences and biases, here are my relevant identities:  I’m a roughly mid-range millennial, three years post-PhD, and finished with two years as a faculty member.


Age is unique within many of the factors generally considered as aspects of diversity.  It changes constantly.  While our individual membership within a particular generation remains the same, our age constantly influences our status within society or how we may be perceived in our grade schools, colleges, graduate work, or post-educational professional lives.


Age-related discussions in the United States are complex.  Traditionally, age discrimination is defined by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission as “treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age.”  However, what’s prohibited is discrimination against individuals age 40 or over.  Very specifically, discrimination against younger people because of their age is not against federal law.  However, some state or local laws may include these protections… so, check your local listings.


While the media tends to hate on millennials (apparently we’ve ruined or killed everything from home and car buying to grocery stores, canned tuna, mayonnaise, napkins, and divorce), discrimination in hiring practices is also known.  As such, discussions of age certainly seem relevant to DEI.


In society at large, the attitude is often “kids today…” and some sort of negative description.  Faculty might refer to their undergraduate students as “kids.”  Depending on someone’s upbringing, perhaps the phrase “respect your elders” may have been repeated like a scratchy record, having its own contexts and deeply held cultural meaning.  The discussion of age, however, can also be decidedly academic and highly polarized.


The intersection of age and academia appears complex.  Unlike in society at large, where youth is considered a virtue – or perhaps even an obsession, academia appears to value the opposite.  We call the traditional form of lecturing the “sage on the stage” model.  And a “sage?”  They can be defined as a “mature or venerable man of sound judgment.”  Best practices in academic interviews even recommend that applicants “pause, and stroke your metaphorical beard.”


In a complex relationship with race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status, among others, age influences who looks like they “fit” in their academic role.  No matter my age, I’ll never look like a sage on the stage.  Luckily, I prefer an engaging, active learning approach.  The stereotype for an academic or a scientist might be something along the lines of looking like Albert Einstein or another old, bearded white man in tweed.  That’s the stereotype students hold and what pop culture presents as the professoriate.


Appearance matters in academia.  Although it’s a constantly changing factor, age is part of that appearance.  A few years ago, the #ILookLikeAProfessor movement took off, showing representation from various backgrounds, identities, and experiences that differ from the stereotype.  The representation of body appearances experiencing discrimination in academia is particularly salient for many underrepresented groups.  It matters whether someone looks like a professor.  It might matter in hiring, teaching evaluations, tenure and promotion, and in the everyday with subtle – or not-so-subtle – micro-aggressions.  These micro-aggressions might include being assumed to be or mistaken for a student on campus no matter how “well” they’re dressed, being perceived as inexperienced, or thought to not be qualified to have produced a certain scholarly work.


Ageism against younger folks is documented in academia.  However, ageism isn’t limited to the young.  Older folks in academia can experience it too.  A notable example of ageism appears when individuals getting their degrees later in life experience prejudices on the academic or non-academic job markets.  Complicating matters, ageism happens against both younger people and older people in academia, but often in different contexts.


As academics, we’re often talking about – and hopefully invested in – creating inclusive classroom spaces.  Generational diversity can provide value and resilience in a workplace, provided the topic is addressed and well managed.  Today, we might see five generations in the workplace, from the Silent Generation through Generation Z.  Overall, age diversity can improve performance within an organization, especially as related to complex decision-making.


But how do we create inclusive workplaces?  Here are a few ideas.  Instead of assuming someone is or is not a student, consider asking “what do you do here?” or “what is your role here?”  To have a productive discussion about age diversity, it can be useful to research and define the generations with specific ages in the conversation.  The Pew Research Center provides definitions for generational identity.  Like me while attending the DEI event, people may have only an idea of how these generational groups are defined and the age ranges they represent today.  HR practices focused on age diversity can also help to improve performance further within an organization.  While academia already has a strong tradition in the mentorship model, smart business practices can be adopted, including more formal cross-generation mentoring programs.  So, with both individual and organizational approaches, higher education workplaces can create a more age-inclusive environment.


Overall, it’s also time to stop criticizing the traditional undergraduate student body as millennials.  Today’s traditional age undergraduates are not millennials… and also, shouldn’t be criticized based on age.  Classrooms are richer when we value diversity, lived experiences, and voices.  Workplaces are too.


While some millennials may be undergraduate students and a large portion of graduate students today, many are also postdocs, faculty, and – nearly up to age 40 – maybe some are even tenured colleagues.  Recently, I saw #TenuredMillennial and #FullBeforeForty used, so it appears that some of the older millennials are advancing through the academic ranks.


Perhaps someday soon millennials will be considered part of the academic (non-student) workforce.  While the next older group, Generation X, is often ignored in society, maybe they’re included in the “everyone else” in academia.  Next time I hear millennials being casually excluded from the professoriate and administrative side of academia, at least I’ll know how this group is defined.  This DEI speaker inspired me.  I investigated and learned a lot about the complexities of ageism and academia, as well as ways to promote age-inclusive spaces.


Until millennials fit the academic mold, I guess I could go back to my avocado toast, research, grading, or preparing my classes.  But before I do, let’s talk about how to create more inclusive classrooms and more inclusive workplaces.


Featured image: Buvette from Flickr, CC-BY-ND 2.0.


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