Make Way for Millennials! How Today's Students Are Shaping Higher Education Space: From Generations in Perspectives, through Generational Cycles, and on to the Influence of Millennials on Campus Space

By Rickes, Persis C. | Planning for Higher Education, January-March 2009 | Go to article overview

Make Way for Millennials! How Today's Students Are Shaping Higher Education Space: From Generations in Perspectives, through Generational Cycles, and on to the Influence of Millennials on Campus Space


Rickes, Persis C., Planning for Higher Education


The monikers are many: Generation Y, Echo Boomers, GenMe, the Net Generation, RenGen, and Generation Next. One name that appears to be gaining currency is "Millennials," perhaps as a way to better differentiate the current generation from its predecessor, Generation X. Millennials are those individuals born between 1982 and 2002, give or take a couple of years (Howe and Strauss 2000, 2007). They represent a generation that began to spill onto college and university campuses at the turn of the millennium and have already had a subtle--and sometimes not so subtle--impact on campus space. Millennials now influence space planning, design, and construction and will continue to transform higher education as they return to campus as faculty and staff.

Generations in Perspective

The Baby Boomers have garnered much of the press in recent years given their sheer numbers, although we were clearly reminded by Tom Brokaw of the incalculable contributions of the G.I. or "Greatest" Generation. How do the Millennials fit into the historical constellation of generations? Although an entire generation cannot be uniformly categorized, it is clear that generational cohorts have some values and traits in common given their shared social and historical experiences. The dividing dates between cohorts are not rigid--and, indeed, individuals on the generational "cusps" share traits from neighboring generations--but there is rough agreement regarding how these cohorts are distributed over time. Following are brief descriptions of the four generations immediately preceding the Millennial Generation (Howe and Strauss 2007):

* The G.I. Generation(born 1901 to 1924) arose at the start of the last century. Civic-minded and team-oriented, this generation was responsible for creating the suburbs and landing on the moon. Members also helped fuel a major campus construction boom when they flooded higher education institutions as beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill. Since time was of the essence in reducing the pressure on overtaxed facilities, many of the buildings built in response were basic in both design and construction.

* The Silent Generation(born 1925 to 1942) came of age betwixt and between the war heroes and the flower children; shaped by the Great Depression, members of this generation lacked a cause for which to fight. In many ways, they were a "quiet" generation, committed not only to their career (often spending their entire work life at a single company), but also to their family and friends. On college and university campuses, they are now the most senior faculty members and administrators.

* The Boomer Generation(born 1943 to 1960) exploded on the scene, especially in contrast to the preceding generation. As idealistic optimists, Boomers were confident of themselves and distrustful of authority, questioning the relevance of social structures. Their sheer numbers made them a dominant cultural force. They attended higher education in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, and many are now returning to campus to enroll in courses for personal enrichment or to prepare for new careers in "retirement." Roughly half of current higher education faculty and staff members are Boomers. With the first Boomers reaching retirement age in 2008, that number will begin to decline as Gen Xers and Millennials swell the faculty and staff ranks.

* Generation X (born 1961 to 1981) emerged in the 1960s. This is a generation that the media has pegged as cynical and disconnected, the first "latchkey kids" grown into adulthood who feel that the world is out to get them. In reality, Gen Xers are the practical skeptics and entrepreneurial free agents who fueled the dot-com boom. They attended higher education in the 1980s and 1990s and now make up over one-third of the faculty and staff at colleges and universities. Their proportion will not achieve the lofty level of Boomers; as a generation, their numbers are relatively small, creating a generational birth dearth that led some academics like Lewis Mayhew (1979) to ponder how well higher education would survive the 1980s. …

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