In defence of so-called ‘generation snowflake’
This week we say a formal goodbye to our Year 11 students, as they embark on study leave ahead of the GCSE examination season, and also to our Upper Sixth students shortly thereafter as they too depart from their usual timetable in order to prepare for their upcoming A Level examinations.
With this in mind I thought it would be timely to talk about our students’ futures beyond school – as the experience of completing coursework and sitting examinations will help them to learn about their individual strengths and preferred ways of working, and because even the most relaxed of our girls will no doubt feel some degree of pressure weighing on them as to the impact their performances will have on their future plans.
Speaking about this ‘pressure’ that some youngsters feel, some people tend to roll their eyes in a dismissive fashion, suggesting that today’s young people don’t know what pressure is and have become overly sensitive – you will likely have seen the media paint a picture of a ‘generation snowflake’. The suggestion is that generation snowflake is less resilient, or more fragile, than previous generations. I couldn’t disagree more. The current generation of young people is confronted with a challenging economic and social climate (from rising tuition fees to a lack of wage inflation and pressures of social media unlike anything previous generations encountered), which means that they really have to grow up fast. I find it curious then that older generations see young people as ‘snowflakes’, considering the environment they have grown up in and the working world which they will enter.
Think about the options surrounding Higher Education – whether to go to university, whether an apprenticeship might be a more suitable route to pursue a particular career, or whether diving straight into work might provide the best start. This is not something that previous generations had to (or on the other hand, were so fortunate to) weigh up to the same extent; there was a more simple assumption that if you were bright enough to attend university that’s what you would do. By no means am I lamenting the days when there was less choice for young people – but it is worth pausing to recognise that this additional level of choice adds pressure to young people at a time when they already feel the weight of making decisions that will affect their future.
Think about job prospects too and the changing nature of employment itself. In decades gone by many people who trained for employment would have been fairly confident that once trained they would be able to continue utilising their skills and knowledge throughout their working life. Roles now change so frequently that a working environment can become unrecognisable in just 10 years. Take marketing, for example: with the far-reaching integration of technology into everyday life, high flying marketing graduates from just 10 years ago might find themselves in need of on-going training to keep on top of digital advertising tools and trends in social media. How much more complex are the decisions related to preparing for future employment when you have to weigh up the risk that the investment (in terms of both time and money) may not be guaranteed to offer long term rewards?
Just think also of the property market, and trying to balance early career decisions about whether to gain valuable work experience for little or no pay, or choosing to rent independently and basing career decisions on this, or reducing work opportunities by committing to living with parents in order to save for a deposit to buy a first house. It can start to feel for some of our young people that the clock is ticking and that there is not enough time to achieve career experience and to work to progress through promotions and so on as well as to find their feet as adults in charge of their own finances and able to buy a property. For women in particular, this can feel like added pressure as many will be weighing up the timing of milestones in their work or acquiring a property with the timing of starting a family. This of course shouldn’t be only a concern for young women, and I’m sure for many young people it is a concern that is shared by partners and wider support networks – nonetheless, this is a decision that each young women has to decide for herself one way or the other at some point, if not on multiple occasions.
All of this seems pressure enough without the all-prevalent social media (a new addition) and the confusion of romance and becoming comfortable with who you are, or want to be, as an adult (both as old as time).
So perhaps instead of belittling an entire generation under an unfair stereotype, it would be better to think about ways to support these young people in this complex environment with an infinite number of options to consider in every part of their lives. Perhaps ‘generation opportunity’ would be a fairer and more descriptive group term – to which we would be wise to act accordingly to provide them with tools to navigate the many opportunities ahead of them.
In school we talk to the girls about their options through a comprehensive careers programme which now starts in the Junior School; we don’t expect the girls to make any decisions at a young age about what subjects to take or to commit to any future plans, but we do believe that exposing children to role models from as broad a range of careers as possible will help them to understand how many different types of employment there are, and how passionate people can be about their work when they are able to find an opportunity that combines their interest, skills and preferred ways of working.
We might look into the sort of skills and attributes young people need to develop – such as confidence and resilience, debating, asking pertinent questions and properly reflecting on what others say, responding well to criticism and critically analysing information – and focus on transferable skills in light of the end of ‘jobs for life’. We help our students develop their employability skills with our Year 7, Year 8 and Year 10 Bright Futures workshops. We also continue to develop their employability skills in Sixth Form through a varied careers programme consisting of visiting speakers giving seminars to students, careers fairs, skills-focused workshops from CV writing and interview techniques, and 1-2-1 mentoring with our Careers department team. We also offer work experience placements to Lower Sixth students for the summer between Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth to get them ready for the working world.
My objection to the term ‘generation snowflake’ isn’t only because I perceive there to be more complex pressures placed on this generation. In fact, I think we should be commending our young people for the way in which they take on these challenges! You might also have heard the term ‘generation sensible’. In terms of being ‘overly sensitive’, perhaps it is the case that today’s youth are more intolerant of trivial discussions, and displays of prejudice, than previous generations who might have thought of both as humour. What’s more, fewer young people dabble with drink and drugs or try smoking than 10 years ago, there are fewer teenage pregnancies and abortions, with a Guardian journalist claiming:
“Gone is the rose-hued image of it as a period of ennui where mistakes were possible, even encouraged. Teenagers today are some of the most tested and examined in generations, and carry with them a prevailing sense that these years are preparation for a highly competitive adult life.”
This Telegraph article goes so far as to claim that those in their early twenties are ‘slipping into middle age’.
Whether you’re of the view that young people acting less recklessly than in previous generations is a positive thing or a sad sign of the times, surely we can agree that what it isn’t is an opportunity to berate young people further by refusing to afford them the respect that they are due for how effectively so many of them do tackle the decisions they make, and how committed many of them are to standing up for equality, having taken on what they have learnt about justice.
It is too easy to stereotype different generations – whether older people’s voting habits or young people’s penchant for caring for the environment – and to use easy labels which aren’t necessarily fair. I don’t buy into the idea that an entire generation can be grouped under one term because it suggests that each individual’s personality, challenges and accomplishments are irrelevant – there is no way that we can talk about an entire generation as one entity. I hope to have described some of the differences in opportunity and experiences that today’s young people face, and perhaps this informs the trends that I outline above – but by no means do I suggest that every young person will react in a uniform way. Regular readers of my blogs will know how much our school values each student’s (and member of staff’s) individuality, recognising that everyone is uniquely special, and what we try to do is to recognise the world into which we will send our students when they leave us, and to support the girls in a way that enables each one to become the very best that she can be.