A Unique Angle On The Emerging Adult

For years now, I’ve considered myself an expert on Millennial behavior. As an employer, I’ve hired and managed them. As a parent, I’ve raised two of them. As a communications consultant, I’ve counseled clients on how to talk to them. But, it wasn’t until I recently became an adjunct professor that I began to comprehend and appreciate their struggles on the road to adulthood. 

For the most part, my Millennial students are high achievers in the college classroom. Driven by their Boomer parents to succeed, they are enthusiastic, grade conscious, and vibrant class participants.

Each year it seems all of this peppy behavior turns dark right after spring break. They are visibly different. When they show up to class, they look more like grunge musicians than students.

Since my instincts trend more toward being a helicopter parent than a college educator, this visible change in student behavior frightens me. I worry that these kids have decided to quit taking their medication. Or even worse, they’ve come to the realization that all of those trophies they received in grammar and middle school are meaningless as they now search for real employment.

For some reason, this year’s second semester seniors seem even more stressed to me than usual. Maybe it was the excessively long winter, the continuing sour economy, or more likely, my strong affection for a number of kids who I’ve been teaching since they were sophomores, that was causing me to be more attuned to their anxiety.

At the annual business school senior dinner this past week, I was taken aback by how grown up they all looked dressed in their business attire confidently sipping white wine. I thought maybe I had misjudged their panic until a former student sitting next to me at dinner got teary-eyed as she talked about her unsuccessful job search.

After the event, a number of my students wanted to go out with me and have a beer. As a part-time educator who spends the majority of his week as an advertising executive, I sensed I was about to cross an imaginary line that I shouldn’t. But, as they willingly dragged me into one of their popular taverns, I figured how bad could it be to have one Bud Light with kids whom I had so much affection for.

Once inside, I got a rare glimpse behind the over-generalized Millennial Curtain. It awakened me to what was the unexpected cause of my anguish for these kids and myself.

Ratcheting up my voice level to compete with the youthful exuberance in the tavern, I was immediately handed a beer that was stronger than I was used to, labeled with a fish body sporting a kangaroo head. This was not the same 3.2% alcohol beer I use to guzzle as a student at SMU’s Cox School of Business decades earlier.

In a more comfortable environment, I found my students to be mostly charming, confident, and worldly, with the unique skill to drink, talk, text, and snap photos all at the same time. Many of the kids that two years ago were in my “Principles of Marketing” class and last year in my “Sales Management” class, and this semester in my “Digital Marketing” class were now talking about grown-up subjects like careers, relationships, and personal finances. 

What happened to them? Where were the peppy students who would sit in my office and talk tests, grades, internships and subjects to take for their major? 

In my role as the all-knowing and authoritative adjunct professor, I suddenly realized I had missed maybe the most important part of their educational experience—their gradual transition to adulthood. When did it happen? Where had I been? I was not drinking beer with the same kids I taught two years ago. They had grown up, and many of them already had accepted jobs with Forbes 500 companies. 

All the hype about how unique and special Boomers and their Millennial children are seemed to melt away as I realized human passages are not defined by artificial generational boundaries. The transition from college to the real world is a struggle fraught with uncertainty and pain for anyone regardless of how marketers or the media choose to label them. That alone was a huge awakening for one who has spent almost a decade and a half now practicing and teaching the attributes of generational marketing. 

So, rejoice, parents of second semester college seniors. Your kids, now young adults, may be just fine. Their appearance may be different and their stress may be higher, but you may not need to worry like I did. They are experiencing the exact same emotions and feelings as we did decades ago.

Don’t fall victim, as I did, to a misinterpretation of your child’s newfound adult stress or scraggy appearance. Instead, make sure to appreciate this special time and try to remember how challenging it was for you as well. May I recommend that you order one of those craft beers with the funny labels on it at dinner with your newly minted college graduate? There is something mystical about those beer brands that add authenticity to very special and important moments in a modern family’s life.

Tags: gen y
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3 comments about "A Unique Angle On The Emerging Adult".
  1. David Shank from Shank Public Relations Counselors , April 21, 2014 at 12:23 p.m.
    Bill, Thanks for your insights! Although I haven't adjuncted yet I have many opportunities to work with the college / career bound new professionals as PRSSA students and our interns. I share the hidden message you present -- optimism! Once you get beyond the X-Y-Millenial-Boomer-Gray Beard level you find decent people who are learning or doing the right thing. Each step in life is or should be a new adventure. Regrettably, the peppyness you mention somehow gets lost in growing up. We all become absorbed in appearing to be grown up and doing the professional thing, which, admittedly we have to do. As my favorite philosopher Jimmy Buffett points out: "You may grow older, but you don't have to grow up."
  2. Nancy Arter from Nielsen , April 21, 2014 at 12:57 p.m.
    Great post -- and great insights. So much has been written about the Millennials. It's refreshing to hear this generation spoken about in terms that relate it to the rest of them. At the end of the day (or college career), we are pretty simple human beings. Here's hoping that all of your students land great jobs that launch them into long and fulfilling careers.
  3. Rick Hardy from Concordia University Irvine , April 21, 2014 at 1:58 p.m.
    Thanks for your post, Bill. I appreciate hearing about your personal experience. It's not often nowadays to read a reasonable perspective on Millennials. As the father of two of Millennials (now ages 27 & 29), and with my career as a university chief marketing officer, you've basically articulated my perspective on Millennials. Older generations were blown away by the Boomers of the 1960s, we all were wondering about the work ethic of GenX, and now it's Millennials. Don't get me wrong--there are generational differences, but to your point, generations grow up and are changed by their experiences. For Millennials, it's been the Great Recession. I think all the noise about Millennials says as much about Boomer and GenX managers as it does about Millennials. For me, Millennials provide certain challenges, but they are a joy to work with, manage, and are an important voice for my work.