Millennials are us Well, not yet, but soon enough

 In Education

David J. Schleich, PhD

Some years back, my generation started talking about “echo boomers,” but Straus and Howe (2000) nailed it with the term “millennials.” Then the Pew Research Center made it official a decade and a half later (2015). This demographic – the “Millennial Generation” – will surpass the “Boomers Generation” in size (75.3 million vs 74.9 million) any day now. Tapscott (2009) calls them “Net Gen” because they were never alive when digital technology wasn’t ubiquitous. They grew up connected. Global platforms are normal for them: Facebook, Twitter, and YikYak. As Sara Horowitz points out, they are savvy about the incredible power of affiliations and they are “perfectly positioned to create the sustainable independent work economy that we – and they – need.” (Horowitz, 2015). What will they do to naturopathic medicine once they are out there?

Schleich_June_2015_Figure 1

Figure 1. Projected Population by Generation

Figure 1. Projected Population by Generation

What Millennials Expect from Us

Millennials are among us in naturopathic education, and there are more on the way. Plenty of social scientists and cultural anthropologists have taken a stab at describing this population group. For example, and as the Pew Center reports, Millennials in adulthood are “detached from institutions and networked with friends.” (2014) These simultaneously detached and connected young people were mostly born after 1982. There are 80 million of them wandering the corridors of America, and several thousand of them have seats in naturopathic programs. They are the most diverse college-going generation ever. They are the most educationally ambitious generation ever. (Kirland, Sheehan, 2010)

We can turn to Mary Bart for the lowdown on what this demographic of learners expects from us. I might as well tell you at the outset that the greatest of these is “rapport.” However, I’m getting ahead of myself. By and large, as Bart points out, Millennials like a “variety of active learning methods” (2016). Their attention darts. Happily, though, the learning approaches they prefer turn out to be quite effective; for example, less lecture, more multimedia and peer collaboration. These approaches are complemented abundantly by the Google factor. They can track down anything, fast. Thus, the professor is less the conveyor belt of info and more the guide on the side whose experience and credibility help millennial learners apply what they are learning about. Millennials are not stoked by information for its own sake, although even they can be awed by amazing facts or complexity theory. Making information relevant to now and to what lies ahead is the finest art a master teacher of Millennials can have.

These same learners like what they are asked to learn, produce, or do to be framed in some rational manner. The less formal the process, the better, despite the load this puts on the teacher’s confidence and currency. This informality, truth be told, is coupled with an expectation that their teachers are interested in them and in their careers, needs, and interests. That’s part of the load of the teacher of the Millennial too.

Back in 2011, Richard McNeill from Northern Arizona University published a remarkable portrait of this generation, which is worth an overview. He assembled the work of numerous scholars intent on figuring out the Millennial Generation before it was too late and they were supplanted by the GenXr’s. He writes:

This most recent generation of college students has distinctive characteristics and a persona unlike those of their teachers. They have unprecedented access to technology and instant online information. They are globally connected to peer-groups spanning international boundaries. They are the first generation to come of age in a truly global society. And, they have an optimistic and clear identity of themselves as a generation whose time is now and who will positively change the world.

(McNeill, 2011)

What McNeill characterizes as a “Millennials tsunami” has already hit our shores. Most helpful to educators is his 2011 compilation of traits which fit this demographic, an understanding of which can help us meet the needs of this remarkable new wave of young people. He explains those traits in terms of their positive and negative dimensions.

Traits of the Millennials Tsunami

Millennials are, above all, technological. Technology has been a normal part of their environment forever. They are used to speed and innovation. They routinely expect to customize things and make them their own. However, they also have very short attention spans. Drift among the rows of any lecture hall and see what’s on their screens. They like 10 to 15-minute content blocks supported abundantly by audio-visual illustrative material which makes connections all the time for them. After all, these young people are special. That is, they have an inherently collective identity which is linked, invariably, to the notion of reforming the planet. My generation had the same inkling, without Tweets, and without the speed of sharing. Their sense of being special, though, means there is a concomitant attitude of entitlement. These students can be disenchanted very quickly when their expectations are not met. The ubiquitous nature of the internet means that they share instantly their responses to whatever ails them.

Nevertheless, Millennials tend to be very team-oriented. Their tight peer-bonds arise from immersion in team sports and collaborative learning across years of elementary, middle, secondary, and undergraduate classrooms. This collaborative temperament, though, drives a preponderance of group work which can be problematic when individual performance is demanded. Whether responding as individuals or groups to academic challenge, Millennials have been very sheltered, certainly more so than any previous generation. A multitude of youth-protection legislation and policy has swept through civil society in the past generation, precipitating complaints about the absence of mud pies in the lives of kids, through to debates about corporal punishment. Thus, some social scientists insist, there is a persistent dependency in this demographic, which makes many of them wary to head out into the productive economy with one eye on the future and an extra toothbrush stored back home just in case. Other scholars of civil society, however, see this generation as very confident, exhibiting high levels of trust and optimism which, though, can lead to overconfidence and unrealistic expectations and assessments of themselves; a kind of running before they can walk. Thus, it is not surprising, some say, that naturopathic medical students find the close inspection by faculty of their attitudes and performance in clinic particularly galling. This group feels very pressured, at the best of times; they are in the spotlight to excel and often inflict unrealistic self-pressure on themselves to achieve.

This cohort of young people is highly tolerant, the cultural anthropologists declare. In fact, they are proving to be more tolerant of diversity than their predecessors, and that includes their teachers and their teachers’ teachers. This trait, though, is accompanied sometimes by a diminished capacity to distinguish. Questions which begin with the directive, “compare and contrast,” are especially tough for Millennials to wrap their heads and hearts around. But try they will, social scientists insist. For example, this demographic of young people is especially savvy in terms of civic engagement. They strongly care about justice and societal problems. They are amazing volunteers. Their interest in global issues is more expansive than those who came before, and not only because they are so internationally connected. Surprisingly, Millennials are more conventional than the average Boomer. They have identified strongly, in many cases, with their parents’ values. Their acceptance of social rules and standards is an interesting feature of their combined traits. In this context, so-called “group think” is rapid and accompanied by rapid access to data and consensus-building tools.

By and large, our teachers have a task on their hands to meet the needs and expectations of this remarkable wave of new naturopathic students. Understanding what they’re like is a big step in achieving that task. As McNeill points out, the Millennial Generation is around for the next decade at least in our naturopathic classrooms. Best we get to know them well. They are our future. They will become us.

David_Schleich_Headshot-248x300David J. Schleich, PhD, is president and CEO of NCNM, former president of Truestar Health, and former CEO and president of CCNM, where he served from 1996 to 2003. Previous posts have included appointments as vice president academic of Niagara College, and administrative and teaching positions at St. Lawrence College, Swinburne University (Australia) and the University of Alberta. His academic credentials have been earned from the University of Western Ontario (BA), the University of Alberta (MA), Queen’s University (BEd), and the University of Toronto (PhD).


Bart, M. (November 16, 2011). The Five R’s of Engaging Millennial Students. Retrieved March 11, 2015 from Faculty Focus web site:

Fry, R. (January 16, 2015). This year, Millennials will overtake Baby Boomers. Retrieved March 11, 2015 from Pew Research Center web site:

Horowitz, S. (April 1, 2015). Why Millennials Understand the Future of Work Better Than Anyone Else. Retrieved March 8, 2015 from The Future of Work web site:

Kirkland, R. & Sheehan, O. Millennial Teaching and Learning. Retrieved March 25, 2015 from Centers for Osteopathic Research & Education:

McNeill, R. G. Jr. (July 238, 2011). Adapting Teaching to the Millennial Generation: A Case Study of a Blended/Hybrid Course. Retrieved March 21, 2015 from Scholarworks@UMassAmherst:

Pew Research Center. (March 7, 2014). Millennials in Adulthood. Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends. Retrieved March March 24, 2015 from Pew Research Center: Social & Demographic Trends:

Price, C. (2009). Why Don’t My Students Think I’m Groovy? The Teaching Professor, 23 (1), 7.

Strauss, W., & Howe, N. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York, NY: Vantage Books.

Tapscott, D. (2009). Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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