de Boer: Is this generation ‘soft’?

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

I recently had Thanksgiving dinner with some of my extended family. A range of generations was represented at the table. My boyfriend and I were the youngest in attendance, as we’re both in our twenties. My cousin and his wife are in their late-thirties and my aunt and uncle are somewhere comfortably in their sixties. We got on the topic of university reading breaks, as there is one coming up soon.

My cousin was skeptical of the breaks, remarking he never had breaks of this nature during his time as an undergrad. His wife chimed in to say breaks are necessary for students’ mental health, especially during these crucial times of the year when students are going crazy with course loads, papers and exams. The table was divided as most of the older members in my family saw the breaks as unnecessary time off because students lose focus, end up partying and, if anything, are no better off for having had them.

This has been the concern of some professors as well – students are largely unproductive during the time off.

The official intention of these breaks is for students to catch up on, or perhaps even get ahead on, their work before final papers and exams rob everyone of their freedom and happiness. But we all know what these breaks often amount to: sleeping in, binge watching Netflix, eating junk food, drinking and partying or even travelling.

“Oh well, everyone knows my generation is soft,” I joked.

And that seemed to settle it.

But I wonder how large a grain of truth is beneath this statement. I am often bombarded with sentiments like this more and more, particularly, that Millennials are lazy, entitled and coddled by parents and institutions.

But is this generation soft? Or are they just young? Is it really true students of the not-too-distant past were tougher than they are today? Or were they merely shown less compassion for the person underneath the student?

As both a PhD student and a teaching assistant (TA), I often walk the line between thinking universities are too soft on students while also balancing stress and heavy workloads myself. As a TA, I am frustrated with correcting spelling, grammar and basic sentence structure of students writing at the university level. I have also spent many hours explaining to students why I cannot raise their grades simply because they want me to. At the same time, as a student, sometimes I really need to be cut some slack, shown some patience and understanding.

It seems like many graduate students suddenly have a change of heart when it comes to expectations of undergraduates as soon as they transition from undergrads to grads. I hear it all the time: complaints from my colleagues about undergrads’ entitled attitudes, unpreparedness and disorganization.

And as a newer TA, I would have agreed with these views. However, the prevalent attitude held by those of us who are no longer living undergrad lifestyles often seems shortsighted or hypocritical. (You mean to tell me you never felt disorganized or entitled at 18? Oh, please.) Just a few years ago, I was taking Reading Weeks to travel to Vancouver, Chicago, even Athens one year. I almost always spent the night before a deadline hastily finishing a paper on a subject that wasn’t in my wheelhouse. And I’m sure any TA, Millennial-hater or reading break skeptic has been in the same boat at one time or another.

So why do those of us, no longer in that undergraduate lifestyle, so quickly forget what it was it like to be that age or in that position?

Often, undergrads are away from family or their support network, they are on their own for the first time, they might also be balancing part-time jobs and a full course load and, for many of them, they are probably struggling to maintain good grades for the first time in their lives while also keeping themselves fed and well-rested.

I don’t have a satisfying answer for why people seem to forget being an undergraduate student in your twenties is hard. And maybe a few days off from it all is completely justifiable – maybe even necessary.

Millennials aren’t the first generation to be criticized as soft or entitled. In fact, Baby Boomers were once famously dubbed the ‘Me’ Generation (talk about entitlement).

So moving forward, let’s forgo this whole attitude that young people are soft ‘nowadays.’ Young people are just young. And being young and learning to become an adult is hard sometimes. We’ve all had to go through it. Let’s make it a little less hard for the future Me Generations.

Tracy de Boer is a PhD student in Philosophy at Western. She is especially passionate about the ways in which philosophy enables people to think critically about everyday life.