As the new school year begins, the bittersweet emotions of sending last year's seniors out into the real world may linger, but they'll soon be tempered by the anticipation and challenges of a new freshman class. This year's high school freshmen were born in or around—wait for it—1998.
That's right. When these kids were born, Clinton was in the Oval Office, Monica and Chandler had just gotten together, Mark Zuckerberg was 14 years old, and you could still leave your shoes on at the airport. It doesn't seem so long ago, and yet the world they were born into is vastly different from the dynamic and ever-evolving one they've grown up in.
Whether one or several decades separate you from the Class of 2016, here's a look at some of the characteristics that define these young members of "Generation Y," also known as "Millenials" and "Digital Natives."
- The lives of this year's high school freshmen have spanned three decades, two centuries, and two milleniums. Few people in history have been able to claim such a feat.
- They grew up with computers and the Internet in their homes, which has shaped the way they learn and communicate. Everything is at their fingertips and they've grown accustomed to finding information in a matter of seconds. The advent of smartphones and tablets has further facilitated that instant gratification, and library terms such as "Dewy Decimal System" and "microfiche" are likely Greek to them.
- They've grown up in post-9/11 America, and most of them can't remember a time when the War in Afghanistan wasn't being fought. However, despite the political and economic turmoil of the first decade of the twenty-first century, they appear to be relatively optimistic about the state of the nation. According to the Pew Research Center, 41% of Millenials are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, compared to 26% of those ages 30 or older.
- They are the most racially and ethnically diverse group in U.S. history, and growing up surrounded by cultural diversity has arguably made them more tolerant and open-minded than previous generations.
- Growing up in the digital age has shaped their relationships, with texting and social networking forming a large part of the way they communicate with others. Some may argue, however, that any benefits of this increased connectedness are offset by the perils of cyber-bullying, texting while driving, and the loss of face-to-face contact with other human beings.
- Though it's still too early to tell, Generation Y may go on to become the most educated generation yet. The Pew Research Center reported that 63% of Millenials are either college graduates or plan to graduate from college, and about half of those currently enrolled in high school or college hope to pursue a graduate or professional degree at some point.
- While previous generations, particularly Baby Boomers, strove for longevity in a single job, this year's freshmen will most likely change jobs frequently throughout their lifetime, trying out different work environments and even different professions in search of the perfect fit.
- They'll be more reliant on their parents in adulthood compared to previous generations. Some older members of Generation Y have had to move back in with mom and dad while they look for work after college or to save money during the recession. And perhaps the comforts of so-called "helicopter parenting" have a boomerang effect, compelling adult children to return to the safety of home. Whatever the case, research conducted at the University of Minnesota found "evidence that parental assistance in early adulthood promotes progress toward autonomy and self-reliance," so parents should rest assured that the risk of ending up with a lazy 40-year-old in the basement is minimal.
- Millenials tend to be more politically liberal, particularly in terms of social values, than previous generations, and they're turning up at the polls in greater numbers. Many of your freshmen will be voting in the 2016 presidential election, so it's interesting to note where their political leanings lie because they will help shape the future of the country. Some of them may even go on to become politicians themselves.
- They've grown up in an interesting age of entertainment. They won't know the meaning of "Be Kind, Rewind." They'll never experience the sweet joy of waiting for hours to record the best song on the radio onto a cassette tape. More and more, books are invisible, digital things that sit on a virtual bookshelf. And they've come of age in a narcissistic era of reality television and YouTube sensations (that said, the Pew Research Center reassuringly found that only 1% of Millenials placed a high importance on becoming famous; 52% ranked being a good parent as their top priority). One shudders to think what bizarre trends in the next generation will make us nostalgic for the days of planking and Rebecca Black...
Aside from their sometimes baffling preferences for things like skinny jeans and Justin Bieber, personally, I have high hopes for today's high school freshmen. What are your thoughts on the Class of 2016? What do you see as their biggest strengths, and what do you hope they'll accomplish? Discuss in the comments.