There is so much irresponsible use of shoddy "research" to support claims about the net generation (often by researchers and academics who should know better) that when I stumble on research that actually is based on solid data, I am delighted. Actually, I didn't stumble on this, my colleague (co-skeptic) Tannis Morgan did.
Kevin Ramey (2008) studied undegraduate students at Texas Tech University and found that there was relatively high agreement with all but two of the seven characteristics of the millenial generation identified by Howe & Strauss (2003): special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving.
But hang on. It's too early to start the "I told you so" chorus. While this study is well-done and the conclusions are based on real data, not speculation and anecdotal evidence, a couple of things are worth highlighting.
First, this was a sample of convenience and Ramey states clearly that the results "cannot be generalized to a greater population". (One of the strengths of graduate research is that these limitations have to be spelled out. Not so with the punditry and speculation that is passed off as research and that gets a much higher profile.)
But, more importantly, the generational characteristics that were used as the basis for this study are quite different than the ones that are most frequently used to describe this generation. In fact all of them, except perhaps team-oriented, are not that remarkable or distinguishing and certainly have little obvious connection to the notion that this generation has been profoundly affected by its immersion in a net-connected, technological world. Interestingly, the one characteristic that is most closely connected to the use of Internet technology (team-oriented) is the one for which students had the lowest level of agreement (less than half agreed with this).
It is also important to note that these data are based on student self-perceptions, not objective evidence of the existence of these characteristics. Now, self-perception is important and I'm not dismissing it, but often there is no connection between the kind of person I think I am and the kind of person I really am, or for that matter, the kind of person that other people think I am.
And that brings me to my final point. Ramey not only asked students for their self-perception of these seven characteristics but their perception of their peers on the same characteristics and he found significant differences between self and peer perceptions. For some characteristics (confident, pressured, achieving, conventional), students rated themselves higher than their peers. For the characteristic of special, they rated their peers significantly higher. What this highlights is the weakness of relying solely on perceptions.
This study is better than most that have been done on this topic but we need to go beyond self-perception if we are to get an accurate reading of what this generation is really like.
Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2003). Millenials Go To College: Strategies For A New Generation On Campus. Washington DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Ramey, K. (2008). Undergraduate Perceptions of Characteristics Attributed to Millenial Generation College Students and Implications for University Recruitment and Retention. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Texas Tech University.