About two years ago, Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, began offering counseling courses online. Even as this trend has gained traction in colleges and universities across the country, professors, many of whom grew up taking classes in an actual classroom rather than on a laptop, haven’t always welcomed online learning with open arms. But Pamela Monk, an assistant professor of counselor education at Lamar, says it’s time to embrace a new generation of learners.

Monk, who is teaching her second online course this semester, says the benefit of online classes is that the method aligns with its audience, made up mostly of generation Y, or “millennial,” students. Millennials have grown up with technology, and counselors say members of this generation oftentimes find communicating online via e-mails and discussion boards more appealing. Monk, herself a baby boomer, believes in accommodating these students in their learning environment, even if it’s less familiar to older professors. Despite the physical distance between Monk and her online students, she says she finds them to be more responsive, more involved and more collaborative. “They feel freer, more entitled to make those comments and suggestions,” says Monk, a member of the American Counseling Association. “I wouldn’t get that kind of discussion traditionally in a classroom.”

Learning styles are just one example of how members of each new generation might think, believe and act a little differently than their predecessors. Elisabeth Nesbit, a doctoral candidate in counselor education at the University of Arkansas who is researching the culture of baby boomers, gen Xers and millennials for her dissertation, says that a generation is a form of culture. That statement has implications for every counselor who strives to be multiculturally competent, she adds. “We’re grouped as generations based off of shared historical events that shape worldview,” says Nesbit, a member of ACA. “If ACA calls us to be multiculturally competent and the definition of culture provided by ACA goes beyond race and ethnicity, then we need to be informed and aware of what some of those other aspects of culture may include. In this case, that would mean generational affiliation and the values, beliefs and worldviews that go with each generation.”

A guide to the generations

The start and end dates for each generation are subjective, Monk says. Baby boomers were born from approximately 1940 to 1960, gen Xers from about 1960 to 1980 and millennials from about 1980 to 2000, although a defined end date for generation Y hasn’t yet been formalized. As a group, baby boomers have been very successful, says Carolyn Greer, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Texas A&M University–Central Texas. “They’ve been the ones who have made a lot of advances in our society.” Baby boomers, the largest generation born to date, value hard work, says Greer, who is past president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, a division of ACA. Although they’ve challenged the system for things such as equal rights, they’ve generally worked within the system to bring about that change. “They tend to be very politically active, active in the community and concerned with issues of war and country,” Nesbit adds. Boomers have a strong work ethic, and their identity is strongly tied to their jobs. They value a pay-your-dues leadership structure, Nesbit says, and see higher pay as the preferred compensation for hard work, whereas younger generations often prefer time off as a reward for their efforts.

Generation X is a much smaller generation than the boomers, and as a result, Nesbit says, its members haven’t exercised a large enough collective voice to overpower the influence of the previous generation. “They’ve taken more of a back seat in many ways,” she says. Taken as a whole, gen Xers value individualism, freedom and work-life balance, Nesbit says. Multiple counselors noted that members of gen X are also more skeptical of and less impressed by authority. “Whereas the boomers value pay-your-dues leadership, the Xers value competence in leadership over age or duration of position,” explains Nesbit, a gen Xer born six months short of the millennials. Also unlike boomers, gen X members attach themselves more to individuals, such as bosses, rather than staying loyal to and working for the same company for many years.

The millennial generation has experienced several significant, defining events, Monk says, including 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine shootings and increasing globalization. Core values of this generation include civic responsibility, family, the environment, diversity and achievement, she says. “They are the most diverse and the most tolerant,” says Monk, who adds that millennials are also confident, optimistic and highly educated. “This is the first time that we’ve truly had access around the world through the Internet. Millennials are the first global citizens. They’re truly connected to the whole world.”

Although millennials exhibit a strong work ethic, Monk says it differs from that of the boomers. For example, millennials will work hard but, at times, that might be remotely from home. They also believe in families, vacations and a full life, she adds. In addition, millennials don’t understand the chain of command as well as previous generations and will often go straight to the top — to the president of their school or company — to solve a problem. They don’t necessarily grasp that it would be more appropriate and less offensive to go to a supervisor first, Monk says.

At the same time, Monk calls this generation resilient. “They don’t let just one thing shut them down,” she says. “It’s just a bump in the road for them. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road.”

With the advent of fertility drugs and treatments, millennials were the first generation born out of explicit choice, Nesbit says. “There’s a much greater sense of (millennial) children being wanted and chosen,” she says, which has led to millennials being treated as more protected and special. “It’s the generation that gets awards for breathing,” Nesbit says. “They’re used to being validated and expect their opinion to matter.”

For that reason, some social critics have labeled millennials with the nicknames Generation Whine and Generation Why. But Monk says their questioning nature is a good thing. “It’s often looked at as people complaining about situations, but I think they’re just generally interested,” she says. “They’re a great generation, they really are. They have so many strengths. But they’re so different from people in the workforce and in academia today who have been there for 40 years. That’s where the conflict comes in. We just don’t understand each other well enough.”

Theory into action

“Understanding the unique elements of each generation enables counselors to have a better understanding of their sense of self as it relates to their generational identity and culture and also to have a greater understanding of their client’s generational culture and its potential impact on values, beliefs, worldview and expectations,” Nesbit says.

For example, she says, understanding the work-focused identity of the baby boomers might better prepare a counselor to help a client of that generation who is nearing retirement. Nesbit cites research showing the transition toward retirement can be complicated for many boomers because their sense of identity has been so wrapped up in their careers. At the same time, other boomers are being forced to delay their retirement because of the struggling economy, and still others are also dealing with caring for aging parents.

Boomers had a feeling they would never grow old, Greer says, and that means many haven’t prepared mentally for retirement. “They have a harder time making some of those transitions because they weren’t ever going to get old,” she says. “They were looking forward to retirement, but many of them had not really prepared for what retirement might mean. All of a sudden, we are our parents — how did we get here?”

An upside, Monk says, is that with baby boomers across the board getting closer to retirement, an important door of collaboration is opening. “As baby boomers age out of the workplace, generation Y’s will be coming into it,” she says. “The baby boomers have so much experience to offer generation Y’s, and the generation Y’s have their enthusiasm and new ideas to offer. Collaboration between the two generations could provide for major growth in many industries.”

According to Nesbit, counselor educators have noticed that millennials, who grew up texting, e-mailing and sitting in front of a computer screen, have less experience with person-to-person interaction. That is requiring counselor educators to be more intentional about teaching “presence” than in the past, she says. On the other hand, Monk says, a growing market for online counseling may emerge along with this tech-infused generation. Not only would online counseling appeal to would-be counselors who’ve grown up using technology, but it might also appeal to millennial clients, who would look for a way to seamlessly fit counseling sessions into their work and life schedules.

Monk believes the millennials’ questioning and curious nature will prove helpful to the counseling field. “Generation Y will be an important part of the growth in counselor identity, accountability and research,” she says. “They have important questions that some of us have just accepted and never questioned. Questioning was not really a characteristic of many baby boomers, particularly (questioning of) perceived authority figures. Counselors and counselor educators need to utilize generation Y’s strengths, encourage them and not respond defensively.”

Generational considerations

Counselors might also consider altering their approach to therapy according to each group’s general characteristics. Nesbit has found from her research that baby boomers have a strong sense of group identity, so she theorizes that group therapy might work well for them. She also projects that boomers would be more receptive to theoretical techniques such as choice theory or cognitive behavior theory because members of that generation are open to thinking about what is in their power to change. In contrast, group therapy might not work as well for gen Xers, Nesbit says, because of their strong sense of individualism and autonomy. “A more person-centered approach to counseling may be more in line with their sense of self and their view of authority,” she says.

“Millennials grew up in a time when seeking mental health help was trendy and normal,” Nesbit says. “This generation is likely to have the least stigma attached to seeking counseling services.” But they’re also likely to exhibit less patience with the counseling process because they grew up in a time of “instant everything,” she observes. Millennials might potentially be open to both individual and group therapy — although they have a stronger sense of group identity than generation X, they also value individual attention. “They may be responsive to Adlerian approaches, as they value their role in their families and also value social justice,” Nesbit says. “Additionally, reality therapy is in keeping with the environment in which they were raised (because it’s) all about choices.”

Nesbit points to a psychologist researching the shift in personality traits across the generations who has found that millennials are showing higher rates of anxiety and depression. If that’s true, counselors might need to prepare to see and treat more of those traits in their clients. Nesbit says one possible reason for the rise could be that the millennial generation was brought up being told they were successful and could do anything. Although that is a positive message, it also adds pressure, she says. And if the awards and compliments wane after high school or college, that could increase anxiety and depression, Nesbitt adds.

In learning more about each generation, there is an opportunity to play to a person’s strengths, Monk says. “I think it would be wonderful if counselor educators and counselors knew and understood some of the common characteristics between the generations so they could utilize those strengths in the individuals,” she says. Baby boomers are extremely hard workers, love their families and want to be good providers, Monk says, while generation X members are idealistic, more technologically savvy and came of age during a time of increasing societal freedom. Millennials, Monk says, are well educated and creative, and they value freedom, diversity and enjoyment of life.

Although Nesbit has done a fair amount of anecdotal research on generational differences, she’s conducting her own qualitative study on the cultural identities of the three different generations this fall. She hopes to add counseling-specific research to those findings from other fields and will present her findings at the ACA Annual Conference & Exposition in Pittsburgh in March. If her results hold up to what she’s read so far, counselors will need to take a closer look at what it means to be a member of a particular generation in order to be multiculturally competent.

But as with any other culture, Nesbit says, knowing its characteristics isn’t everything — it’s only a starting point. “Understand what the literature says and what the broad characteristics are, but along with that, remember that you still have individuals in front of you,” she says. “Let them define their culture.”

Lynne Shallcross is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

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