The Dumbest Generation

My column about The Dumbest Generation in this week’s newsletter The Total View generated quite a response. (I also had posted it to this blog too.) One in particular came from a very upset 23 year-old. I won’t share the entire message but let it suffice to say, this Gen Y is not dumb. In fact he’s incredibly bright, well-educated… and opinionated – all characteristics of another segment of Gen Y cohorts. Here’s just a few thoughts on his mind:

Just some thoughts from a dumb kid, though. I mean, what could I possibly know? I’ve got six instant messenger windows open as I type this, and I have been responding to each incoming query in quick succession without losing a beat with this e-mail. I haven’t had my first sip of coffee yet so I can barely keep my eyes open (generation of addicts, anyone?), and I’m staying awake largely by keeping myself distracted with the pretty blinking digital dalliances around me. I’ve also had four back-and-fourth text message conversations going on, and I managed to check five other e-mail accounts before completing this message, on the second computer monitor set up to my right, with a quick tapping of shortcuts at the top of my keyboard. What insights could I possibly have, here or in the workforce?

Unfortunately the gap between the dumbest and smartest seems to be widening. And if hearsay and observations from employers have any value, then the dumb may be outnumbering the smart – and this young man is the rare exception (which proves my point about a shortage of skilled young workers.) Giving all due respect to this generation, much of the blame lies on us Baby Boomers.  Our educational system is a mess with less than 7 out of every 10 ninth-grade students finishing high school.

Considering all the strong emotion about these new entrants into the workforce,I felt the column was worth re-posting to the blog in the hopes of collecting and sharing the comments.

The generation that is most comfortable with digital technology, which gives them unprecedented access to all of the world’s knowledge, knows less than the previous generation that lacked this advantage. In other words, the generations whose thumbs do most of their talking can’t express themselves beyond the level of a text message. Could the vast majority of people under the age of 30 be so clueless?

Regrettably the answer is yes.  According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 74 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds did not know that Condolezza Rice was the U.S. Secretary of State.  Six times more of these young adults were more likely to identify the latest winner of American Idol than the Speaker of the House of Representatives.   Another 60 percent did not know the Civil War took place in the second half of the 19th century.

This is a generation who grew up reading blogs instead of books. They read updates about friends on MySpace instead of reading current events in newspapers.  They know more about World of Warcraft than they do about World War II.

The result is that just one-third of high school seniors graduated with the ability to read proficiently.  Just one-fourth could write a basic paragraph.

The problem is that many young adults are using technology to communicate rather than to learn.  In effect by using shorthand texting, they are reinforcing their own illiteracy every time they send and receive a text message. 

What’s this mean for employers:

In a world of scarce talent, employers will need to transform themselves to make effective use of a generation that isn’t ready to contribute to the traditional workplace.  As a result, companies will have to invest in training programs that offer a crash course in the basic skills these workers lack. These programs will need to be tailored so that they are relevant to the actual work the employee will perform.

The small percentage of well-educated, high achieving college students will have their choice of employers and competition for them will be fierce. While this isn’t new news, what’s different this time around is that the gap between the-best-and-the-brightest and the average graduate is much wider. Because the return on investment is so much greater for these star performers, employers can be certain that the competition for talent will only be getting more intense.

Source: Trends E-Magazine, July 2008

What do you think? A colleague of mine responded to me with these questions.  Before answering…stop and think.  The correct answers may not be that simple.

Is this another sign of a generational gap where jobs have to be redesigned to meet the skills/interests of younger people? 

Do the older generations have to learn new languages? 

Are we looking for the wrong things when we expect coherent writing and high school reading abilities?

Does it make any difference if people in their 20s don’t know history or current events?

Will the Gen Y’s (or Millennials) legacy become known as the dumbest generation? What’s been your experience as an employer, a parent, a GenY?  I’m looking forward to hearing from you.  Invite others to participate, too.


Ira S Wolfe


  1. baby boomer August 13, 2008 at 10:52 am -

    Dumb or not dumb, they are the next generation they will have to figure it out. I would say they are smart in some things and dumb in others. My cashier didn’t know what an avacado was, but he did everything else right…

  2. Martin Calle July 17, 2008 at 2:56 pm -

    Living in and for only the instant at the expense of the weight, root and grounding of the past. This is a generation of temporal idiots. Make it so Mr. Crusher. Good stuff.
    Forget Condolezza Rice. Today’s offspring are dumb and dumber. I actually ran into an exec the other day, a senior brand manager at a large consumer packaged goods company who did not know who Walter Cronkite was. I read a book once called Cornucopia Kids. The children now managing things who were given everything and learned nothing.