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The Millennials: Always On

Here’s an inside look at the frenzied lives of today’s overextended, multitasking, tech-savvy students.


by Anne Taubeneck

“Sleep is for the weak,” says Hope McCoy with a sly smile.

The 20-year-old Northwestern sophomore, who grew up in Chicago, is majoring in both piano performance and psychology, tackling “eight years of work in five” and logging four hours of shut-eye each night.

McCoy is not only a sleep-deprived double-degree student (with so many extracurricular activities, you’ll be breathless just reading the list), she is also a “millennial,” though she claims never to have heard the word. Millennials are the closely studied members of the generation that first began infiltrating college campuses at the dawn of the new millennium.

Born between 1982 and 2000, the millennials are described as the hard-driving, heavily scheduled children of so-called “helicopter” parents, who have a tendency to hover. The millennials have been characterized as “coddled” (in the Chicago Sun-Times), as “fashion conformists” (in Advertising Age), as “big consumers” (in the New York Times), as marriage-minded “neo-traditionalists” (in an Internet marketing newsletter) and as “More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before” (in the subtitle of the recent book Generation Me by San Diego State University associate professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge).

They have also been criticized for being politically apathetic, by baby boomers who remember the heat of campus Vietnam protests, and labeled “team-oriented,” “conventional,” “achieving” and “pressured” by Neil Howe and William Strauss, co-authors of the books Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation and Millennials Go to College: Strategies for a New Generation on Campus.

How many of these labels fit Hope McCoy, Northwestern millennial?

“Achieving” and “pressured” she would certainly agree to, and maybe even “big consumer.”

“I have 46 pairs of shoes,” she says cheerily. “I feel like if I work really hard [she has three jobs], I should be able to buy pretty things.”

But McCoy is certainly not miserable (more on this later), and watch out if you mention the word “coddled.” She contends she knows plenty of other Northwestern students who could appropriately be labeled with the “c-word,” but as for herself: “No,” she says flatly. “No.”

How closely do Northwestern’s own millennials fit the descriptions so neatly ascribed to them by the media?

“You read a lot about millennial students and how heavily their parents are involved with their education — and they are,” says Mary Desler, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, adding that she spends “roughly a third of my day” on the phone with parents. (“The Parent Factor”) But, she says, “I think there is a real danger for someone to draw conclusions about people due to stereotyping.”

Sitting Down with Students

To sidestep the stereotypes and find out what undergraduates’ lives are like at Northwestern, we went straight to them — the students. We arranged group interviews in three different residences — Benjamin W. Slivka Residence Hall, Jones Fine and Performing Arts Residential College and Pi Beta Phi Sorority. We asked 14 different students in six different schools (many of whom live in other residences) to talk about their lives on the Evanston campus.

They obliged, eager to talk about a far-flung range of topics, from hovering parents to stress to politics to sex. The results are hardly comprehensive but offer a glimpse into the lives of these very busy students.

Do they sleep? Barely. (Four to five hours a night is average.) Are they pressured? You bet. Are they hard working? Astoundingly so. Do they plan to marry? Not anytime soon. Do they worry about the future — for themselves and for America? Absolutely.

They are so technologically attuned they may seem alien to older generations, as they bounce along Sheridan Road with skinny cords dangling from their ears, attached like lifelines to the ubiquitous iPods tucked into their bulging backpacks. It is their ease with technology that perhaps most tangibly distinguishes this group of students from earlier generations and dictates their lifestyle.

Kristin Yates Thomas, a graduate student in the School of Education and Social Policy who is studying student use of “social networking software,” calls the millennials “brilliant multitaskers.”

As students sit at the Norris University Center, “they will have a laptop in front of them and iPod headphones on while they are typing something and checking IMs [instant messages] all up and down one side of the screen,” says Thomas. “They have these great GPAs, and they are so smart and so lucky because they are learning from such a young age how to handle a lot of distraction well, which is going to bode them well, because once you graduate, all life is multitasking.”

Mitchell Samson, a sophomore in the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is a case in point. “I have mastered the art of having 10 different windows open while reading a book, with NUTV on in the background.”

Samson is not, of course, referring to windows that allow breezes from nearby Lake Michigan to waft through his suite at Slivka, but rather to the electronic windows sliding around his computer screen, competing with old-fashioned book and television.

The mechanical engineering student is an expert multitasker who likes monitoring a constant flow of information, plus entertainment and personal communication, from several different sources at once.

“I like to do things fast. I was noticing since I came to college I don’t really have the time or patience to watch the half-hour news on TV anymore,” says Samson, who is from Stow, Mass. “I’ll check out CNN online or The Onion [the satirical newsweekly that calls itself ‘America’s Finest News Source’].”

With his foot-on-the-pedal, Hydra-like approach to electronic information gathering (and thirst for a quirky approach), Samson is a quintessential millennial. Samson’s fellow “Slivkan” Eric Lai, an electrical engineering student from Manhattan, N.Y., says he still picks up the New York Times every day to “flip through.”

But, adds the 21-year-old junior, who was born in China and moved to New York at age 7, “For me, what has been a great thing lately has been getting podcasts through iTunes [the Apple Computer program for music and information].” He can download segments of radio talk shows and transfer them to his iPod. “Sometimes I listen just for five minutes walking between classes,” says Lai.

Others, like Ashlee Cassman, a 21-year-old junior from Lafayette, Ind., majoring in political science and sociology, says she “wakes up and just scans the headlines [online] — CNN or the New York Times. That’s bad, because you don’t get the details, but I only have, like, five minutes,” adds Cassman, dressed in sweats for a Saturday afternoon interview in the comfortable library at Pi Beta Phi.

Medill School of Journalism sophomore Kim Weisensee, Cassman’s sorority sister and a Northwestern magazine intern, adds, “I just came out of a newswriting class last quarter, and if you are in the newspaper business you are extremely scared right now. I learned how to put an entire news story in three lines, because people don’t have the time.”

No Trips to the Library

What these students must make plenty of time for, of course, is academics, and as millennials, they are Googling their way through college.

“I haven’t set foot yet in the library,” says first-year theater student Chris Eckels (“Apply Yourself,” fall 2005), who lives at Jones, and who, on a wintry Thursday afternoon, shatters the millennial “fashion conformist” stereotype by sporting stoplight-red pants. He corrects himself. “Actually, I was at the library once — on a Northwestern tour.”

Projects that would have been hair-pullers 20 years ago can now be dispatched with ease, thanks to the Internet. Kristen Bridgeman, an SESP sophomore from Sharon, Mass., who lives at Pi Beta Phi, says that as a social policy student, she has to compare state laws — a highly manageable job electronically. “If I need to look at Massachusetts housing laws, year by year, I can just go on the Massachusetts legislature web site and find all that.”

As for the real concrete-and-glass University Library: “It’s all online,” says Rebecca Narrowe, a 19-year-old theater major from Maui. “If you actually go there, you can waste so much time.” In addition to her course load, Narrowe takes ballet and voice lessons, is on a committee for Dance Marathon, attends meetings of her sorority, Kappa Delta, served as prop master for three recent shows, works six to 12 hours a week selling tickets and house managing at the Theatre and Interpretation Center — and therefore has no time to waste.

Northwestern students not only do research online, they also get course information and communicate with professors through the web-based communication tool Blackboard (“A Clean Slate,” fall 2004). Cassman, who estimates she has 500 to 600 pages of assigned readings each week, says teachers can post extra materials, including additional readings, as well questions that have to be answered.

Mechanical engineering sophomore John Rula, who is from Dallas and lives at the fraternity Phi Delta Theta, says a computer is indispensable to him for an old-fashioned reason. “I’m not a very organized person, and everything is online including my syllabus and my problem sets, so I really don’t have to keep track of anything.”

One worry for these electronic addicts is online dependency. “If your computer goes,” says Narrowe, “you’ve got a problem.”

Adds piano student McCoy, “Mine did, and it was agony. I lost all my music.”

McCoy is referring to files of music for her iPod — some for class, some for pleasure. How many songs do students have stored? “Thousands,” says Narrowe. She has an eclectic assortment of 2,800 tunes by about 150 different artists on her iPod: “about 25 musicals,” the Beatles, Sinatra, Mozart, Gershwin, Coltrane, Hawaiian guitarist Keola Beamer, plus Coldplay and Outkast.

Jones resident Eckels, who has an iRiver, an MP3 player similar to an iPod, points out that MP3 players have great potential as academic aids. His has a built-in microphone that “can be used to record lectures to supplement notes.” In his History of Rock course Eckels uses his iRiver to store “about two hours of listening homework” for each class, he says. “You can download listening samples off Blackboard.”

While technology can save time and energy, it can also be an enormous distraction. “Technology is a huge [reason for] procrastination,” says Narrowe. “I’ll be typing a paper and say, ‘Hmmm, I’m going to see who is online, and I’m going to check my e-mail.’ In fact, starting today, I’m going to let myself check my e-mail only three times a day because I am so distracted by it.”

Teases Eckels, “Oh, my god, you’re gonna die.”

Some experts worried early on that members of the Internet generation would sit alone in their rooms, glued to their computer screens. But far from being socially isolated, many millennials are using cyberspace to connect constantly with friends, through the hugely popular instant messaging (“RU N2 IM?” winter 2003) network and (“Web of Friends,” spring 2006), where they can access photos of and information about fellow students or former high school pals. Making plans is a no-brainer.

“When I am staring at my computer, I’m talking to 20 people at the same time,” says Cassman, “and in a half hour, I leave and go do something with all 20 of those people.”

Of course, millennials are never without their cell phones. “I love being reachable,” says Cassman. “I’m always scared of maybe missing out on something social or academic.”

And, adds Bridgeman, “What if your friends need you? It’s a very secure thing for me to know that if something goes wrong I can be found.” As for “generational differences,” she says her dad “will not turn his cell phone on. He figures the only people who want to reach him probably want to bug him.”

Close Contact with Parents

For students, the cell phone also serves as an electronic umbilical cord.

“My e-mail runs through my dad’s company,” says Bridgeman, “and my server was down this morning. The second I woke up and realized that, I called my mom and said, ‘Mom! What do we do?’

“I keep in very close contact with my parents,” she adds. “I had mono first quarter, and my mom came out for two weeks to be with me.”

Samson talks to his parents “every three to five days because if I don’t call them, they panic and think something must have happened.

“I tell them about big projects I have,” adds Samson, who has helped design, build and race a solar-powered car as part of an extracurricular project. “Usually I tell them the good grades I get and leave out the bad ones.”

“I talk to my parents at least once a day,” says biomedical engineering student Shonali Midha, who is from New Jersey but whose parents were born in India. “They just ask, ‘How are you doing? Are you eating OK?’ They understand the pressure. They’re my confidence booster.”

Many millennials have had an ongoing close connection with their parents, who have spent inordinate amounts of time and money on them, driving them to lessons or rehearsals, prompting criticism that these kids have been “coddled.”

“My parents were very supportive,” says Eckels, who is from Utah. “I did a production of Summer and Smoke at the University of Utah during the school year when I was 12. My dad drove me 2 1/2 hours each way on a daily basis for two months for rehearsal and performances. It was 150 miles from my house.”

Senior radio/TV/film major Jackie Doherty, a National Merit Scholar from New Jersey who was part of the Jones discussion and who will get her degree in December (after three years plus an academic quarter), says her family “didn’t have a whole lot of money.” Even so, Doherty, who shares a house with friends, and who works 14 hours a week in the radio/TV/film department and in the office of the dean of the School of Communication, says she “took piano lessons from age 4 until high school and swam on two teams from age 7 to 12, with two-hour practices six days a week. My parents would take me to meets all over the place.”

Narrowe and McCoy, who both receive financial aid, bristle at the words “entitled” and “coddled.” “I did gymnastics from age 4 to 12, and after sophomore year in high school got to do a summer program in drama in Philadelphia, but I have never felt entitled,” says Narrowe.

Adds McCoy, who lives at Shepard Residential College, “I am from Chicago and I didn’t have a lot of things that a lot of people at Northwestern have. I grew up in a very, very disadvantaged neighborhood, so to say that I am coddled … ” She pauses, unable to find the right word. “I work so hard, and my parents work so hard, and for people to say that — I’m like, ‘No.’”

Feeling the Pressure

Even with parental support, these millennials say they feel heavy pressure — pressure that started before they arrived at Northwestern.

“Have you noticed that younger children are doing harder work?” asks McCoy, who attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago. “I know all of us were doing harder work than children did back in the day, and so it’s more competitive now. You can’t just have straight A’s. That’s nothing. You have to have a million extracurriculars and interesting things. We are all doing a lot more.”

The parental expectation, says Cassman, is that “you have to go to college and it has to be a good college and you have to do very well. Then you have to start thinking about what you want to do when you graduate. I’m going to law school, so the parents start asking, ‘When are you going to take your LSATs? Where are you going to apply?’ There is pressure to not only do well here, but to know exactly what you are going to do after.”

Adds engineering student Rula, “I think Northwestern is kind of special in the sense that for most people here, this is not their final destination. They may be, like, ‘I’m getting out in three years so I can go to med school early,’ or ‘I’m already fast-tracked to business school.’ One of my criticisms of Northwestern is, like … ” “… there’s no time to stop and smell the roses,” says Weisensee, finishing his sentence.

“You get that with the quarter system,” says Rula. “It’s go, go, go.”

Whether self-motivated or pressured by parents, even first-year and sophomore students say they have already set specific career goals for their lives beyond Northwestern. Eckels says he hopes to be a professional actor, but “my backup plan is to go to law school.” McCoy points out she “will have a bachelor’s in arts and sciences and a bachelor’s in music, and that will give me some options. It’s a special double-degree program. People who are ambitious and/or suicidal decide to do the double-degree program,” she says with a laugh.

In addition to her heavy academic load (she takes 6 1/2 credits; the average is four), McCoy also is in three dance groups on campus, sings in University Chorus, is on the University’s task force for Hurricane Katrina relief, and works three jobs — as a stage manager at Lutkin Hall in a work-study program, as a piano accompanist at a church on Chicago’s South Side, and as a nanny once a week for a family in Evanston.

“I think we work hard, but we play hard, and our extracurriculars are for fun,” says McCoy. “If I didn’t do all the stuff I do, I’d be so bored.”

Slivka resident Midha says she definitely feels stress “in terms of course load and [finding summer] internships, and because I’m in premed, I need to get good grades. It’s a circle you never get out of. You kind of come to a breaking point, and you sit rationally and think, ‘You know you can do this,’ and you do whatever you can and move on. You have to find a balance.”

Unabated pressure can create serious problems for students, according to Wei-Jen Huang, a clinical psychologist who does one-on-one, couples and group counseling with students at Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychological Services. (“Helping Students Cope”)

“They load themselves with classes, with extracurricular activities. They want to be leaders, therefore they get into different kinds of organizations, and that is how they realize themselves, and they don’t get enough sleep.” The result? “I see apathy, fatigue and depression.”

The number of students who have come in for counseling has increased dramatically, says Huang, since he came to Northwestern 10 years ago. “We saw probably 1,200 students for counseling from fall 2004 to June 2005,” he says. “The students seem to trust us more.” CAPS offers three stress management workshops each quarter “because we have so many students who need that clinic,” says Huang.

Time to “Chill”

As busy as they are, many of the students we spoke with said they manage to find time to “chill.”

“That would be at 2 in the morning,” says Lai. “You finish what you are doing and just sit there for a few minutes and listen to music before you go to bed.” On Friday night, he adds, “you go out to parties because you’ve worked hard all week.”

The students also wind down by sneaking a little TV into their jammed schedules. Favorite shows mentioned: Grey’s Anatomy, 24, Chappelle’s Show, Alias, The Office and The Daily Show with “fake” journalist Jon Stewart. Stewart, says Eckels, could get elected if he ran for president. “Every young person in the country would vote for him because they trust him.”

Alyssa Huang, a sophomore biology major from the Chicago suburb of Bensenville, Ill., who lives at Slivka, says she looks forward to “Friday nights, when we might order pizza and relax.” What she would not do on a Friday night, says Huang (no relation to the psychologist), is go on a date. “My mom was concerned about why I didn’t have a boyfriend, and I said, ‘I do. It’s my orgo [organic chemistry] book.’”

“Northwestern is renowned for a lack of dating. Our priorities are elsewhere,” says Samson.

“There’s no time for it,” says Bridgeman. Her plans for that evening — a Saturday? “I’m staying in to study.”

At Jones, Eckels says, “the extent of my Northwestern dating experience boils down to date auctions,” often done, he adds, as fundraisers for student theater productions or for charitable activities.

“I’ve seen people go for as much as $120,” says Eckels. The night before, he adds, “a friend of mine and I auctioned off ourselves to take whoever bought us to dinner and Second City.” The winning bid: $60. “It’s a steal for the girls who got us,” he adds, smiling.

Though old-fashioned dates are uncommon, “there is a big hook-up scene,” says Weisensee, of Addison, Ill. “I think, honestly, that [when a guy meets a girl], everything moves really fast. A lot of people may have sex too casually, but it’s out there.”

And how do they feel about marriage? “My friends at home [in Indiana] are getting married,” reports Cassman. “They say, ‘Oh, you’ll find someone soon,’ and I’m just, like, ‘No.’ I’ll get married sometime, but I want to get myself set up, and being tied to someone [could interfere with that].”

The millennials “seem to be avoiding the complexity of trying to manage a long-term relationship between two people who are not clearly established in their careers and may go in two very different directions,” says Cheryl Rampage, senior vice president for programs and academic affairs of the Family Institute at Northwestern and teacher of the undergraduate course Marriage 101 as clinical associate professor of psychology.

Asked in a recent class if they see themselves in a committed relationship 10 years from now, 95 percent of the students said yes, Rampage reports. “But, of course, the data is that every year [after college] you wait, having a committed relationship is harder because your opportunities to meet more people get smaller,” she adds.

What do other students we spoke with see in their future? A high-paying job, says Samson. “I think that is everyone’s goal — the three-car garage and 2.4 kids. That seems to be a good thing to strive for.”

But Sean Campbell-Massa, a sophomore who grew up in Basking Ridge, N.J., and lives at Phi Delta Theta, says that is not his goal. “I don’t see the point in amassing wealth.”

Campbell-Massa says “the past generations of my family have worked very hard so the next ones could have more opportunities than they had. I feel like my parents were the final step in that, and they made it. They were successful and gave my brother and me whatever we could want. So now, I wonder, where do I go?

“I feel like I have a responsibility to give back to somebody. I’m thinking of the Peace Corps. That’s one of the reasons I’m studying biomedical engineering because I’d like to design things that can help people live better lives.”

Both Bridgeman and Raedell Cannie, a Medill junior from Long Island, N.Y., who lives at Foster-Walker Complex, currently dedicate several hours each week to helping others — in particular, children.

Through a Certificate in Service Learning Program at SESP that combines course work and community service, Bridgeman spends two afternoons a week helping to reorganize an after-school program at the Cabrini-Green public housing project in Chicago through the Hope Alive program.

Cannie works at a day care center in Evanston about eight hours a week and also works several hours weekly as a Northwestern magazine intern. “I guess the thing that upsets me is that our government is very focused on things outside the country,” she says. “We have this ‘save the world’ attitude, and I think there are so many problems right around us in this country. I work with children to be able to mentor them. I think all children need some sort of guidance so that maybe they can grow up and make some of those changes that need to be made.”

Preparation, Not Protest

The students we spoke with don’t claim to be political activists, and certainly there have been no major protests on campus against the war in Iraq, perhaps because there is no draft. “I don’t think we have anything to draw us together, like Vietnam,” says Samson, “[The war in Iraq] seems like it’s so far away and so foreign.” Adds Alyssa Huang, “I feel like I’m in a bubble sometimes at Northwestern — like everything outside doesn’t matter.”

Still, several students did register strong political opinions and are keenly aware that global conflict and economic and social changes — not to mention technology — could profoundly affect their adult lives.

Bridgeman, who was in high school on 9/11, fears repercussions because of America’s involvement in Iraq. “You can’t have a war on ideology. What we’re doing is just creating seeds for more terrorism.”

McCoy believes “we are doing a lot of things that are terrible for the environment, and I’m a little cynical about environmentalism, because there are so many people suffering versus the green sea turtle in Brazil. But have you noticed we had a tsunami, a hurricane, we had tornadoes? I think it’s because the ozone is gone. I think the earth is crying.”

Speculation that Roe v. Wade could be overturned in the future is deeply disturbing to Weisensee. “If the issue ever goes to the Supreme Court, I will drop out of school and fly to Washington, D.C., to protest. I have two friends who have had abortions.”

Engineering student Rula is wary of outsourcing. “You really don’t need to be at your place of business because of the Internet. What’s the difference between me and someone who is working for half my salary in a Third World country?”

“What worries me is the way that America is shifting very far away from being the technical backbone,” says Lai, who studies Chinese. “That is shifting to Asia. America is still a powerhouse, but you don’t know what is going to happen in 20 years. You have to start preparing for it now. Get a worldly view, be a little more cosmopolitan, start seeing different perspectives.”

Lai does just that through his participation in an extracurricular activity called Engineers for a Sustainable World. “Last December we sent two graduate students and two undergraduate students to Panama for a 10-day scoping trip to meet with nongovernmental agencies there to see how we can help them with our engineering skills.” The students brought back seven project ideas, Lai explains, two of which (a wastewater treatment facility and a solar battery recharge station) were tackled in Northwestern’s Institute for Design Engineering and Applications courses during winter and spring quarter.

Preparation — not protest — is what these particular students say they embrace. “We’re not getting kicked out of school for protesting, but we are getting ready, trying to learn as much as we can so we can have hundreds of different avenues,” says Weisensee.

Cassman says she has zeroed in on hot-topic courses: Introduction to Islam, Latin American Politics, and National Security, which covered issues in Afghanistan, Colombia and Iraq. “I want to be involved in politics,” she says, “and there is a world out there I need to know about.

“A huge change is coming,” she adds. “It’s scary, but it’s also exciting. And we have a front seat.”

Anne Taubeneck is a freelance journalist who writes about the arts for the Chicago Tribune. She lives in Wilmette.

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The Information Commons encourages collaborative project work.
The Information Commons encourages collaborative project work. Photo by Andrew Campbell
Kristen Bridgeman
Kristen Bridgeman Photo by Andrew Campbell
Sean Campbell-Massa
Sean Campbell-Massa Photo by Andrew Campbell
Raedell Cannie
Raedell Cannie Photo by Andrew Campbell
Ashlee Cassman
Ashlee Cassman
Chris Eckels
Chris Eckels
Alyssa Huang
Alyssa Huang Photo by Andrew Campbell
Eric Lai
Eric Lai
Hope McCoy
Hope McCoy Photo by Andrew Campbell
Rebecca Narrowe
Rebecca Narrowe Photo by Andrew Campbell
John Rula
John Rula Photo by Andrew Campbell
Mitchell Samson
Mitchell Samson
Kim Weisensee
Kim Weisensee Photo by Franklin Habit