As a college professor, I am often asked by friends outside of the academic environment to give a profile of the students I teach. They want to know what these young men and women believe in, how they live their lives, and, most important, where they might take this country and this world once they leave the hallowed ivy walls.
Making generalizations about college youth is tricky business, since there will always be examples of those who don't fit the profile. Yet it is possible to point out some commonalities that are standard among today's students.
The college student of 2005 is part of what has come to be called the Y Generation. Born between 1977 and 1994, they are the children of parents who make up the tail end of the baby boomer generation; as a result, they are also called the ''Echo" generation. There are an estimated 60 million ''Echoes," making them a considerable force within the country as they head into adulthood.
So what can be said about this Y Generation? The young men and women I see daily are obsessed with, and defined by, the digital revolution of our time. They don't wear a watch because their cellphone tells them the time; they are in constant communication with friends, whether it is through e-mail, text-messaging, or sending pictures of themselves through the ether; and there is little interest in seeking out quiet time to reflect. Most of the digital conversations are about the most mundane topics; debates about the legitimacy of the war in Iraq are not often found in a text message.
The Y Generation is noticeably tolerant. They have little problem with gay marriage or interracial relationships; they see nothing wrong with marijuana use; their sexual mores are driving their parents apoplectic. They are nonjudgmental about their friends' personal lives and don't see what all the fuss is about concerning some of the hot-button issues of the day, such as abortion.
This is a generation that knows how to multitask, work in teams, change jobs on the fly, and party hardy. There is scant interest in politics, a poor understanding of history, and an almost fanatical attachment to celebrity status and popular culture.
But these young people are also courteous, conscientious, and driven to succeed. Money and the good life is their primary career objective, making them no different than their parents in this regard.
Down deep in the recesses of their souls there is great anxiety and fear. The Y Generation was formed within the tragedy and terror of 9/11. While there is confidence and optimism in their talk, there is also apprehension over what the future may hold for them. They take out their frustrations with the current state of politics and war-making not by protest but by watching reality television.
This is not the Vietnam War generation, taking to the streets to protest US policies. This is the Y Generation, where work after classes is important in order to buy that new car, take that trip to Cancun, and buy that high-tech gadget. It is a ''live today, for tomorrow we may die" attitude. To me, that is deeply unsettling.
Unlike the post-World War II generation, who started new lives and careers confident that they had saved the world, or the Vietnam War generation, who took pride in ending a war, defeating segregation and liberating women, this Y Generation (or Why, as it sometimes also is called) is living in a time when war, terror, and economic uncertainty appear to be deeply embedded in national life.
Through that smile and that determination to succeed lurks a feeling that all will not be well once they graduate.
Michael Kryzanek of Whitman is professor of political science at Bridgewater State College. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.