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Great Expectations: The Reality and Practicality of Working with Generation Me
It didn't seem that audacious of a challenge to return to my camp in 2006. Truth be told after a six-year hiatus from the operation and administration of camp, it was good to be back in the flurry. However over the course of my first summer back in camp and the following one I began to notice there were changes in the behavior and expectations of both campers and staff from what I remembered.
Technology was one of the most obvious. Within ten minutes of hooking up a satellite Internet connection during precamp, the staff room had at least eight laptops up and online. Parent phone calls seemed to be through the roof, and it struck me that it seemed to me that both staff and camper were challenged in dealing with adversity. When things got tough they wanted out . . . out of their cabin, out of their responsibilities, and out of camp.
When it came to managing these issues with both campers and staff — blunt straight talk-call it tough love if you will — a technique that had worked for me ten years prior, didn't seem to work any longer. To deftly work with this "new generation" of staff and campers, it seemed to require much more counseling, hand holding, and pats on the back.
The gap between expectations of older generations (mostly Boomers and Xers) and a younger generation (Generation Me or Millennials) is considerable especially when it comes to counseling, management, and leadership. In her first book, Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Every Before, Dr. Jean Twenge has identified six main topics that have direct implications to counseling and working with today's younger generation. These include self focus (it's all about me), difficulty with failure, anxiety, praise and acknowledgement, sex and relationships, and immediacy.
During a keynote address at the ACA, Southern California's Spring Education Event in 2008 in Los Angeles, Dr. Jean Twenge identified camp as the "antidote" to the challenges with Generation Me. We have the opportunity and the skill as camp professionals to bridge the gap, but first we have to understand the challenges (minding the gap); identify the best ways to approach it (bridging the gap); and implement it.
Mind the Gap
In order to effectively work with Generation Me, our first step as camp and youth development professionals is to understand the challenges with this generation and its direct implication to camp.
It's All About Me
Generation Me grew up with the selfesteem movement. Everyone was special; everything they did was acknowledged, praised, and rewarded. Everyone received a medal or trophy, and no one was counted out. The self-esteem movement is the cornerstone to the challenges this generation presents today. As a result, Generation Me feels a special sense of entitlement, and it has created a domino effect to the other challenges listed below.
Bridging the Gap
Respect for authority in camp
Generation Me wants equality, but the reality is there are times when distinct lines of authority are necessary.
- Identify a time where it's appropriate for democratic decision making, and be explicit with them on decisions that you and you alone make . . . and why.
- Hold ongoing meetings to address issues.
- Have staff plan in-service training.
- Encourage staff to set personal and group or cabin goals as to what they expect from working with your camp — what's their personal investment
- Staff investment — Have staff help plan program activities.
- Recognize extraordinary (not routine) accomplishments for hard work.
Adapt to a new structure and rules.
- Condensing rules by combining some of them prevents overwhelming campers.
- Phrase rules in a positive light.
- Let campers establish rules or be involved in a participatory process.
Failure Is Difficult
Generation Me's difficulty with failure is directly related to self-focus. A consistent observation by camp professionals is the difficulty that both staff and campers have in dealing with failure. In camp, we witness this clearly with both campers and staff, although several camp directors have identified this challenge more with campers. If they don't do it right the first time, they'll never do it again. From the staff perspective it ties into their accountability with the job for which they were hired.
Bridging the Gap
Staff can lack coping skills.
- Provide more in-service training and communication.
- Positive approaches in dealing with evaluation and critique — State the positive then recommend opportunities for growth.
- Create a support network both staff to staff and staff and management.
Assumption of instant ability means no need to work hard or practice.
• Intercamp (with other camps) or intracamp (within your own camp) competitions gives them a goal to work toward. • Combine with other fun activities such as enhancing team spirit in their group. • Create a program designed to fail — see how they react, debrief, and discuss opportunities for growth.
Parents, campers, and staff all deal with anxiety on some level. An increase in the number of campers taking medication is not new in the camp environment. Campers who took medications are now staff that take medications for depression, anxiety, panic disorders, bi-polar disorder, etc. This presents many challenges with both campers and staff. On the camper side, more defined counseling techniques may be required of staff members who have these campers in their activities or groups. On the staff side, there may be challenges to their condition and the stress that camp brings. If stress is a trigger factor, a conversation with staff who has specified diagnoses may be in order.
Bridging the Gap
Staff success in their role directly influences their camper's success. Making both staff and campers feel at ease in camp and in the work they do is critical.
Staff pressure to understand problems of campers is possible.
- Bring in outside resources or experts to counsel children with anxiety.
- Identify staff who may have personal experience with anxiety and are comfortable and willing to share their perspective.
- Identify what campers need when they feel anxious (may require a phone call with parents).
Outside factors can weigh on their minds.
- Talk with them about concerns and options.
- Shift them to a different activity, task, or job that challenges them but helps them find success.
- Discuss whether camp is the right place for them to be.
Be sure to communicate program changes.
- Use printed schedules to eliminate confusion.
- Ask staff to review any changes with campers well ahead of time.
- Encourage camper participation in choosing the schedule and activities.
- Keep campers busy, especially during downtime.
Sex and Relationships
There is a disconnect with many in Generation Me when it comes to sex and emotional involvement. Generation Me may often have a very lackadaisical attitude when it comes to sex. They participate to feel good about themselves. As a result, there are potential implications with staff that can result in what is or is not shared. If staff is apathetic about sex then when an issue comes up with campers, they may see it as a norm rather than something that needs to be shared with administration (i.e., two campers having oral sex or disclosure about their sexual experimentation both in camp and back home). Additionally, staff may feel there is nothing wrong in sharing their own sex lives with their campers, even if you have a policy against this.
With campers, camp is a safe environment so some may feel comfortable with experimentation and not connect to the consequences that may result from their behavior.
Bridging the Gap
Develop an understanding of sexual harassment and what it might look like.
- Bring in a speaker with knowledge and expertise in sexual harassment who can connect with your staff.
- Present skits or role play specific situations that outline camperto- camper, staff-to-camper (or camper-to-staff), and staff-to-staff scenarios.
- Have staff speak with your older campers (teens and youth) in relation to what sexual harassment is and what it means.
Determine staff and camper interaction about what information is shared, what should be reported, and when to draw the line.
- Have an honest discussion with staff about sex and relationships in camp (including crushes) and how to deal with them.
- Role play specific situations to staff and discuss implications as to how big an issue it is with staff, whether to report or not report, and why it's important.
- Discuss consequences with staff in relation to specific issues.
Praise and Acknowledgement
Generation Me grew up being told they were special and were constantly praised and acknowledged for anything they did. There is an expectation this will also take place in the work world, including camp. Generation Me does not take criticism well, it ties into failure and self-focus. How you approach your staff and setting expectations with them in relation to job performance and evaluation is important. How your staff approach your campers in relation to activities and performance is just as important.
Bridging the Gap
Praise and acknowledgement is an expectation of Generation Me and directly feeds their need for self focus. Reality clashes with expectation when they don't receive what they expect —increasing their anxiety and leading to difficult challenges all the way around.
Some campers are only participating in activities if there is a reward.
- Help them to see the intrinsic rewards in what they do (they learned something new, they had fun, they made new friends).
- Eliminate the option of a prize or reward all together — not just for activities but in the overall scope of the program.
- Debrief with them by asking them to identify what they learned and gained from the experience and turning that into intrinsic rewards.
Some campers are not knowledgeable about an activity or skill.
- Praise the process not the product.
- Show how learning is a process. Like a scientific process, make campers "little scientists" to see the intrinsic value of what they're doing even if they don't do it right the first time.
- Help them recognize the value of learning from mistakes.
Inappropriate praise by staff creates a false sense of achievement with campers.
- Emphasize the process not the result.
- Give staff language to help them with difficult situations with campers: "Marty I really like you and your enthusiasm for the game, but you're not ready to pass into the next level. Here's what we can work on together to help you next time, ok?"
- Set expectations with campers so they know what they need to do to be successful.
Staff desire for praise and acknowledgement interferes with job performance.
- Set clear and valid expectations for staff performance in this area and provide examples of what should be recognized and what shouldn't.
- Model expectations with senior staff for a trickle-down effect.
- Choose extraordinary efforts to praise publicly; this becomes the standard for which staff strive to achieve.
Millennials are considered one of the savviest multi-tasking generations to date. Text, e-mail, instant messaging, social online networking, phone calls, and watching TV are simultaneously performed. In their world, you should respond quickly to their needs and requests; in your world you are inundated with other priorities and obligations and respond in due course. What looks like impatience is really identified as immediacy.
Bridging the Gap
They want parent/friend contact now (cell phones, e-mail, text, IM).
- Be very clear about expectations with campers, staff, and parents (of both campers and staff).
- Identify opportunities for communication outside of technology (snail mail, journaling, etc.).
- Partner with parents — Specify guidelines for parents contacting camp to check on campers and/or staff, and let parents know why you have the policies you do.
They want to do what they want to do, not what the plan is.
- Be very clear with staff on why they and their campers are scheduled where they are.
- Set expectations with staff that campers need to stick to activities they initially chose or assigned to (and tell them why).
- Create a participatory process with both campers and staff.
- Be flexible.
Change can be a slow and deliberate process. Camp is leaps and bounds ahead of other youth- serving organizations, including schools, in bridging the gap with Generation Me. We are the solution to help a generation find comfort in failure, put others before themselves, and reduce the anxiety they feel in the world around them. Great expectations? You bet, and we've only just begun.
Author note: The information shared in this article is a result of brainstorming and dialog with participants who attended the American Camp Association Southern California's spring education event in Los Angeles, California, April 29, 2008.
Implementing New Ideas
The best approach to working with Generation Me is to identify your expectations and to create a participatory process with your staff in relation to your campers and your program. Then set the stage for success and planning to meet the outcomes you identify.
Twenge, J. (2006). Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Every Before, Los Angeles Simon and Schuster.
Howe, N. and Strauss, B. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation New York, Random House.
Zemke, R. and Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations in the Workplace: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, X-ers and Nexters in Your Workplace New York AMACON.
Catherine M. Scheder holds her bachelor's degree in camp management and youth agency programming and a master's degree in education, both from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP). She has spent the past twenty years in camp as a counselor, waterfront director, program director, and camp director. She served six years with the American Camp Association national office in education and professional development and currently works for UWSP as an outreach program manager for Continuing Education. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the 2009 July/August issue of Camping M