Every year researchers at UCLA do a survey of incoming college freshmen. These surveys, conducted for more than four decades now, show how the life cycle has changed in the past couple of generations.
This first thing you see from this and similar data sets is that high school has gotten a bit easier. In 1966, only about 19 percent of high school students graduated with an A or A- average. By 2013, 53 percent of students graduated with that average.
The grades are higher even though, for many, the workload is lighter. As late as 1987, nearly half of high school students reported doing at least six hours of homework a week. By 2006, less than a third of all students reported doing that much work. In 1966, 48 percent of students said they sometimes showed up late to class. By 2006, more than 60 percent of students said they sometimes showed up late.
If the high school world is lax, that changes when the college admissions process starts. It’s not only that college admissions are more competitive; students begin to be haunted by fears about their job market prospects.
If you go back and read oral histories conducted in the 1950s and 1960s, you’d be amazed by how benign the labor market seemed back then. People would announce that they were moving to a new city and assume they’d be able to find decent work after they got there.
That image of a benign job market is pretty much gone (as expectations about what constitutes a good job have risen). Even incoming college freshmen seem to fear they will not find lucrative and rewarding work. Harsh economic thinking plays a much bigger role in how students perceive their lives. Their parents feel that anxiety even more acutely.
In the first place, they are very conscious of how much college costs. In 1974, 77 percent of students enrolled in their collegiate top choice. By 2013, only 57 percent were able to. Cost is a very important factor in why students decided to stay away from their favorite school.
Second, they see college much more as job training than students before. In 1976, 50 percent of freshmen said they were going to college in order to make more money. By 2006, 69 percent of freshmen said that. Since 2005, the number of students who say they are going to college to get a better job has spiked upward.
Their overall values change. In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.
As the drive to compete intensifies, other things get streamlined away. In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.
I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives, but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.
Psychologically, the effect of all this is complicated. In 1985, only 18 percent of freshmen said that they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do. By 2013, 33 percent said they felt overwhelmed. In 1985, 64 percent of students said they ranked in the top 10 percent or at least above average in terms of mental health. But today, students admit to being much more emotionally vulnerable. They also declare low levels of spiritual self-confidence.
At the same time, one gets the sense they are trying to armor up, in preparation for the rigors to come. They assert their talents. They rate themselves much more highly than past generations on leadership skills, writing abilities, social self-confidence and so on. For example, in 2009, roughly 75 percent of freshmen said they had a stronger drive to achieve than their average peers.
Human nature hasn’t changed much. The surveys still reveal generations driven by curiosity, a desire to have a good family, a good community and good values. But people clearly feel besieged. There is the perception that life is harder. Certainly their parents think it is harder. The result is that you get a group hardened for battle, more focused on the hard utilitarian things and less focused on spiritual or philosophic things; feeling emotionally vulnerable, but also filled with assertiveness. The inner world wanes; professional intensity waxes.David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.