Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Generational change - an example

I often talk about the nature of generational change, as well the way this links to broader change within the community. I thought that a simple photo might flesh out the point.

This photo is of two students at the University of New England taken in 1963. That's 47 years ago, not a long time in human terms.

Look, first, at the gowns. All students at UNE had to wear green gowns as a mark of the University's place within the university tradition.

The girl on the left has three gold bars on her gown, to signify the fact that she is in third year.

The wearing of gowns was abolished in the 1970's following student pressure. This was part of the broader social change sweeping all universities. It, was, I think, a mistake in marketing terms. But in the 1970s, at a time when UNE was struggling to cope with increased numbers, who could have envisaged an environment in which all universities would have to compete for students?

Look now at their faces. When I came to UNE, third and fourth year students seemed just so far advanced. Perhaps they still do to new first year students, although I doubt it. The girls seem quite mature and indeed they were.

So what? Both are, in fact, just twenty.

In those pre-gap years with a five year secondary course, it was quite normal for a person to start university at sixteen, to complete honours at twenty, to start work at twenty or twenty-one. A person going on to further study might complete their PhD at twenty four or five, a few did it earlier, some later.

This actually goes to the heart of one of the most significant social changes that has taken place in the forty seven years since this photo was taken, the extension of childhood.

In 1963, a first year university student of sixteen or seventeen was classified as a young adult. Today, an eighteen year old is still effectively classified as a child.

I can illustrate the way this affects perceptions quite easily.

As a seventeen year old first year university student I would have been mortified to be classified as a teenager. I would also have thought it absurd.

To my daughters, an eighteen year old is a teenager. The two girls are twenty and twenty two respectively. In education trajectory terms, the twenty year old is where I was at eighteen, the elder daughter where I was at twenty.

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with this, I simply find the process interesting.


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