I love how, every 25 years or so, some chancer with a sociology degree and a deadline christens a generation or a social substrata with a gormless moniker like Generation Y or Sloane Ranger. The latest I’ve heard is Generation Snowflake – maybe you’ve come across it. It’s the idea that everyone born after 1990 is essentially egotistical, self-obsessed, fragile and entitled.
And if you teach children (or indeed ever speak to human beings) you’ll find plenty of evidence to support the theory.
I remember the succession of pupils who couldn’t manage to produce homework because their printers had run out of ink (but not their pens). Then there was the pupil who wanted an extension because she’d finished reading the Hunger Games books and was so depressed by the lack of a further sequel that she needed time to “get back in touch with everyday life”.
Or the 16-year-old who threw an exam because he “needed a poo” and the wicked invigilator wouldn’t let him go as he’d been up three times already. Or, my favourite, the student who asked to be excused from a comprehension task because “the textbook pages were shiny and gave her a migraine”.
Before you laugh, I’m not making it up. These were genuinely offered as excuses from study, delivered as solemnly as an undertaker’s adieu.
But, as with any lazy universalisation, it takes only a moment to uncover counter examples and unpick the charge.
One sixth-former came to see me at lunchtime to ask if she could have a week’s worth of work to take home. Her mother had just died unexpectedly (she had discovered the body), and she didn’t want to fall behind because “Mum wouldn’t want me to do that on her account”. Can you imagine?
Or I could mention the boy from Burkina Faso who lived stupidly far from school. On the morning of a perfect storm of a train strike and a snowfall, he left home at 5am to walk for nearly three hours to get to us. When I asked him why, he told me that education was very important to him and his family because it was so hard to access in his native country.
I remember, too, a young girl who foolishly sent indiscreet photos of herself to a horrible boy who told her he cared, and who then made a public event of her carelessness. When her parents (and teachers) told her they could help her move to a nearby school, she simply said, “No. They [the boy and his friends] can move. I was stupid, but what they did was wrong. I’m not going anywhere.”
And there was the tiny 11-year-old who watched a film about refugees in class before the Christmas break. In January, he brought me a bag full of his presents and asked me if I knew how to get them to any children who needed them.
We certainly live in an era where people are wrapped like never before in the fruits of science, a healthy economy and relative stability and peace. It’s true that our children have never had it so good, and some have never known anything but a status quo of swimming in surplus.
It’s true that, for some of these children, losing fast wi-fi is a crisis and being offended on the internet is a disaster. We raise a generation of aristocrats at our peril.
But then I remember the other ones, and I reckon they all balance each other out. For every kid in Generation Snowflake there’s one in Generation Right Stuff.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert