Let’s talk about generations in CTE

Why do generations matter? In part, because our perspectives, perceptions, language and culture are influenced by when we were born — although generational qualities are not fixed in stone. Educators can see the generational span most clearly in their own schools. Kindergarten through twelfth grade (K–12) educational institutions are among the most diversified, with staff and students from five or more distinct generations.

The generations we all may encounter in the workplace include:

  • The Traditionalists (born 1928–1945)
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964)
  • Generation X (born 1965–1980)
  • Millennials (born 1981–1996)
  • Generation Z (born 1997–2010)
  • Generation Alpha (born since 2010)

In other words, there may be students, instructors, and staff at any school who were born as early as the 1940s or as recently as 2018. And while intergenerational interaction can be a source of richness, generational differences are also responsible for misunderstandings and disputes in schools, the workforce and life. But we live in a world that is always connected. So it’s important to foster and promote connection. CTE educators are in a prime position to help members of all generations in CTE engage in workforce learning through the eyes and experiences of others.

Generational challenges

Crist Fellman, public health and safety instructor at the Huntingdon County Career and Technology Center, said that students often struggle to understand what happens, and what will be expected of them, in the real world. Other educators mirrored Fellman’s remarks, observing that students struggle with self-efficacy and resilience. But it’s not all for no reason.

Nelleke Beats, health instructor at McCaskey East High School, summarized a contributory reason for the disconnect by stating, “COVID-19 limited student interactions in cross-generational opportunities such as working with instructors and employers. This exposure is fundamental in promoting the students’ development” of employability skills.

Encourage productive interactions across generations in CTE

According to Phyllis Haserot, author of You Can’t Google It!: The Compelling Case for Cross-generational Conversation at Work, the success of any organization is heavily dependent on how each generation interacts with and learns from the others. Haserot said, “When organizations promote intergenerational dialogue, they generate higher-quality work.” In the context of CTE programs, this means that students who engage in cross-generational relationships with their instructors or during internships are more likely to develop self-efficacy and thrive.

To help students develop vital employability skills, foster collaboration across generations in CTE.

All generations can learn from one another. Encourage students, faculty, staff and stakeholders to come together. And invite them to get to know each other on a personal level. But how do you do begin? Organize a student-led event that brings people together! Facilitate candid conversations between individuals from different generations but the same specific career pathway. And through this activity, students will develop higher levels of self-efficacy. Meanwhile, educators and employers in older generations learn more about students’ needs and value systems. Start the conversation!

Maria Border and Jeffrey Matu are instructors in the College of Education at The Pennsylvania State University.

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