The Princeton-based researchers administered a test called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies to measure the aptitude of adults in 23 different countries. Generation Y Americans — those born after 1980 — were shown to be lagging far behind their foreign counterparts in literacy, numeracy and basic problem-solving skills.
Madeline Goodman is one of the report’s co-authors. She told Fortune magazine, “We really thought [U.S.] Millennials would do better than the general adult population, either compared to older coworkers in the U.S. or to the same age group in other countries, but they didn’t. In fact, their scores were abysmal.”
The findings represent an overall decrease in aptitude when compared to the results from previous generations. Simply providing more education may not be the answer. The report doesn’t mince words: “There needs to be a greater focus on skills — not just educational attainment — or we are likely to experience adverse consequences that could undermine the fabric of our democracy and community.” Yikes
Here’s how we fared in the three main categories:
Top 5 scores in literacy: 1, Japan; 2, Finland; 3, Netherlands; 4, Australia; 5, Sweden. The USA placed 17th out of 23. That was our highest score. (Go USA! We’re number 17!)
Top 5 scores in numeracy: 1, Japan; 2, Finland; 3, Belgium; 4, Netherlands; 5, Sweden. America was 21st on the list.
Top 5 scores for “problem solving in technology-rich environments”: 1, Japan; 2, Finland; 3, Australia; 4, Sweden; 5, Norway. The USA ranked 18th.
The study raises the ominous question of whether we can survive as a nation when a large segment of our society lacks the basic skills required for gainful employment or any sort of meaningful engagement in our democracy. Military service isn’t even an option for many high school graduates: Twenty-three percent don’t know enough math, science or English to pass the mandatory Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. A recent study from the Council on Foreign Relations referred to this situation as a national security crisis.
Another major point to consider is that all of the countries ahead of us on the list enjoy more generous social safety nets than we have in the United States. Most Eurozone countries provide free childcare and free education up to and including college or vocational school. Europeans also work fewer hours than Americans do — generally 32 hours per week — plus they get a mandatory six-week vacation every year.
When you remove the stress of debilitating economic uncertainty from families, it’s easier for kids to study and learn something in school, and it helps to have parents around actually parenting instead of working all hours of the day and night just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
Gen-Y is really, really good at using today’s technology; no question about it. That’s because tech companies were forced to create mobile technology that is incredibly easy to use. But with easy access to information comes no intellectual curiosity, it seems. America’s over-reliance on standardized testing and worthless programs such as No Child Left Behind has produced physical, moral and intellectual paralysis in young people.
The study also reflects what many business leaders have been complaining about for years. As a workforce, millennials are, by and large, a lost generation betrayed by an education system that has been dumbed down to the point of being utterly useless. Successful businesses need employees with a wide range of skills, and in spite of the derision poured upon English majors and liberal arts degrees, employers are begging for people who can write a grammatically correct, coherent and well-organized report.
Predictably, those least likely to accept the report’s findings are American millennials themselves and their parents. In the past four decades, students’ self-esteem has soared — even as test scores have consistently fallen. Millennials are convinced that no generation has ever been as awesome as they are.
But we shouldn’t be so quick to blame the unfortunate victims in this tragedy. Millennials are the product of their Baby Boomer parents and all of the misguided educators and politicians who’ve managed to create a generation worse off than themselves for the first time in US history. These kids didn’t train their teachers, nor did they create the anti-intellectual curriculum being crammed down their throats.
Their elders have failed spectacularly in every aspect of educating their children by consistently voting for tax cuts over education reforms, by over-medicating their kids, eliminating history and sex ed classes and instituting useless zero-tolerance academic policies. None of their lame attempts have worked.
So don’t trash the millennials: blame the people who have impeded them throughout their formative years.
Jason Darensburg is a columnist for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DailyLobo.