As the latest cohort of the Network Generation leave school, shirts daubed with fond farewells, Nigella Vigoroso-Heck ponders their futures.

There’s a lot of stress before the start of school in September; updating lessons with the latest economic changes, making sure those lessons comply with your school’s latest teaching fad (apparently, this year it’s “flip-learning”) and becoming au-fait with the Government’s latest educational policy changes (GCSE grades 1-9 anyone).  But there’s also getting through the dreaded Results Day and saying emotional goodbyes to last year’s cohort as they head off to university.

I will wish them all luck but, truthfully, my sincerest of wishes is with those that are off to read for an economics degree.  After all, they are the ones with whom I have shared an intellectual connection for the past two years.  I also quite like the idea that one day I might be able to claim that I taught the Chancellor of the Exchequer supply and demand.

“Millennials are not at university anymore. And they are not joining the labour force either.  They are the labour force.”

There is a lot of focus these days on the Millennial generation — those born between 1980 and 1996 —  and how they will fare at university and in the workplace.  But I have noticed one big problem with all that analysis; Millennials are not at university anymore.  And they are not joining the labour force either.  They are the labour force. In 2015, Millennials became the largest generational segment of the UK workforce; some have already seen 15 years pensionable work.  The cohort of young boys and girls leaving school today are the generation after that; the Network Generation.

Members of the Network Generation – the NetGens – are those born from 1997 onwards.  And I would like to introduce them to you; their characteristics, attitudes and behaviours.  At the end of August 2018, I will have completed my fifth successive year of teaching NetGens – which amounts to more than 350 students.  I recognise that every kind of person still exists in every generation, from go-getters to slackers, altruists to self-serving egoists, artists to analysts…  But it is the trends in behaviour as a group that allows comparison between generations.  And NetGens certainly differ in their behaviours from their Millennial predecessors.

So what do NetGens want from their teachers? And can teachers of economics provide?
My observations tell me the NetGens demand three things: it’s got to be useful, it’s got to be authentic – not propaganda and they want expert opinion.

It’s got to be useful.

NetGen students can often be seen on their phones during lessons and it’s no surprise to read headline-grabbing studies that attention spans have shrunk to just eight seconds.   Rather than being an inability to focus, however, you would be better off to consider this as a highly evolved eight-second filter.  This is the generation, remember, that has had internet access all their lives; their options are limitless but their time is not. As such, NetGens have adapted to sorting quickly and assessing enormous amounts of information.  In addition, they also have a high intolerance for things they perceive as wasting their time.  If they don’t see the personal value of something within that eight-second window, they will tune out.  Lessons have got to be useful to them.

Not just propaganda.

By age 15, the average NetGen will have seen about 200,000 marketing messages. With marketing so pervasive in their lives, NetGens can recognise when they are being sold to.  And they don’t trust it.  More than that though, they have grown up in a world where their (constructed) worldviews have been consistently demolished by reality.  Consider this quote from “the Narcissism Epidemic” about what it is to have grown up during the past two decades:

They have had phoney athletes (with performance–enhancing drugs), phoney rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phoney celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phoney genius students (with grade inflation), a phoney national economy (with $11 trillion of government debt) …  and phoney friends (with social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good but unfortunately reality always wins. The mortgage meltdown and the resulting financial crisis are just one example of how inflated desires eventually crash to earth.”

Consequently, NetGens tend to be more suspicious of the things they are told. Their critical thinking skills are more developed which – when combined with the empowerment they have got from their parents – means they are much more willing to critique their teachers and question the standard lines of argument.

“My observations tell me the NetGens demand three things: it’s got to be useful, it’s got to be authentic – not propaganda and they want expert opinion.”

Expert opinion

Lifelong instantaneous access to anything — entertainment, shopping, knowledge, validation, and people’s locations — has led NetGens to assume all things are accessible whenever they want them and in the format they prefer (which is usually “via website in person and in app”).  As a result, students are more frequently saying that they want to be taught by the experts on any given topic; after all, they have grown up with access to the experts on most subjects at their fingertips 24/7.

Given these challenges, how well does a university degree in economics stack up?

Is economics useful?

There are well-documented problems with the usefulness and relevance of economics programmes at university level.

In 2013, economics professor, Ben Fine, published a paper called Economics: Unfit for purpose. In it he argued that social issues were now only analysed “on the basis of a sorely inappropriate technical apparatus”.

In May 2014, economics students from 41 different universities joined forces in the first global protest against mainstream economic teaching.

In 2016, Lancaster University started to run a module entitled Economics for the Real World.  That didn’t stop the publication of Econocracy, in which it’s student authors suggested “it is now entirely possible to go through an entire degree without once venturing an opinion … we were memorising and regurgitating abstract economic models for multiple-choice exams [and] 76% of exam questions required no critical thinking skills whatsoever”.

In truth, the list could go on much further.  And the criticism isn’t just restricted to the UK either.  Just last year, US economist Steven Payson, wrote in his book How Economics Professors Can Stop Failing Us that “economics today is like astronomy before Copernicus; hiding behind academic freedom to perpetuate a fantasy model of reality, undisturbed by its real-world failures”.  It seems then that economics, as an academic field, needs some urgent attention if it is to be considered useful by the next generation.

Verdict:  NetGens reject economics on the basis that it is not useful.

“Attention spans have shrunk to just eight seconds. Rather than being an inability to focus, however, you would be better off to consider this as a highly evolved eight-second filter.”

Is economics authentic?

One of the most frequent criticisms of today’s economists (academic and non-academic) is that they are just handmaidens to capitalism. Capitalism (or neoliberal economic thinking) is by far the most dominant form of economic theory.  But let’s be clear: NetGens will not reject the neoliberalism’s ideas simply because they consider them to be bad.  They might reject them, however, because they view it as a persuasive marketing tactic rather than personally meaningful advice.  The problem is that so much neoliberal theory is intertwined with political history and, in particular, how it has been used as an extension of domestic and foreign policy to exploit others.
Netgens are more tolerant than previous generations.  They have grown up in an era where there was an African-American US president during their formative years and a female British Prime Minister.  Bullying, LGBT tolerance and consent are issues that are now actively discussed on the political agenda. As a result, The NetGens can easily see who really benefits for from this school of thought and who is left on the scrap heap. It should be no wonder then that pluralist economics (that is, a campaign to change the teaching and research in economics towards more openness in its approaches, topics and standpoints) is catching fire.  The Mint magazine has captured the zeitgeist.

Verdict: NetGens reject economics on the basis that it is neoliberal propaganda.

Who are the economics experts?

Academic expertise comes with publication.  Unfortunately, the process of publishing in economics is far from satisfactory.  Steven Payson has written at length about the “perverse incentives” and “self-reinforcing value system” that leads to the abuse of citation counts/data.  And many of the world’s most prominent economics professors have expressed similar despair about the way in which the subject is being driven by publications.

“They have grown up in a world where their (constructed) worldviews have been consistently demolished by reality.”

In particular, they are critical of the scientification of economics and the enormous amount of “mathematical weightlifting” that any student of advanced economic theory has to undertake – all at the expense of any real social benefit for those seeking to understand the economy and its workings.  In 2009, for example, Paul Krugman noted: “[In the aftermath of the great recession] the profession’s failure was the desire for an intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess … this romanticised vision of the economy led most economists to ignore all the things that can go wrong”. More recently, Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis wrote that “the more scientific our models of the economy become, the less relation they bear to the real existing economy out there”.

Verdict: NetGens will inevitably seek out the “experts”.  In doing so, it is likely that they will be exposed to the “mathematical weightlifting” exponents of our subject more often and earlier on in their studies.  NetGens may well reject economics then on the basis that it is not useful to them in the real world or simply on the basis that it is just boring.  On the other hand, some may accept that this is what economics is and continue the drive towards the scientification.

To an outsider, the state of economics as an academic subject might look relatively healthy.  The number of students taking A-Level Economics is rising and Economics UCAS applications have been increasing steadily for ten years.  But it is clear that students – once at university – are already beginning to reject it.

“It seems then that economics, as an academic field, needs some urgent attention if it is to be considered useful by the next generation.”

Furthermore, given the behavioural make-up of the NetGens, it is easy to see how (and why) this negative trend may continue.  Every academic field will have its own challenges to face with regards to the NetGen generation but economics seems particularly badly placed.  In particular, the key criticisms will be that it is not useful enough and that it is just a vehicle for neoliberal propaganda.  Put simply: economics, in its current format, does not satisfy the needs and wants of the NetGen generation.

With this in mind, the next logical conclusion to make is that the best and brightest students coming out of sixth form and university education may well reject economics as a field for their potential careers.  A society for professional economists should consider this a warning.  What does it say about your future employees, your future colleagues and the future flag-bearers for your profession?

And so: economics needs to become more useful by breaking away from its neoliberal shackles and mathematical weightlifting.  To some extent, it is already happening but it needs much more.  Syllabuses at universities and schools need to become more pluralistic; teachers need to bring the real world into every lesson; learning activities need to have unbiased outcomes; and academic journals need to be more relevant and less abstract.  But non-academic professional economists need to do their part too.  They need to get into the classroom more often (or on the internet, podcast, or simply via their own actions) to show the NetGens why economics is so incredibly useful in the real world.  Their own legacies depend on it.

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