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Updated: Sep 17, 2012 09:42 AM EDT

generation tightrope

"More of them feel that money is critically important than we've seen in the past." Levine says of Millennials.
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Every generation has its strengths and weaknesses. Baby boomers led the way in championing civil rights ... not so great at Facebook. And while traditional wisdom would tell you Millennials -- who are mostly pegged as children of the 80s-2000s - are probably choking on their own idealism right now, according to research in in the new book "Generation on a Tightrope" by Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean, this may in fact be the most practically-minded generation yet.

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Levine has been studying the zeitgeist of college students since 1980, when he published an important study on the core beliefs and attitudes of students, "When Dreams and Heroes Died."

But every 10 years or so Levine is forced to start again from scratch. A new generation emerges with completely different fears, hopes and convictions. His latest book is reportedly one of the most thorough studies of Millennial students to date.

The authors surveyed more than 5,000 students and 270 student affairs officers and conducted focus groups on more than 30 campuses. For Levine, one result stands out among the piles of data: This is the most practical-minded generation he has ever studied.

Levine entered the project believing 9/11 would be a shared, defining moment for Millennials, similar to the Great Depression and Vietnam for previous generations. But he quickly discovered that the advent of the Internet and the economic crash of 2009 were far more influential.

"More of them feel that money is critically important than we've seen in the past. They pick majors that they think will earn them money as opposed to what they want to study," explains Levine. "And, who can blame them? It's a scary time to be growing up. This is a generation that works more hours while going to college than ever before -- just in order to afford it."

Some of Millennials' greatest strengths lie in working together. "Race relations have improved dramatically. This generation tends to be wonderful at working in diverse groups. They are terrific at networking and building teams," says Levine.

However, Levine's criticisms of the generation seem to echo a very specific parenting stereotype: the helicopter parent.

"However, they seem to be very dependent on adults - more so than before. They want someone to set the rules for them. And that could be a problem, because we're entering into a period in which change will be the norm."

They may have trouble coping in a competitive economy because they "lack the ability to deal with adversity, or even imagine adversity," Mr. Levine says. "Whenever they've gotten into trouble, their parents have been there to bail them out."

The book offers guidance on how colleges, employers, and parents can do better in their supporting roles.

Sixty-seven percent of undergraduates now say the main benefit of a college education is increased earning power, compared with just 44 percent who said that in 1976.

That's not surprising, considering how hard the recession has hit: Six of 10 college students say it affected where they chose to enroll. And nearly half of colleges and universities report increases in students living at home or dropping out temporarily for financial reasons.

"They're trying to precariously balance between their dreams and hopes for the future and the reality of diminished prospects," says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and co-author with Diane Dean, an education professor at Illinois State University.

Many students are majoring in fields that aren't their top interest, because they think it will lead to better jobs. For instance, 23 percent planned business majors but only 7 percent said that was the career most of interest. Medicine had a similar gap. Only 6 percent planned to work in the arts, on the other hand, though 11 percent said they'd like to.

Yet employers say recent graduates often lack basic workplace know-how. Mr. Levine has heard from employers about new hires who e-mail the boss to announce they are working from home because the weather is nice, or who ask for a raise after just a week.

"Employers need to do extended orientations, make rules explicit ... and give frequent, candid feedback," Levine says.

Students, on the other hand, need to learn how to be more independent and innovative, Levine says. And that means parents need to let them start taking appropriate risks earlier in life.

"People are becoming more practically minded in very directly attaching education goals to career and financial outcomes," says Dennis Craig, vice president for enrollment management at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York.

Despite the tough economy, 89 percent of college students are optimistic about their personal futures.

This confidence may be fueled in part by grade inflation, with 41 percent of undergraduates having average grades of A- or higher, compared with just 7 percent in 1969.

Levine and Dean conclude that today's undergraduates are electronically far more sophisticated than their parents or teachers, yet woefully unprepared for the real world. The authors characterize them as coddled, entitled and dependent.

"This is a generation with an average of 241 social media friends, but they have trouble communicating in person," says Levine.

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