So much for the self-esteem theory of education:
There was this test. And it was daunting. It was like the SAT or ACT
— which many American millennials are no doubt familiar with, as they
are on track to be the best educated generation in history — except
this test was not about getting into college. This exam, given in 23
countries, assessed the thinking abilities and workplace skills of
adults. It focused on literacy, math and technological problem-solving.
The goal was to figure out how prepared people are to work in a complex,
And U.S. millennials performed horribly.
might even be an understatement, given the extent of the American
shortcomings. No matter how you sliced the data – by class, by race, by
education – young Americans were laggards compared to their
international peers. In every subject, U.S. millennials ranked at the
bottom or very close to it, according to a new study by testing company
“We were taken aback,” said ETS researcher Anita Sands. “We
tend to think millennials are really savvy in this area. But that’s not
what we are seeing.”
The test is called the PIAAC test.
It was developed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and
Development, better known as the OECD. The test was meant to assess
adult skill levels. It was administered worldwide to people ages 16 to
65. The results came out two years ago and barely caused a ripple. But
recently ETS went back and delved into the data to look at how
millennials did as a group. After all, they’re the future – and, in
America, they’re poised to claim the title of largest generation from
the baby boomers.
U.S. millennials, defined as people 16 to 34
years old, were supposed to be different. They’re digital natives. They
get it. High achievement is part of their makeup. But the ETS study
found signs of trouble, with its authors warning that the nation was at
a crossroads: “We can decide to accept the current levels of mediocrity
and inequality or we can decide to address the skills challenge head
The challenge is that, in literacy, U.S. millennials scored higher than only three countries. In math, Americans ranked last. In technical problem-saving, they were second from the bottom.
This isn’t surprising to me. Generation X had to understand its toys in order to play with them. There is nothing creative about a tablet or a smartphone. You can’t do anything on it. It’s basically a dumb terminal on the mainframe of the Internet. These digital natives are actually digital cargo cultists, comfortably familiar using things they don’t actually know the first thing about. As far as they’re concerned, it might as well be magic.