Snowflake generation or future leaders?

Rather than lamenting how students and trainees are “not what they used to be”, the profession needs to adapt, engage, and lead

Professor Wendy Turner is keen to point out that she is not a psychologist. “I’m a restorative dentist,” she said. She has, however, taught dentists at all levels, from undergraduate through to speciality registrars and doctorate students. A graduate of London Hospital Medical College in 1992, she worked for 25 years in London, mainly at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, as a clinical academic consultant. In 2018, Turner moved to Queens University, Belfast, to take up the post of Professor and Consultant in Restorative Dentistry. She adds, with a smile, her experience comes both from working with dental students and being a parent.

Turner has studied the ‘snowflake generation’, those who became adults in the 2010s, and questions whether the default view of them as less resilient and “prone to melting” is helpful. “We have three distinct generations in the workplace – baby boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y – who are now being joined by a fourth, Generation Z – the ‘digital natives,” she told the Faculty of Dentists, RCSI, Annual Scientific Meeting in Dublin last November. Turner has mapped how the generations’ different upbringings, experiences and expectations combine to create a learning environment which could be better understood by the profession.

“Recent generations, although remaining career motivated, are far more demanding of flexibility and a work-life balance than previous generations, who are broadly seen as being hard-working but possibly to the point of excess. To understand our modern-day trainee or student, we need to not only appreciate the emerging cultural differences between generations, but also the changes that have happened to both medicine itself and our training over the same time frame.” Generations are defined, biologically and sociologically, by shared life experiences; September 11, for example, the global financial crash, or Brexit. Generation X – born between 1965 and 1979 and aged between 40 and 50 today – balances a strong work ethic with a laid-back attitude; many grew up in homes with two working parents and learned from their example to work hard, as well as fend for themselves. Generation Y – born between 1980 and 1994 and aged between 25 and 39 today – are confident, have high expectations of their employers and are not afraid to question authority. Their over-protective parenting style, however, can mean that their children struggle as students to thrive independently.

This current cohort, Generation Z – born between 1995 and 2015 and aged between four and 24 today – are fluent in technology, crave information on demand and have never lived without connectivity. “They are entering the workforce with a generally more liberal set of beliefs and an openness to emerging social trends,” said Turner. “They multi-task, are altruistic, and value diversity.” They are digital natives who grew up online, shaped by engaging with a huge variety of content such as I’m A Celebrity, Netflix, and Instagram. Turner contrasted their lecturers’ and mentors’ ‘comfort zone’ – the lecture theatre, printouts, written notes, quiet study, and acceptance of professional authority – with the modus operandi of today’s learners – always open laptops, YouTube as a learning tool, wanting to feel inspired and empowered by their teachers.

For the dental student of today, there are financial and academic pressures amid intense competition in an assessment-driven climate. Graduates are entering the profession in a difficult environment, where patient complaints, litigation and referrals to the regulator are commonplace creating a “climate of fear”. Turner cited a recent article in the British Dental Journal by Kathryn Fox, Senior Clinical Lecturer at Liverpool University’s School of Dentistry (1). “In order to understand the pressures facing our new graduates, we must first understand how recent changes in society have affected the way in which this generation has been raised,” wrote Fox. “We should also accept the role of individuals, and the profession as a whole, in changing the current climate and promoting graduates’ professional development through appropriate risk management, coaching and mentoring. Dental students and newly qualified graduates will mirror the response of their senior colleagues, so until dentists are comfortable owning up to their mistakes and doing the right thing without fear of prosecution, the next generation will continue to struggle further in this climate of fear, rather than developing the resilience and clinical confidence required to become the competent clinicians that our patients require.”

Turner added: “They emerge from dental school as fledgling professionals, expected to navigate a scary terrain. The treatment options for most conditions have evolved massively and, consequently, so too has the potential to get it wrong. Decision-making is more complex now than it’s ever been – simultaneously requiring greater knowledge and increasing the chance of errors. We have moved nationally towards a training system that is highly regulated and closely assessed, but this places heavy demands and stresses on trainees and students.”

A 2018 study (2) of medical, dentistry and veterinary student wellbeing by Dr Duleeka Knipe, of Bristol University, revealed a higher proportion of dentistry students, compared with medical students, who had moderate depression, higher levels of anxiety and lower wellbeing. Turner mentioned “the R word”; resilience. “[It] is defined as the ability to adapt well in the face of significant stress and adversity. “Our students have progressed through tests, GCSEs, AS levels, university clinical aptitude tests, dental school interviews. Any un-resilient ones would have fallen by the wayside! Being resilient doesn’t necessarily mean you have good mental health.” Turner said it was important to understand the approach of students today to learning; online resources have proliferated, and they want to be taught things they can’t Google. Education should be a social experience, involving collaboration and there is a dislike of hierarchy.

We should understand that their expectations haven’t really changed; to see patients regularly, to diagnose, to treat, and to learn from those experiences

Professor Wendy Turner

“The ideal boss of a Gen Y is equal parts mentor and leader,” she said. What this means for lecturers and mentors is the need for practical scenarios and teaching that is relevant. It should be focused on improving learners’ ability to deal with the “ambiguities and complex decision-making of clinical practice, while at the same time nurturing their capacity to be the leaders and innovators of the future”. There are multiple generations in the workplace today, and with an ageing population this phenomenon will only become more pronounced. “Rather than people being better or worse,” said Turner, “we are just different in different generations. A lot of the problem is poor communication, leading to misunderstood attitudes and relationships. Our younger colleagues with different values and expectations turn to us for mentorship – are we prepared?

“The bottom line is rather than lament how students and trainees are not what they used to be, we should understand that their expectations haven’t really changed; to see patients regularly, to diagnose, to treat, and to learn from those experiences. Wishing people were more like you is not a strategy – we need to adapt. Respect work-life balance and know-how that might differ to each person. Don’t try to manage the ‘generation’ – instead, lead and engage the individual. When it comes to work, they are actually looking for a lot of the same things; job security, worklife balance, an employer that will treat them with respect.”




Published: 13 January, 2020 at 07:30
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