Much of our research with private schools and colleges is littered with references of parents who are controlling, anxious, and overly involved in their children's lives. They often have very high expectations for service and also expect to be involved in detailed school or college decisions and the communication about them. Their behavior almost seems bizarre to experienced school or college administrators and beyond the norm of traditional parenting.
But, if you examine their behavior from an historical context, in light of generational trends, it makes complete sense. I call this current and upcoming chapter of consumers "The Generation of Broken Promises". This is a generation that has witnessed first-hand the downfall of major American institutions. Think about it for a minute.
- From an education perspective, they were told to go to a great school and college and your life would be set with plenty of good jobs and income. Then came the global economic crisis and all of those bets were off. The overall role and value of education is currently under review in popular culture.
- From a financial perspective, they were told to invest wisely in traditional retirement programs and trust banks and employers, Then came the financial crisis and with it the loss of great wealth and a long-term change in the average age of retirement.
- From a housing perspective, they were told to buy a big house as it was always a great investment. Then came the housing and lending debacle and the fall of big banking.
- From a safety perspective, they were told we would never have a terrorist attack on American soil and that we were always safe in our country. Then came the 911 attacks and mass shootings in their schools and movie theaters.
- From a religious perspective, many were raised in a faith tradition and expected to do the same with their own children. Then came the downfall of many churches, with mainline denominations struggling to stay above water, and crisis in the Catholic Church.
The list of broken promises could go on and on, but the reality is that this generation of young parents and young adults have been conditioned to not trust bureaucratic organizations and the grown ups in charge them. At nearly every turn, their life has been disrupted by harsh realities that have never been experienced by previous generations, and the adults in charge were always one step behind.
Is it any wonder why they respond with greater anxiety, control, and need for information and input on decision-making?
At their very core, they have trust issues. They are still working on trusting that this investment will pay off.
And, they are seeking investments that will endure in this new normal. In a world where so much has failed, they look to private education as a potential safe bet, but they still have their reservations.
So, while it is easy to get impatient or frustrated with their behavior, try to place it into a little bit of historical context. And, learn to work with them, providing new avenues for input, discussion, dialogue, and result with sharpened communications. I don't know if this is the new normal in private education, but I think it is the norm for awhile. As an industry, we might be wise to use this opportunity to become more client-focused, sensitive, and better at communicating, which happen to be some of our own weak spots.