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April 5, 2012

Books, Journals & More

A closer look: Christine Whelan

whelanToday’s college students are of a generation that was raised to think they all would grow up to be rich and famous and that the only direction to go was up.

Millennials — born between 1979 and 1993 — weren’t prepared for the shock of the 2008 stock market downturn, layoffs and high unemployment.

“We raised young adults for one reality, but pulled the rug out from under them,” said sociology faculty member Christine Whelan. “They need the tools to cope.”

Her book, “Generation WTF: From ‘What the #%$&?’ to a Wise, Tenacious and Fearless You,” co-opts the uncouth expression of frustration and recasts it as a mnemonic for some time-tested expert advice.

The book grew out of her experience as a young faculty member at the University of Iowa in 2008, where her students sought her advice on many kinds of personal issues. “Increasingly students were coming to me,” she said. “The bottom fell out of the economy and job offers and research funding started to dry up. They were graduating and wanted to know what happened: ‘I worked hard in college. Sure, I have credit card debt and student loans, but everybody does. WTF?’” they asked.

“A bell went off,” she said. “There is a generation screaming: ‘WTF? What’s happened? How am I going to survive?’”

Whelan, whose graduate work in sociology focused on the self-help industry, turned to her own research for some answers.

Her study of self-help books found most to be frivolous and unhelpful. “Self-help books are about Americans’ quest for self-control. We seek to control ourselves and our loved ones by learning tips and tricks and trying to improve ourselves,” she said.

The bulk of best-sellers from the past 50 years offer quick fixes, Whelan said. “They’re not going to work, but they just seem like they might.”

Many are based on systems that warn followers if they deviate from the formula even a little, they will fail. “That’s bogus,” she said. In the mix, however, are some gems that focus on core values such as thrift, honesty, perseverance and self-control.

“The newest advice is not always the best,” she said. “It seemed fitting to go back to the classic writers who navigated people through tough times,” Whelan said.


“I began to wonder what would happen if I gave millennial students the best of self-help books — most of which were written before they were even born — and ask them to try it out.”

She launched a course at Iowa in which students were assigned to read and test classic self-help authors’ advice on relationships, finances and self-discipline.

Class assignments included passages by financial gurus Suze Orman and David Bach; “How to Win Friends and Influence People” author Dale Carnegie; “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” writer Stephen Covey; 19th-century self-help author Samuel Smiles, and others.

Students wrote weekly essays on how they were able (or unable) to apply the advice in their own life, or tell how they adapted the author’s message.

“All had success with some elements of all these books,” she said.

Based on her students’ feedback, she compiled the most helpful information into a book that focuses on identifying values, engaging in self-reflection, learning self-discipline, managing money and building meaningful interpersonal relationships.

Their experiences — shared in class or in their essays — are interwoven with the experts’ advice to demonstrate the practical real-life outcomes.

One student, after escaping a traffic ticket, bragged to the class, “I Dale Carnegied this police officer,” by putting to use Carnegie’s advice on deferring to authority and being the first to admit one’s own mistakes.

Another, who had lied and cheated on his fiancée, described to his classmates how he regained her trust by using Carnegie’s advice on how to apologize sincerely and seek forgiveness.

“It was a valuable lesson to other students,” she said of his brave confession.

Whelan views herself merely as the facilitator rather than the source of the words of wisdom. “I’m the academic, not the advice-giver,” she said, noting that the book represents the best of classic self-help advice, adapted and updated for the millennial generation.

“I would not give advice that I wouldn’t be able to live by,” she said.

Whelan brought the unpublished manuscript when she joined the Pitt faculty, fine-tuning it in her Sociology of Everyday Life course, which focuses on core concepts of social psychology. “The course brings sociology to life for these students,” she said. “Students have the opportunity to live social concepts rather than just memorize them for a test,” Whelan said.

“The results were astounding,” she said. “Several students had an ‘It changed my life’ reaction and I can see how it would,” she said. “But it wasn’t my advice. This is their generation speaking to their peers.”

Not all were ready for the self-reflection, but they had to try it, she said. “For some, it didn’t work now, but at least they’d been exposed to the ideas.”

Whelan’s next book  — which delves deeper into the idea of purpose — crosses into the realm of advice giving. “I’m not sure I feel qualified to come up with my own advice for this generation,” she said, adding that she plans, as in the past, to use the material in class and solicit students’ feedback. “I don’t want to put out advice that doesn’t work, that hasn’t been tested.”


Generation_WTFMillennials, stereotyped as materialistic and self-involved, have gotten an undeservedly bad rap, Whelan argues.

Their lack of interpersonal skills and manners are the result of not having been taught, she said. “Instead of criticizing, I’m teaching them life skills,” she said.

Whelan said her book offers an opportunity for self-reflection.

“This generation has been raised to always go for the next thing: Get good SAT scores to get into a good college to get good grades to get into a good graduate school,” she said. “Very few have been given the space and opportunity to ask why.”

Whelan said she believes students are craving the opportunity to ask big questions of themselves, to find the “why” behind what they want to do and identify their purpose in life.

She asks them to consider their own values, not those of their parents, their priest or their peers. “What do you as an individual value?”

Whelan said faith, family and friendships ranked high in their responses.

The follow-up question, once they’ve identified their values, is: “Are you living them?”

Helping young people find their purpose can ward off a mid-life crisis, or perhaps even a quarter-life crisis. “You can prevent that by asking these big questions earlier,” perhaps even before coming to college, she said. “Freshmen can have a better college experience if they’ve examined these questions first.”

Whelan admits that some students “think it’s all stupid,” conceding that coming up with a personal mission statement is difficult.

“It’s transformative,” she said, conceding that not all her students are interested in investing the time to ponder the question. “I’m okay when that doesn’t work for everybody,” she said. “You have to be at a place where you’re ready,” she said.

The millennial generation’s self-centered view may not be all bad. “Previous generations didn’t turn to self-help until their 40s,” Whelan pointed out. By being aware in their 20s, “they can change their lives before they make the mistakes,” she said.

“Their inward focus actually may be the thing that’s going to get them out of tough situations,” she said. “The inward focus of this generation, I think, will be their saving grace.”

— Kimberly K. Barlow

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