Generation Y is wired up and ready for action so what's the problem?

Graham Manville and Gill Schiel outline the challenges institutions face harnessing the potential of this new whirlpool of talent

August 14, 2008

Generation Y is storming through our universities and is about to storm the workplace.

As many baby boomers head towards retirement, Generation Y - those born between 1979 and 1995 - is taking the stage. Potentially this group could form up to 40 per cent of the workforce by 2014.

They are talented. They know they are talented. This is a generation with skill sets and attitudes geared for a fast-changing world. Marketers forecast that they will have a huge economic and social impact in the coming years. Those organisations that can manage and retain them will perform best.

Research conducted in a leading global investment bank supports the published findings of both academics and practitioners: Generation Y is "connected". Its members are technically savvy in a Web 2.0 environment.

(A gritty view of what today's students really think is given on the YouTube video, A Vision of Students Today, featured last week in Times Higher Education. You can see it at

Generation Y has grown up in a culture of positive affirmation. These rising stars value education and want educational qualifications. They are ambitious and confident. Managed well, they can significantly improve the performance of an organisation. All good so far?

The downside is that their career expectations often race ahead of their current abilities. Generation Y members are impatient to get ahead. They want rapid progression - and it cannot come soon enough. They expect recognition. They yearn for international travel irrespective of the business case. But the stark reality is that they lack the influencing skills of office realpolitik.

Managers find that this generation needs lots of feedback and guided supervision. Firms report Generation Y's members are career agile. They neither expect nor desire a job for life. It is common to find a trail of past jobs on a CV reflecting less than five years of experience. This creates real challenges for recruitment and retention.

In management theory, products and business units showing great promise are either "stars" or "problem children".

Both have huge potential, but one is a risky option. The authors believe that members of Generation Y mirror this theory. The traits exhibited by Generation Y in the workplace are paralleled in higher education. We believe higher education institutions face two main challenges.

The first relates to developing and adapting curriculums to harness Generation Y's potential. This group has come of age in a 24/7, "on demand" personalised environment. We now witness higher education institutions offering a more personalised education using Web 2.0 technologies. This provides the institutions with a double bonus - lower-cost education plus apparently giving the students what they want. Is skinny latte, bagel and podcast "to go" the order of the day? This seems attractive to a demographic that wants to live life to the max, multitask and still enjoy the trappings of a "student experience".

Face-to-face teaching is still critically important. But it needs to be optimised to address the second challenge: finding the solution to Generation Y's underdeveloped soft skills.

Using learning interventions such as Socratic questioning and coaching could help foster a deeper learning style and facilitate self-development. In short, the academic needs to be a critical friend to the student and sometimes redefine and manage expectations. Many academics are familiar with anecdotal evidence of some students wanting a 2:1 degree but not an education, which is a recipe for rote learning.

The challenge for higher education is not to side-step this need. Gaining short-term approval from students may indicate success, but it does not address the real issue. Students need to be prepared for the real world.

Of course straight talk is easier said than done. National Student Survey feedback influences league-table position and tutor feedback reinforces or undermines staff morale. But by not taking the long view, we run the risk of taking our eye off the real prize. The result could be a polarised Generation Y workforce of high-fliers and high-maintenance candidates.

Increased economic uncertainty means employers can be more selective. They will want to pick the "stars". Many Generation Ys will need a reality check to avoid the "problem child" label.

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