Is Traditional Higher Ed Ready for Millenial Employees?

The Millienials, also known as Generation Y, were born somewhere between the early 1980’s and late 1990’s. I was born in 1983, which makes me a millenial. According to those that study these kinds of things, millenials are characterized as tach-savvy, family-centric, achievement focused, team oriented, and attention craving (to name just a few attributes).

There’s been a lot of press about how higher education has and will respond to millenial students. The growth in distance education and social media based recruitment efforts are a few examples. But how will traditional higher education respond to millenial employees who are just now beginning to flood the higher education workforce (both faculty and staff)? And how will higher education respond to those millenials who were born in the early 1980’s (like myself) who have been working for close to a decade and are moving into middle management? How will these employees change the face of higher education from the inside, out?

As a millenial who works in tradiational higher education, I have some personal thoughts and anecdotes. Thus far in my career I have seen a lot of resistance, both individual and systemic to the ideals, and I would argue assets, that millenials bring to the table.

First of all, my generation is very tech-savvy and digitally connected. We have very little patience for the “old way” of doing things. We don’t fax because email is much more reliable and faster, we don’t leave or check voicemails on our desktop phones because our iPhones are strapped to us at all times, and we expect almost instant responses to our emails and text messages. This means that we expect things to move quickly and we become very frustrated when they do not.  In higher education, where tradition, continuity and beaurecratic systems often reign supreme, millenials may feel stymied by what they view as inefficiency.

We’re also hell bent on maintaining a decent work-life balance. This is especially true for millenial women who may have seen their Baby Boomer mother’s struggle to make headway in the corporate world of the 1980’s. We’re thankful our mother’s paved the road for us and to pay homage to them we’re determined to have it all- fulfilling career, successful marriage and time to devote to our children. The Baby Boomers, who are now at the helm of most higher education institutions, tend to ascribe to the sixty-hour work week mentality and view their millienial employees, who often check out after 45 hours, as lazy. But considering that we tend to work much more efficiently through the use of technology and are pros at multi-tasking, we can typically accomplish just as much in a 45 hour work week as our superiors can in their 60 hour work week.

Many Baby Boomer bosses complain that their millenial employees are attention craving. I think this view is rather narrow-minded. It’s not that we simply want attention for attention’s sake. Instead, we want feed back to ensure us that we’re meeting the expectations of our superiors and that our opinions are being heard and at least considered.  We were raised by what was probably the most affluent and well-educated generation of American’s in our nation’s history. Our parents had the resources and leisure time to give us lots of attention and we were raised to feel that our opinions mattered. In higher education where institutional goals are somewhat amorphous and where hierarchial organization structures draw strict lines between superior and subordinate, it can be difficult for millenial employees to get the kind of feed back they so crave, and difficult for them to see where their opinions count.

I’ve highlighted just a bit of the discord that I see occuring between “business as usual” and the oncoming influx of the millienial generation into higher education leadership. So the question becomes, should higher education take this discord seriously? I say they should. A good majority of the higher education leadership in this country will be retiring over the next decade. We will need a new crop of ambitious and ready leaders to take the helm. Institutions should therefore be actively recruiting, retaining and mentoring young and promising leaders.

So what can higher education do to attract and retain millenials? First and foremost, the notion that millenial employees should adapt to the status quo needs to be thrown out the window. It’s a losing battle for current leaders to think that the next generation will simply suck it up and change in order to stay in a job. The millenial generation is way too mobile and not at all geographically bound. Instead, the human resources processes at institutions will have to change to accomodate the desires and expectations of the millenials.

But as opposed to decrying this turning tide I think higher education should embrace all of the positive aspects that would come along with it. Embracing more efficient ways of doing things (using the newest technology) could save institutions money, and millenial employees are a great resource for implementing these kinds of processes. Abandoning the notion that work only gets done in a 60-hour work week that takes place in a chair in an office is out-dated and erroneous. Millenial employees will chafe and be highly unproductive in such an environment. Implementing flex schedules and the ability to work from home from time to time will do wonders for millenial employee morale and productivity. And last, but certainly not least, millenials have to feel valued. Don’t dismiss their ideas, always respond to their emails, and get rid of the rigid heirarchy that keeps new employee opinions from reaching executive levels.

Embrace the millenial ethos and I can gurantee that millenial employees will pour their heart and soul into an institution. Refuse to listen to their opinions and values and run the risk of losing the next generation of higher education leaders to more progressive employers.

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