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Risk Mgmt and Ins Higher Education Scene

Truly Understanding Millennials

Brenda Powell Wells | September 1, 2011

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A line of graduates holding their diplomas and a close-up on one smiling graduate

Millennials.… I've written about them before. But more and more research is being produced to give insight into what they are like. It seems to me that at no time before in history did we do so much analysis of a generation's wants and needs. (Maybe we did, and I just missed it?) But I bring to you in this commentary a few more insights into the wants, needs, and limitations of today's insurance and risk management (and other) college graduates.

Let's first define our demographics here. In general, a Millennial is someone born since around 1980. Sometimes they are also referred to as "Generation Y." It's a fancy way of saying anyone who is between college age and about 30 years old. My generation, born before that but after the mid-1960s, is the Generation X ("Gen X-ers"). We're all between around 30 and 50. And, anyone over 50 is generally considered a baby boomer, or, for short, "a boomer."

Millennials are generally the product of two or more Gen X-ers, baby boomers, or one of each. They are nothing if not the by-product of their environments. Neil Howe and William Strauss identified the personality traits of this generation in two books: Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000) and Millennials Go to College: Strategies for a New Generation on Campus (2007). According to Howe and Strauss, the Millennials are:

  • Special: Raised by overprotective and "quick-to-call-their-average-kids-outstanding" boomers and Gen X-ers (collectively known as "helicopter parents"), Millennials have been raised to think of themselves as winners who deserve praise for just showing up and trying. This is clearly frustrating for those of us from other generations, but, keep in mind, it's really not their fault!
  • Sheltered: The same parents who gave every child a trophy just for participating have managed to shelter their kids from reality. Things like authority, protocol, failure, embarrassment, politics, and exclusion—some of these young adults have never experienced these things. That, too, is not their fault.
  • Confident: Their parents told them they could be whatever they wanted. Millennials possess very high levels of optimism that can come across as arrogance or "cockiness." Remember, their parents, coming from a generational norm of always doing better than their parents, have set very high expectations for their children.
  • Team Oriented: In touch with their friends via email and social media plus soccer teams and countless other activities (that their helicopter parents required them to participate in), they usually have very strong team instincts and like to bond very closely with their friends and peers. They also believe in the greater good—the "why can't we all do this for the cause?" kind of mentality. They need teamwork opportunities, and they need to see that there is a purpose in what they are doing with those activities.
  • Achieving: Raised to have endless information literally at their fingertips, this generation of Millennials is poised to be the best-educated generation in history. If you're over 40, think about how genuinely uninformed you were when you started college, unless you had exceptional parental guidance and a push toward research, reading, and cultural exploration. These amazing young men and women walk into the workplace much better informed and knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects than we ever were! But, the affluence brought by their parents has often ended up with them never working outside the home. They simply don't understand what it means to earn a paycheck of their own or how to behave in the workplace. Smart colleges of business out there (yes, I'm completely bragging right now on my employer, East Carolina University) are incorporating leadership and etiquette training into their curriculums to ensure that this shortfall is overcome before they graduate.
  • Pressured: The Millennials were raised and trained by a group of parents who wanted them to be safe and protected. As a result, they were taught not to take risks but to study hard and take advantage of every opportunity that presented itself. As a result, these students feel pressured to excel. And let's not forget that they always got the trophy, remember? So, they feel very pressured to achieve but also to be recognized on a regular basis. This means they are not satisfied with an annual review like we were—they need regular feedback and recognition.
  • Conventional: Here's what's sort of shocking about all this. At the end of the day, this generation has incredible respect for their parents' values. So, they have great respect for teachers, bosses, and institutions. The difference, however, is that they have high expectations in return. Gone are the days when "because I said so" gets the job done. Also, this means the loyalty of a steady paycheck "because it's a job" is also nonexistent. These students want to be loyal to someone; they just demand more in return than previous generations might have expected to receive.

I'll be writing about these characteristics more in future commentaries.

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