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Vice-Chancellor’s comment

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Vice-Chancellor’s comment

Otago Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne believes we can all learn something from the group of young people classed as Millennials.

It is hard to read a newspaper, a magazine or a website without encountering claims about Millennials. According to the standard definition, Millennials are people born between 1980 and 2000. These folks now range in age from 17–37. Most of the current students at Otago are Millennials, as are many of our recent graduates.

The popular press often describes Millennials in less than positive terms. They have been referred to as fragile, narcissistic, selfish and apathetic. But, in my experience, opinion is cheap and often wrong, so at the University of Otago we have taken the opportunity to collect some data to help us understand what makes our Millennials tick.

In 2011, the eight New Zealand Universities launched the Graduate Longitudinal Study (GLSNZ) which is a comprehensive study of the graduating cohort of that year – a 21-year-old graduating with their first degree in 2011 would have been born in 1990 which is right in the middle of Millennial range. More than 6,100 graduates completed the most recent follow-up to the initial baseline survey and we will continue to follow their progress over the next few years.

Among other things, the survey asked our graduates – two years after completing their studies – how important various goals and aspirations were to them. In order, their most important goals were:

  1. Being in good health
  2. Having a family-friendly work/life balance
  3. Working ethically
  4. Having a life-long partner
  5. Having children and a career
  6. Making a difference
  7. Travelling
  8. Contributing to environmental sustainability
  9. Being culturally responsive
  10. Being unselfish.

This list doesn’t look like it was generated by a narcissistic, selfish or apathetic generation. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. This list looks like it was generated by people who consider relationships to be an important factor in their life – by people who value ethics, people, family and culture. In short, these goals reflect a strong desire to be connected to the world and a desire to make a difference.

There were many other questions in the study. For example, graduates were asked to list the top three factors that were important to them when choosing a job. In order, the five most important factors were:

  1. Job satisfaction
  2. Financial security
  3. A good work/life balance
  4. Intellectual challenge and stimulation
  5. The opportunity to make a contribution/difference.

These data have important implications for current changes in New Zealand.

Right now, we are undergoing a major reorganisation in the way in which we provide careers advice to young people. In the past, considerable time has been spent providing information about the salaries associated with different professions, but, on the basis of what graduates have told us, this is not the most important information that Millennials will use to choose a career.

Although earning enough money (i.e. financial security) is number two on the list, it comes below job satisfaction. Importantly, earning big money (i.e. earning potential) does not even make the top five (coming in at number eight), falling well behind other non-monetary factors like work/life balance, intellectual challenge and the opportunity to make a difference. Government should be mindful of these data when providing information to young people.

Among all the things that have been said about them, Millennials do appear to be somewhat more fragile than the generations that preceded them. Levels of anxiety, in particular, are rising on university campuses around the world and my colleagues in the secondary school sector have observed a similar trend. Perhaps this fragility reflects the number and size of the goals that Millennials have set for themselves. Perhaps the high level of connection afforded by social media has provided endless opportunities for comparison and self-doubt.

Whatever the cause, the solution is staring us in the face. On the basis of the data collected through the GLSNZ, we know that Millennials thrive on human connections. At Otago, we will be using those data to shape the way we help our students as they take their final steps to adulthood.

In closing, the results of the GLSNZ didn’t surprise me. I have been working with Millennials for the duration of my professional career and I have had the great privilege of raising two of my own.

What I have learned from this generation is that they are far more (not less) prepared to enter the workforce than we were. They see a big picture that many of us didn’t see until we were well into our 30–40s. At their best, these Millennials look after each other. They call out prejudice and injustice when they see it. They spend their money on experiences rather than things because they have a clear appreciation that life is for living.

In addition to learning from us, those of us who are not Millennials would do well to learn something from them.