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"What Makes Millennials Tick?" The fears, factors, and motivators behind undergraduate students' behaviors and decision-making processes, and how 'ambition inflation' may lead to a false sense of overqualification

In the summer of 2013, I helped the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation spearhead a project that aimed to answer the question, "What makes Millennials tick?" Our goal was to implement a design-think perspective to discover what contributes to the health & well-being of college students, and more importantly, why do they act the way they do. With college being the preparatory engine that drives students to their career-destinations, we wanted to know if students were getting the best ROI for their education. What we found surprised us. The simple answer to, "Are students getting the best ROI for their educations?" was no. College is a heavy investment of money & time; students should be able to better diversify their portfolios.

Photo of Gabe Miller

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First and foremost, I appreciate any and all comments, as I'd love to hear any ideas, questions, or contributions for my post, as this is the first time I've posted to this community. It was an extensive, 2-month project, so I was unsure as to what I wanted to include in this section.

Based on our in-depth conversations and mini activities, we developed myriad insights that illustrate many aspects of the college environment and undergraduates. When we would receive the results of a mini activity or conversation, we would instantly begin analysis. Tensions, tradeoffs, and potential problems were continuously uncovered as we reflected both on the respondents’ answers and the way they gave the answers. During the data collection period we also had many meaningful brainstorming conversations with each other in which we identified existing tensions, fears, aspirations, etc. within ourselves and within the college atmosphere. 

We found a number of general insights that paint a basic picture of many college students. We found students that were entering the university, or transition groups, value the new beginnings that the experience has to offer. They are more open to change, and it is both exciting and nerve-wracking to them. Students are open to new opportunities because the entire experience is a state of change. It seems obvious that undergraduates would be open to the idea of new beginnings and a “fresh start” that college offers, an opportunity for one to find oneself. As students furthered themselves into their educations, though, they began to feel bottlenecked. In other words, students felt more doors--opportunities--closing than opening as result of their experience in a certain subject matter. For example, one who majors in chemistry usually only sees three potential career paths after college, which are: (1) medical school, dental school, PA school, etc. (2) graduate school for chemistry (3) lab work. It is very likely that the chemistry graduate has learned the necessary quantitative skills to excel in a different career path, yet doesn't know how to exude him-or-herself as employable in a line of work outside the three options given above. Take the following example into consideration.

Is it fair that in order for a student to be on the glorious "pre-med route," the decision has to be made within the first year or two of college? The student will need to take the required amount of courses to take the MCAT, prepare for the MCAT, take the MCAT, retake the MCAT if (s)he didn't score well, shadow/volunteer in a hospital or other healthcare setting, apply to Med School (which most students only get into 1 or 2 Med Schools out of the 12 or 15 they apply to), go to a Med School, complete a residency, specialize.... the 18-year-old student will not know if (s)he likes being a physician until 12-20 years down the road. And what if they don't like being a physician? Is it that easy to switch careers after the immense time, finacial, and personal-sacrifice commitments invested into their educations? 

Although a solution to the problem may be more difficult than a "simple fix," we proposed that the liberal arts education be restructured. Rather than having students confrom to certain majors, why not have majors conform to the students. It is their educations after all. If someone wants to take 3 courses in Shakespearean Literature, they should not be inhibited to take such courses by their required economics course-load. Students are the ones paying for their educations in money, time, and personal sacrifices, and they should get out of their educations what they want. The transferrable skills that the students learn in each class that they took should be proud components of their analytical toolboxes that they bring into the "real world," allowing the freedom to apply to the jobs in which their passions truly lie. George RR Martin said, "“Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle." Why not give students the freedom to take different roads if they want to end up in the same place anyways. Afterall, creativity from diversity is something we all may benefit from. 

Education is a prerequisite of many jobs, and it is the system itself that inhibits many recent graduates from exuding their true strengths, talents, and potential-offerings to bring to a job. Lets allow students to take ALL of the classes they want, while still meeting a minimum course requirement to graduate, so they can each build their unique value proposition, because it was in the classes that didn't pertain to my major that I most oftentimes learned the most in skills I could apply to the working world. Also, students should have more applied learning experiences, allowing students to leverage what they've learned in real-world situations before they graduate (e.g. collaboratives between non-profits and management classes to do pro bono consulting work, benefiting both the students and the organizations they collaborate with).

Another critical point of study we found was a term titled "Ambition Inflation." An article relating to the idea of ambition inflation can be found here, and how Millennials' narcissism leads to a false sense of success that is uncovered later in life.

The general premise of ambition inflation is that every year college students feel more entitled than ever, but objective test scores show that college students are not performing as well on certain subject tests as years prior. More students feel that they should be an astronaut if they want to, yet are unwilling to put in the necessary work. The article provided by the link above explains the idea far better than I can, but it may be an interesting connection between graduates feeling under-employed or unemployed (if they don't except a certain job because they feel they're 'better' than the job) and why they feel so. If they answer that they are under-employed, a question to consider is, "Are they actually under-employed, or are they just qualified enough for their current job but feel as if they're over-qualified for their work?" What if the higly-indebted, recently graduating popluation is looking for the higher paying job that they aren't qualified for, and are unemployed because they won't accept the lower-paying wage that they're actually qualified for?

Please feel free to view any of the following links about the project or the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation.

An Article of the Project Itself

Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation
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Attachments (2)

MISP CFI Final Report.pdf

Here is the full, 113 page report of our findings, analyses, and conclusions.

Work Samples.pdf

Top: Mayo Innovations Scholars Team w/ their research Middle: Creative teaching samples Bottom: Consultative experience between my marketing class group and a non-profit

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Photo of Dean Strautins

Hi Gabe. I like your post because it reminds me of the topic I was introduced to in business school that there is the pursuit of profit. But in reality it seems to me there is the pursuit of retirement. I am theorising that the majority of people do not like the risk involved in pursuing work so as soon as they can secure work then they lock it in and avoid risk as much as possible. Minorities are known to take more risks and more prone to opening businesses. I am wondering if graduates seeking work have a similar mindset to immigrants up till they find work and then they never are so driven ever again?

Regards,

Dean

Photo of Gabe Miller

Hi Dean,

Thanks for the comment! You bring up a great point with the idea of risk mitigation through job security, and I never knew minorities were more apt to take risks and pursue certain business ventures. Being only 23 and having just experienced the volatility of the current job-search market, perhaps I can shed some light on graduates’ career-search actions.

First of all, I never realized how competitive the job market was until I was a part of it myself, and Business Insider has published a very cool map showing how competitive the market is here (http://www.businessinsider.com/the-most-and-least-competitive-regions-2013-10). Not too long ago I had a premium LinkedIn account, and one of the perks of such an account is that one can see how (s)he matches up with others who have applied to the job. For about 90% of the jobs I applied for—most of them entry-level—there was a range of 50-200 applicants within the first two days, a fair share of them had either a Master’s or MBA, and many of them had 3-5 years of prior work experience. Reminder: this was all for entry-level positions. Now you can imagine the excitement one feels when his/her resume gets through the original screen and onto a phone interview, and then an in-person interview, and then a third interview (fourth, fifth, etc.), and hopefully a job offer. Even if it isn’t for a firm that the person wants to work for, “it is a job,” and I have so many friends who have a job because “it is a job.” Not their dream job, but a job, even if it isn't remotely along the lines of what they truly want to do. One has to consider the consequences of not accepting an offer, because one knows how difficult it is to get to that offer, even if it isn’t at a firm that (s)he wants to work for. On top of that, even if one declines a job offer, one can’t defer or decline student loan payments, rent, groceries, car insurance, cellphone plan, etc.

So as much as I’d like to say recent graduates are keener on taking risks, from personal experiences I don’t see my friends, classmates, and colleagues doing so. Which is sad, because it is when we’re young that we should be allowed to take such risks, and that opportunity costs—the FOMO or Fear-Of-Missing-Out craze—should weigh more heavily into recent graduates’ life decisions than job security. What’s even harder is when one asks for career advice from more senior members in society and the most frequented response is, “Figure out where your passions lie, find a career that aligns with those passions, and then go do whatever you can to get that job.” In reality, it’s more along the lines of “Try to get a job doing anything and then maybe in five years you can switch to something you really enjoy.” Cynical? Perhaps. But it is the reality that many of my friends, colleagues, and classmates are facing.

Regarding your question about losing the drive relates well to the idea of ambition inflation. For our project, we tweaked Twenge’s theory about how, “[in] the long-term, what tends to happen is that narcissistic people mess up their relationships, at home and at work. Though narcissists may be charming at first, their selfish actions eventually damage relationships. It's not until middle-age they may realize their lives have had a number of failed relationships” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2257715/Study-shows-college-students-think-theyre-special--read-write-barely-study.html). We took her justification of narcissists realizing their failed relationships by middle-age and decided that perhaps this could be used to explain career changes and mid-life crises after people are truly able to evaluate and reflect on their lives, which most often occurs in late 20’s and late 30’s for people. It is when people are ten years out of HS—5 years out of college—or twenty years out of HS—most often around 10 years into a marriage—that they make drastic career changes, and we thought it was because this is when people had a chance to evaluate where they wanted to be with where they actually were, and realizing they needed to change something (a career) to better align their goals with their realities. So although a loss of drive may not happen in its entirety, I believe that it definitely has a delayed effect of a couple of years.

All the best,
Gabe

Photo of Meena Kadri

Hi Gabe – just spotted something in your wealth of insights here which caught my eye: “ 'Try to get a job doing anything and then maybe in five years you can switch to something you really enjoy.' Cynical? Perhaps. "

I do find some validity in this advice myself (mid-40s) and I'll tell you why. Having taught at designs schools globally a while back, I notice that there's a mis-match in what students think they will enjoy in the world of work and what they do actually end up enjoying. By working at just about anything – you learn about the nature of work being in the service of others (eg. it's not all about you :^), what you like and don't like doing (eg. you may have trained as a graphic designer then realise you don't like desk work), about collaboration and leadership (including perhaps what kind of leader you might want to be). I'm not sure if it needs to be 5 years – and at best I think one can learn a lot of this stuff while studying if one is motivated and is able to find part time work while studying (I often draw upon skills I learnt while being a maitre d' back in college here on OpenIDEO!)

Also interesting to consider your explorations of ROI as this is obviously tied to the cost of education. When I went to university we all got paid to go by the government (tuition covered and a weekly allowance provided). So it's likely we had quite a different attitude to how experimental we might feel in our first years after graduation. Now it costs students money here – though not nearly as much as it does in the US. I wonder if global studies have been done which compare aspects like a sense of entitlement between countries with contrasting student fees?

So much interesting stuff to think about here! Thanks for raising so much for us all to reflect on.

Photo of Dean Strautins

Gabe. In my previous studies I have seen references that a person is over ten times more likely to start a business if they have friends or family with a business or if they are passively discriminated against as a result of being a minority nationality.
Now I am pro business creation and have many times given talks to students from first year university students to MBA students and have every time started my talk by informing them that I am the most important person they will meet in their studies. I have pre warned the head of the schools I will say this without objections and the students don't object and understand why I say it when I give my talk.
So what I see glaringly omitted when I read such stories about how difficult it is to get a job is information about the amount of these people starting businesses. If these people are so self centered with over inflated opinions of themselves then why are they not starting businesses?
A business is so easy to start that it can be done in parallel to studying for the degree. But from my experience 99.999% of students won't even buy a domain name let alone dabble in building a website.
So if it so difficult relying on other people to give a person a job then maybe the focus needs to be changed within education institutions to enlighten students to the opportunity to start a business.
Even running a business is frustrating in this day and age full of young consumer minded people expressing their opinions online about businesses. Because the youth have little appreciation on what is involved with establishing a business they then do not see what stage a business is at when they review it. They too often review it with anger rather than as a consultant.
The solution I will be pushing in the later stages of this quest is to introduce how this employee mindset can be broken.

Regards,

Dean

Photo of Gabe Miller

Hi Dean,

I love your point, and I agree, our narcissistic generation should undertake ventures of our own if we think so highly of ourselves. However, I think we are inhibited by the fear of failure to an extent that we will not undertake such ventures due to the idea of a higher risk of passing up a guaranteed income when we have invested so much already. Even as I tell my friends and family that I'm embarking on a new adventure by helping launch a start-up, rather than hearing, "Congratulations," I hear, "Ooooh, isn't that risky? What if it fails?" far more often. A little bit about me: I'm extremely fortunate that I graduated debt-free from my college, I'm on my parents' cell phone plan, I have health insurance via my dad's job, etc. I realize how fortunate I am, and I am very humbled by everything in my life. However, this has allowed me to approach the job market differently than others my age. Where others look for stability, I look for opportunity. But I can guarantee you this: If I had student loans to pay, a cell phone plan to pay for, a need for health insurance, etc., I would be looking for a "stable" job that wouldn't include launching a start-up.

Now it is interesting as to why we think this way, and a theory I favor is that we have invested so much (time, money) into the educations that is supposed to meld us into the corporate world, that it'd be a wasted investment or too great of a risk to not pursue a traditional path. I, too, agree that this should be changed, and I would love to see the later stages of this quest breaking the mindset of subjectively voiced opinions that lack a level-headed expertise needed to truly evaluate a situation.

I believe that the answer lies in the educational system too. How can we better induce the creativity and curiosity needed to be entrepreneurial? Does the answer rely on reinventing the idea of failure? Or does it pertain more to taking students away from just learning technical skills and theories--navigating the formulas of Excel, being able to work an H-NMR Spectroscopy Machine--and giving them the opportunity to apply what they've learned in a real-life setting, before they take a leap into the real world?

How do we get students to go from theoretical to entrepreneurial, to become not just entrepreneurial in spirit, but entrepreneurial in practice?

Photo of Dean Strautins

Hi Gabe.

Gee I hope you are not anti Obama like the girl I met on a flight to San Fran that was the same as you sponsored by her parents. She gave me all this anti Obama talk and then I asked her how she was paying for health insurance and the truth started to come out. This provocative sentence forms part of the following point - people avoid controversial and personal conversations.

To get people thinking entrepreneurial then they need to be exposed to that type of thinking. Sweden has institutions and many other countries have little or nothing of substance. But what we all have is the internet so we can gain exposure outside of institutions.

All these people latching on to jobs also turn off their minds out of work hours? In India the biggest social medium is TV and people are introduced to socially conscious ideas via popular soap operas. I am thinking advance economies need to do the same to jolt the youth in to a different type of thinking.

For example, When we meet each other at social gatherings why is not the one of the first questions people ask each other - what domain name did you buy and online business are you developing? What is your source for learning? Do you have any mentors?

Instead the youth conversations are orientated around consumerism and adult conversations are dominated by property. Are we not in a weird world because the majority of people do not walk down a street appreciating the opportunities for opening a retail outlet. Why are colleges in the US not self sustaining by businesses their students created whilst studying at college?

Why do we have such lack of innovative thought and action? Because entrepreneurialism is not part of our every day lives and I will later outline a way to make it part of our every day lives for all people of the world. Where not engaging in civic activities will be the unusual thing to do.

Regards,

Dean

Photo of Gabe Miller

Hi Dean,

I think those are all great questions, and I wish they were asked/addressed more frequently. I'm excited to see how your plan unfolds! As for promoting creativity in today's youth, Stanford "d" school created a really cool innovation lab on wheels called Spark Truck. I think it's a genius idea, and it can be found at the following link: http://sparktruck.org/

Photo of Guy Viner

Hey Gabe + Dean,

Carole wrote a post about the spark truck during the creative confidence challenge. There are some great insights here- maybe we should bring the spark truck back as a research contribution for the current challenge! I like where your thinking is at.

https://openideo.com/challenge/creative-confidence/inspiration/sparktruck-bringing-rapid-prototyping-to-school-kids

Photo of Gabe Miller

Hi Guy,

Thanks for the comment! I love the concept of Spark Truck, and I think it would be awesome to see it as a research contribution to this challenge.

Best,
Gabe

Photo of Meena Kadri

You guys might also be interested in the Electronster which was a winning idea on our Creative Confidence Challenge, a collaboration by students at Stanford: https://openideo.com/challenge/creative-confidence/winners-announced/the-electronster Although it's aimed at a younger audience & is a bit different to SparkTruck, it brings up some interesting fresh thinking around outreach + inclusion (not to mention it's been one the most inspiring prototyping efforts we've seen on OpenIDEO!)

Photo of Dean Strautins

I think such Spark Trucks have their success heavily dependent on the insightful people running them. I have too often seen these type of things just skirt around the edges struggling to find the correct words and examples to communicate that resonate with the participants. Such strained conversations end up using 3D printers as examples presented as an end result.
I think there needs to be sustained communication that becomes part of our every day lives. We need communication that shakes people out of their consumerism and employee focus. Instead of brainstorming sessions that reduce every person's ideas down to a few words. We need cognitive challenges that last 6 months to give people a chance to process and absorb the variables so then in their quiet time the insightful answers reveal themselves.
With the Spark Truck I see the question being - How can the Spark Truck identify the most innovation fertile ready minds to visit and how can those closed minds be made aware of their closed minds and what they need to learn before the Spark Truck will be allowed to visit them. Then when the Spark Truck is at each location, how will it be informed of the successes, resources etc specific to that location, The answer to this will be shown in my Idea film I am putting together right now.

Regards,

Dean

Photo of Gabe Miller

Meena,

Electronster looks awesome! And Dean, I think it has to be difficult to truly assess the "most innovation fertile ready minds" beforehand, which such unpredictability is a possible benefit that I see of Spark Truck, because the variability and diversity of the participants the truck will work with may uncover greater innovation potential than if there was selective targeting by Spark Truck. Perhaps it's a naive thing of me to say, but I view it as similar to the general premise of Blue Ocean Strategy, in which it may be beneficial to move away from a previously concentrated/focused area to explore uncharted territory.

Best,
Gabe

Photo of Dean Strautins

Hi Gabe:

All these things that can generate the spark of an idea to start a business are necessary. My thinking has latched on to making information transparent so that there is bidirectional communication of it. Web 2.0 achieved this for web users and Big Data is achieving it for corporates that use it to manipulate individuals. I am now thinking about processes that could be deployed to get Big Data analytics in to the hands of such Spark Truck initiatives.

If people are connected well enough at a detailed enough level then the Spark Truck would be so busy attending to the demand instead of burning time pushing to create demand. This is what I am proposing.

Regards,

Dean

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