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Generation Y

Is Education Gen Y's Downfall?

Whatever else you want to say about Gen Y, you gotta give them credit for being educated. But, is that such a good thing? What do they have to show for their education? High Millennial unemployment rates and student loan debt ? This isn’t looking good.

Whatever else you want to say about Gen Y, you gotta give them credit for being educated. But, is that such a good thing? What do they have to show for their education? High Millennial unemployment rates and student loan debt ? This isn’t looking good.

Can’t we all be CEOs?

Gen Y grew up being told they could be anything they wanted to be. Seems like they all want to be CEOs, and a college degree, maybe a few of them, is the best way to get there, right?

The question for Gen Y does not seem to be, “is education worth the debt,” but rather, “should I go to college or just start my own business now?” It’s a completely new way of looking at work.

And maybe that’s OK, since so many Millennials have entrepreneurial tendencies. But start-ups aren’t keeping Gen Y from moving home. Thirteen percent of adults aged 18-29 are moving back home with their parents, and it’s not because their parents desperately need them for tech support.

What about all these job openings?

Meanwhile, jobs are going unfilled. Trade jobs. As of last year, even with high unemployment rates, there were as many as 3 million unfilled trade jobs. So, why aren’t more Millennials jumping into trade professions instead of moving home?

I recently lost the stylist who’s been doing my hair for a year. She’d gone to beauty school, paid for her license to practice, and then quickly realized she could make a lot more money waiting tables at the burger joint across the street from the salon. She left. “What’s the point,” she said, “of doing all that work and paying to stay certified when I can barely pay my rent?”

Is education Gen Y’s downfall?

Certainly, out of work and student loans is not a great position to be in for anyone. But does that mean education is a downfall?

I’d hate to say that education is anyone’s downfall. However, the proper education is key to success, success for both for employees and employers. And that education can come from anywhere. From a classroom or on the job training.

When I went to college, I was under the impression, probably because someone repeatedly told me, that I wasn’t there to learn how to do a job; I was there to learn how to learn. And knowing how to learn would prepare me for any job. That may be true, but someone hiring me would have to be interested in teaching me.

Make Gen Y’s education work for you.

Teaching employees how to do the jobs that need filling is exactly how Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center is filling a need for nurses; they’re upskilling existing employees. They are identifying the skills they need their employees to have, and then connecting current employees, including cafeteria workers, to training programs that teach those skills.

Education is important. Education can lead to better incomes and higher level jobs. But it needs to be the right education, in the right place at the right time.

We can’t all be CEOs because someone needs to work at your start-up if you’re going to be successful. To get those employees, the best and most educated may need to be taught new skills that will help your organization succeed. And there needs to be incentives to work for you, otherwise, if they can make more money waiting tables, they will.

Bottom line, Millennials who have degrees and student loans know how to learn. If you can’t find a way to make that valuable for them, you’ll be hiring from a less educated talent pool. That’s not to anyone’s advantage.

Even if education IS the downfall of Millennials, it’s not likely that the optimistic generation will see it that way. This uber-educated generation will find a way to take what they’ve learned and put it to work somewhere, maybe their own company, and if you’re willing to do some training, maybe it’ll be yours.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

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