Architects Discover Generation Y (and What That Means for Generation Debt)

One of the really interesting things about Gen Y is how dramatically its preferences are driving changes in everything from workplace policies to luxury goods marketing to real estate development.

Last week, I headed over to the Boston Society of Architects to hear a talk by a woman named Persis Rickes about ways in which architects who design for universities need to be thinking about what Gen Y wants out of its academic and living spaces.

The talk was in many ways a primer on Gen Y for an audience that didn't know much about this generation. Dr. Rickes did a great job pulling together some of the basic information about Gen Y (much of it culled, with attribution, from the seminal work Millennials Rising by Neil Howe and William Strauss). I was most interested in the following points from the talk (and for clarity, I'll break out the parts that are my own editorializing):

Many buildings will be around for 50 or 100 years -- how do you design a building that may already be outdated 10 years from now?

Just ten years ago, university architects were putting jacks in every wall on the assumption that everyone would want to be able to plug in anywhere for internet access. Of course, today everyone expects wifi, and all that wiring isn't getting used. Wired? That's so last millennium. Trying to predict what people will want out of their spaces for the next half century is perhaps a quixotic exercise, but architects are trying to be as forward-thinking as possible.

What about the ideal architecture for Gen Y? Part of that depends on their aspirations, which brings us to:

Gen Y is civic minded, socially conscious, dedicated to justice and the environment, and involved in a variety of causes.

Gen Yers expect to learn in real-life scenarios to prepare for their careers after college, and colleges need to be building the equivalent of "moot court" classrooms for students to get hands-on experience that approximates what they'll face out in the real world. Students expect opportunities for real-world internships and service work. Schools need to offer "blended spaces" for teaching and learning a mix of academic and practical skills.

Anna says: This desire flies in the face of the mission of a liberal arts education, which values teaching you "how to think" over teaching specialized or pre-professional skills. But even at staunch liberal arts colleges, students are demanding hands-on experience through their extracurricular activities and internships, even if they don't receive academic credit for them. Schools will need to think about what kinds of spaces they're offering for hands-on training and learning, whether that happens as part of the curriculum or as an extracurricular activity.

I also wonder what it means for business schools that an entire generation is obsessed with social or environmental justice jobs (that's not the best short-hand and doesn't really cover the whole range, but I'll use it for these purposes). I personally think it would be impossible to do good without the private sector, but I suspect that business schools have a marketing problem on their hands with this cohort, and it explains the big uptick in social entrepreneurship and corporate citizenship offerings at business schools.

It also explains why so many college students are flocking to law school. I often talk to people who think they can litigate away the world's big problems -- poverty, hunger, international conflict, and war -- and they have every expectation that they'll do so while making six figures or more in the process and living a somewhat glamorous life. (Brangelina and Bono have created some unreasonable expectations.) The social justice jobs are definitely out there, but many people I hear from struggle with the paychecks associated with those jobs. Sometimes people come out of school with unrealistic expectations about what kinds of salaries they can command in a certain job or with a certain diploma hanging on the wall, and those expectations (reasonable and unreasonable) are a big subject of this whole blog more generally.

Because realistic expectations are so important, it is absolutely necessary for college students to observe different jobs first-hand, whether it's through an internship or some other avenue.

Gen Y is obsessed with achievement and is really, really stressed out.

Gen Y is under a lot of pressure to achieve and excel. They like conformity and rules, because conformity and rules relieve some of that pressure. They have an overachiever culture. They know that they are being measured. They want constant feedback.

That means schools will need to offer a lot of tutoring and testing help, as well as spaces where those services can be accessed 24/7. Students also want a lot of very nice extracurricular spaces to blow off some of that steam, and there's also increased demand for spirituality and meditation spaces. They also need spaces to be overachievers and show off their work, for example through state-of-the art performance halls.

Anna says: This has absolutely been my experience counseling Gen Yers for the last eight or so years. They are so worried about making the slightest mistake, because they feel that the stakes are so high, and I continue to grapple with the best ways to deal with their high anxiety levels.

This is a generation for whom mental health treatment and mental health prescription drugs are fairly routine, and I wonder how people who work with, manage, counsel, teach, and mentor Gen Y can best prepare themselves to work with these high anxiety levels. It's not specifically what most of us are trained to do, but maybe we need to be. From time to time we hear awful stories about college students going over the edge in one form or another, and I'm intrigued by Cornell's efforts to train the university community to deal with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

More generally, these are the most risk-averse people I've ever encountered, and they fear doing things on their own (more on that below in the teamwork discussion). The kinds of questions people run by me every day reflect that fear. ("The application instructions say to put my name in a header. Could you please look at my header and sign off on it before I submit?") Part of that phenomenon I also attribute to their parents (more on that below too). Part of our challenge as mentors for Gen Y is to help them develop their confidence to make decisions on their own when they are feeling that immense pressure to spread the risk. It's an interesting contrast to the strong confidence they feel in other ways (the next topic).

Gen Yers all think they're special, don't leave their parents behind, and want everything tailored to them and at their disposal 24/7.

Gen Y requires constant praise, much of it gratuitous, and feels entitled to it. Their parents have fed this sense of entitlement by making their kids feel as if they are the center of the universe, and the parents' lives do indeed revolve around their kids. Gen Yers are sheltered and overprotected. They expect everyone else to jump at their say-so and are supremely confident -- some would say over-confident -- in their abilities.

For space planning, this means that Gen Y students expect 24/7 access to people and spaces and services, and schools will have to provide the technology to enable that kind of access. They expect private bathrooms and showers, single dorm rooms and apartments, and customized everything (such as cafeterias with 24/7 access to vegan food or whatever the case may be). They expect top-of-the-line health and wellness centers, academic support centers, and larger admissions offices (because they bring their whole families along).

Anna says: Yep - I've already said plenty on this subject (here and here -- note that the posting you're reading now will show up at the top of both links, so you'll have to scroll down for the older postings). The brouhaha over this recent voicemail is the perfect example. (Gen Y high school student finds it completely appropriate to call the COO of his county school system -- at home -- to complain that classes haven't been canceled after three inches of snowfall; COO's wife leaves an angry voicemail telling the kid to "get over it"; kid then posts the COO's email and phone numbers on facebook.)

I'm also reminded of something an admissions officer once said to me: "With Gen Y's parents, their kid is always gifted or learning disabled. Those are the only two options." It's no accident that their children take that self-perception with them to college and into the workplace.


Gen Yers are always part of a group.

As much as they all want their own dorm rooms and bathrooms, they spend all their time together, travel in packs, work together, and study together. They therefore need lots of informal spaces that let them learn and study in groups.

Anna says: I've noticed that they also like to work on their applications in groups. Their college and grad school essays get passed around all over God's creation for feedback from parents, friends, neighbors, you name it. That's why so many essays read as if they were written by committee... because they were written by committee, and that rarely makes for a good essay, because the applicant's voice gets completely lost in the shuffle.

On an unrelated note: I've observed that Gen Yers also like to date in packs. In a way, it's not even a date at all, at least as someone Gen X or older would understand it.


Gen Yers multitask.

They need blended spaces for work and play because they're never doing just one or the other.

Anna says: Definitely true. Whether they're surfing the internet while in class, writing a paper at Starbucks, or instant messaging every five seconds while studying for an exam, this is an "ADD" generation that can't focus on one thing for any length of time -- not necessarily because they literally have ADD (although some of them do, and that can compound the challenge), but because competing technology is always pulling them away from the task at hand. In that sense, young or old, we're all ADD'ers now, certainly in the workplace, but Gen Y takes multitasking to new extremes.

I wonder whether it's a good idea for schools to accommodate this need to multitask. I know professors don't like it when their students are buying shoes online during their lectures, and there has been some research showing that the human brain just doesn't do things all that well when it's multitasking (a lesson for us all, myself included). Just because Gen Y (or anyone, for that matter) wants something, does that mean it's always good to give it to them?


Gen Yers are respectful of authority.

I'm not sure how respect for authority plays itself out in architecture and space planning, but the architects in the room found this characteristic very interesting.

Anna says: I disagree strongly with this characterization of Gen Y. I think the confusion on this point comes from a Boomer baseline of what it means to defy or disrespect authority. I suspect that in Boomer minds, if college students aren't lighting fires, smashing windows, and threatening to burn down Yale like in the Boomers' college days, then Gen Y must be pretty respectful of authority. And it's true that Gen Y, because of that risk-aversion I discussed above, doesn't like to rock the boat the way Boomers seemed to take a certain kind of pride in doing. But I would argue that Gen Y's admirable refusal to destroy things doesn't mean that they are respectful of authority.

Aside from that voicemail example I linked to above, I'll also point out the following:

I get an earful all day long from employers when they hear that I write about Gen Y. I hear about Gen Yers marching into the workplace thinking they can do the CEO's job better than the CEO, and sometimes even saying so out loud. They expect management responsibility their first day out of college. I've even heard one employer tell me about a recent college grad who, on being given certain instructions, rolled her eyes, threw her pen on the table, and said, "That's the stupidest idea I ever heard." That loud thud you hear is the sound of jaws dropping at workplaces across the country.

I routinely have applicants tell me, in effect, "Yes, I know you were an admissions officer, but here's why I think you're wrong." I get some level of push-back just about every day. I do want people to disagree with me, because I know I'm not omniscient and often the input is helpful. Still, I'm curious that there is so much push-back when it's my expertise and experience they're seeking out in the first place, and I get that only from Gen Y, and the younger set of Gen Y in particular. It's interesting.

I hear this kind of feedback from professors as well, who are also surprised by the way in which their students communicate with them, and the ways in they make demands. For example, I have heard from several professors who are shocked to receive what they consider shamelessly casual emails demanding (not asking for -- demanding) special considerations, extensions, etc. These professors are also, in some cases, shocked to be referred to as "hey john" or whatever their first names happen to be.

Over the years, all this leads me to conclude that this is not a generation that as a group respects authority, experience, age, or a higher position on the org chart, although individual differences certainly occur (as with any of these generalizations).

On this subject, one of my Gen Y colleagues pointed out the following to me -- great food for thought:

While Gen Yers may not have respect for the trappings of authority (emailing profs with first names, office etiquette, etc.), I think they have tremendous respect for the value of authority. That is, they know what it means to be ranked X, or in position Y, or to be offered a job at a particular bank or office. They also know what it means to "know" someone in authority -- how to pull strings, ask for favors, and use connections to authority figures to advance their careers, percentages (of admission?), etc.

I recognize that this is a wholly different "respect for authority" than that term usually involves, but it it still a type of respect. It's a respect for the power of authority -- for the access, advancement, and "step skipping" that authority can grant you (i.e. if you "know" someone you can avoid some of the bottom rungs of the ladder).

So in that sense, I don't think Gen Y is entirely disrespectful of authority. I think the concept of "authority" has changed; instead of authority being representative of "the man," it's about "the connection," the "hookup," or the favor. Why apply through HR if your father's partner can put your resume on the desk of an executive? The recognition of the executive's power is a certain "respect" for his authority. Not the same type of respect we're talking about, but a respect nonetheless.

There were a lot of other interesting nuggets at this talk, but I'll conclude by asking the following:

Anna Also Says: This stuff doesn't come cheap. Who's paying for all of this?

I know applicants who decide where to go to college because one school has a cool rock climbing wall or that other school's dormitories have seen better days or that school has the best cafeteria.

Somewhere in the application frenzy, the big picture seems sometimes to get lost. This country club approach to college doesn't come cheap, and when Gen Y complains about its staggering student loans, I have to wonder who they think is financing those Olympic size swimming pools, state of the art performance halls, 24/7 access to freshly prepared vegan menus, spa-like wellness centers, and so on. That lifestyle is very expensive, and college students are paying for it with a staggering amount of borrowed money, plus interest.

It makes me wonder what some people's priorities are, what they're looking for in their college experience. Sounds to me as if some of them want a 4, 5, 6-year stay at Canyon Ranch rather than the best education they can find. I don't knock any of those wonderful features -- I know I would have loved them when I was in college too -- but I see some people focusing a lot on the immediate benefits and not on the long-term costs.

It also becomes very clear to me why many college students find it such a shock to join the real world after college, when they no longer have student loans to fund such a posh lifestyle. No wonder most of this age group moves back in with mom and dad for some period after school. This goes back to my theme of expectations and figuring out what's realistic and what isn't.

I heard one university representative at the talk say that her college had to offer this lavish lifestyle because that's what they have to do to compete for applicants. Having been an admissions officer, I understand the pressures schools face to attract applicants. I do wonder, though, about the college administrators and trustees who are perhaps allowing their educational missions to be compromised too much, the parents who are letting their kids pick a college based on a rock climbing wall or a cafeteria menu, and the magazine rankings that reward schools for increasing their expenditures per student. Something is out of whack.

17-year-olds are 17-year olds, and I don't fault them if they are still figuring out what their priorities are, how compound interest works, and what kind of life they want to be living five or ten or twenty years down the road. And it's our job, as the ones with a bit more life experience, to help them think about those things (even if they're not always inclined to listen to us).