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Student Attitudes Surveyed

Generation Y's bold attitude may be appropriate for global challenges.

By Elizabeth Robinson, Devin T. Stewart | Workshops for Ethics in Business | June 21, 2010

CREDIT: Lucy (CC).

Generation Y was raised online, with mobile phones and lots of positive reinforcement. They are more connected, more informed, and more self-confident (or self-absorbed) than their predecessors, and they want to make a difference. Yet while their world is saturated with connections and information, they are poised to inherit a planet straining under a history of unsustainable growth and environmental neglect.

The Carnegie Council held a panel discussion on June 14, 2010 entitled "Future Leaders and Global Business Values" at which IBM released data on how the next generation of leaders differs from previous ones, and how the two groups can engage to meet expectations.

Every two years, IBM publishes a Global CEO Study to explore the traits and values of world business leaders. This year, they also released a Global Student Study [PDF], based on interviews with 3,600 students from around the globe. Comparing CEOs and students, they discovered a striking difference on two issues: globalization and the environment. Students ranked these issues among their top organizational concerns twice as often as the CEOs did.

Ragna Bell, program director of the study, quoted one U.S. student who said, "Organizations need to start looking at the world as if they are standing on the moon." This is not a futuristic view, she said, but reflects the interconnectedness that was part of these students' lives from the start. More than any generation before them, they can zoom out to a global perspective.

There was one point of strong agreement between students and CEOs—both ranked creativity as the most important quality for leadership. They also agreed that the current economic environment is increasingly complex.

Students today, the study found, have much greater confidence in information and analytics than current CEOs. They were 48 percent more likely to favor research-based processes over intuitive or experience-based decision making. Bell concluded that their increased access to information makes students much more optimistic, but also gives them "a degree of impatience" about using the vast amounts of data available today to inform business decisions. According to the report, "many young graduates expressed a belief that too often in business, fact-finding was undertaken to support decisions that were already made."

Bell concluded that students are keenly aware of global problems such as climate change, sustainability, and economic growth, and have great confidence in their ability to address them. "One thing we think [current leaders] can all do together," she said, "is inspire creative leadership."

Christopher Adkins, director of the undergraduate business program at the College of William and Mary, said that the results of this study resonate with what he sees in the classroom on a daily basis. "[College students] come wanting to do great things," he said, "and that's one of the things that I think never changes." In his research, Adkins analyzes the implications of psychology and neuroscience research for education, ethics, and business. "One characteristic of this generation that makes them different… is how much they've seen," he said. Growing up with television and the Internet in an increasingly globalized society has exposed them to images from around the world, and all of those images trigger an emotional response. "Building from that empathetic response is a sense of a call to action," said Adkins.

In his view, the problem is that today's students are multitalented and overloaded with information, and as a result have difficulty choosing a specific path to pursue. "I think what's missing is reflection," he said. In order to help them succeed, he called for current leaders to find ways to harness this generation's interconnectedness and to give them opportunities to make an impact through collaboration and co-creation.

Jason Mangone, who recently completed his service as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps, spoke for the young veterans of Generation Y as they begin to enter the workforce. "Ethics is part of the corporate culture of our nation's armed forces," he said. "I think it is imperative that today's leaders… ensure that ethics is more than a course you take your freshmen year or a PowerPoint you get at your corporate orientation. Ethical action must be considered a qualifier for inclusion into your institutions and an inherent part of your collegiate and corporate cultures."

The world economy is increasingly volatile, said Mangone, to the point that "oversight alone is never going to be enough—the world is just too complex." Leadership, he believes, will have to evolve toward cooperation and long-term planning. While modern military training drives young people to work together toward long-term goals, Mangone worries that, as a generation, "We've grown so accustomed to immediacy that we run the risk of always thinking about the short-term."

Michael Holland, executive vice president of Edelman NY's Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability practice, sees this generation's information addiction as a good sign for the future of corporate responsibility. "This is a generation that has grown up looking at labels," he said. The students of Generation Y are more attuned to issues of how business impacts global society and the Earth, and they care that the organizations they work for reflect their values concerning ethics and sustainability. As a result, he predicts that businesses will be driven to consider their environmental and economic impact for the sake of an empowered, motivated workforce.

Holland adds that young people today feel there is an absence of role models in business and government, and that perhaps what some employers perceive as laziness in this generation stems from a lack of inspiration from current leaders.

"Working with our youngest generation means that we have to make a fundamental paradigm shift," said psychologist and NYU adjunct professor of social entrepreneurship Ellen McGrath. "They are about action and results, and if you don't provide openings for that, you'll lose them." McGrath sees ambition and confidence in Generation Y, but she also finds their data-fixation worrisome. According to the results of the study, this focus on information is particularly strong in China, where students were 74 percent more likely to prefer a research-based decision making style, relative to a 48 percent student average. McGrath says this indicates a lack of educational preparation in ethics and emotional intelligence. She recounted a story from a recent lecture in Hong Kong where she asked an auditorium full of Chinese college students, "What are you doing these days with your passions?" They didn't understand the concept.

As a whole, the results of the Global Student Study shine a welcome positive light on Generation Y at a time when many are expressing concern and disappointment with college students and young employees. Recently, an article in Psychology Today described the millennials as "a nation of wimps," and another in the New York Times called them "a generation of basket cases: profoundly narcissistic and deprived of a sense of agency by their anxiously overinvolved parents." Furthermore, a recently reported psychology study found that empathy has dropped 40 percent in college students since 2000, underlining what one psychologist at San Diego University calls a "narcissism epidemic" plaguing the world's youth.

There is a fine line between self-esteem and self-absorption and it is hard to tell which side Generation Y is on, but the results of IBM's study indicate that they are thinking globally and are concerned about issues of the environment and sustainable growth. Perhaps their egocentricity will drive them to personal success in global issues—changing how we interact with the world and its natural resources by pushing their own ideas and relentlessly seeking the praise they feel they deserve.

The speakers agreed that what Generation Y needs from current leaders is direction and inspiration. They are eager to learn and to get involved in real work, but in a rapidly changing world it is difficult for them to chart a course to their goals. Unfortunately, current leaders don't know much better than students how to achieve sustainability and ethical globalization. "These kids really do not know boundaries," said Ellen McGrath, and though that may seem like insolence in the context of the workplace, it illustrates a new way of thinking that could be just what Generation Y needs to change the world.

Elizabeth Robinson is editor of the Columbia Science Review and a member of Generation Y. Devin T. Stewart, a member of Generation X, is editor of Policy Innovations and director of the Carnegie New Leaders program at the Carnegie Council.


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