Millennial Higher Education and Employment

Author: James O'Connell  

Because millennials will represent approximately 40% of the workforce by 2020 there has been a recent upsurge in research regarding what exactly millennials want during employment. Millennials stepping into the world of work are products of the recent shift that higher education has taken over the last 40 years or so. While for centuries before this shift, higher education institutions focused on civic engagement, critical thinking, and the progression of a democratic society, the primary function is now to supply the economy with an employable workforce. Professor Ronnie Munck summarised this change as a “reduction of the student search for knowledge and enlightenment to a set of narrow job-related skills”. This reconstruction of higher education has impacted the millennial profoundly.

          There is now an unprecedented pressure on young people to choose a degree, not necessarily because they want to further their knowledge in a specific area, but rather to improve their chances of employment post-graduation. A large amount of millennials enter higher education to get a ‘good’ (A.K.A. well-paying job), and pick a particular degree because of their ‘95% post-graduate employment rate”. Recent statistics from Ireland highlight the affect such an emphasis on employment can have on adolescents. According to data from the Higher Education Authority (HEA), a total of 6,414 students — equating to 16% of all first-year student numbers — quit their college courses in 2014.[1]

            Interestingly, most of the abandoned courses are in sectors like science and technology, which are being championed by the Government and employer groups to meet the skills shortage in the Irish economy. I don’t think this is a coincidence. While an increasing number of this generation want a job they enjoy, where they feel they are making a difference, the financial stress often overrides this preference when it comes to picking a third level course. (Many American students/graduates are faced with tens of thousands of dollars of debt inevitably hindering their ability to make an objective decision.) This pressure does not necessarily end in ‘drop-outs’ as Brendan Baker, chairman of AHECS (Association of Higher Education of Careers Services) noted, “many students complete their journey through higher education, but regret their degree choice. Over 20% graduate with no clear idea of what they want to do career-wise.” Not knowing what your career will entail is OK, being pressured into a course you did not want to do is not. As Katherine Brooks highlighted in her book You Majored in What? your particular major/degree does not define your career prospects. Being a post-graduate can be a difficult time as you ponder your next move but I am grateful that financial pressure did not sway my decision when deciding my degree/major.


            Due to the emergence of the ‘knowledge economy’ the Arts and Humanities have been neglected by countries across the world in favour of more ‘profitable’ areas of study such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). A course like mine gave me the opportunity to learn about a variety of topics. I was unsure of what I wanted to work as entering this course and I still am, but EMCS allowed me to learn a lot about myself and the world I live in, which I believe is priceless. It is important, now more than ever for millennials to think critically, empathise with people throughout society, and to seek to improve aspects of human life not openly linked with economic prosperity. In the words of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, “human beings need MEANING, understanding and perspective as well as jobs”. While it would be regressive to shun a strong connection between education and industry, I believe the link should not be inextricable. There is now a blurred line between education and training which disproportionately benefits companies rather than the student. Henry Giroux states “Rather than enlarge the moral imagination and critical capacities of students, too many universities are now wedded to producing would-be hedge fund managers, depoliticized students and creating modes of education that promote a "technically trained docility." After all, higher education should teach values that can be applied in the workforce and other areas of life, not either or.


            Focusing on higher education from a purely economic perspective can have a worrying social and psychological impact on the millennial. Anthropologist David Graeber declared that “huge swaths of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary. The millennial view would find this life to be miserable. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.” The younger generations seem to be taking note of this disillusionment amongst the present workforce as recent research in the UK showed that 62% of people surveyed born between 1981 and 1996 want to work for a company that makes a positive impact.[2] This is encouraging, but it is unlikely that these high numbers will fulfill their aspiration unless higher education’s economic focus is re-evaluated and businesses begin to seriously take note of growing ethical demands from consumers and employers alike. As consultant Simon Cohen states “creating a culture and environment which has values that are meaningful and aligned with those of staff, people are more motivated to work for you and will bend over backwards for things that they believe in.”[3]


            Higher education should “provide the kind of broad intellectual and personal development that enables graduates to thrive in a world that is constantly changing”[4]. The vast majority of millennials will be changing jobs regularly. Higher education now, more than ever, needs to diversify its content and objectives. The results of the 2016 Global Attitudes Toward Work Report show more Irish people are dissatisfied with their job (51.2%) than those who are “extremely or moderately satisfied” (48.8%). [5] A 2014 report by the Conference Board in the U.S had similar findings. [6] - “Nearly three decades ago, 61.1% of workers said they liked their jobs. That number has slid over time, reaching an all-time low in 2010 following the Great Recession, when only 42.6% of workers said they were satisfied in their jobs.” A world wide scale report by Gallup found that only 13% of workers feel engaged by their work with 63% of workers describing themselves as ‘not engaged’ with their current employment. These disturbing figures show a large number of people have ended up in jobs they do not enjoy, I believe this number can substantially drop if students/young millennials are given every chance to decide freely on their career path. As David Graeber has reflected, student loans and heavy financial burdens are “destroying the imagination of the youth”. The current state of higher education across the majority of the western world is placing heavy weight on the youngest, most energetic, creative and joyous people in society.


     There is an interesting relationship between the millennial, higher education and the workforce at present. I would encourage young people to utilize this link in a way which best suits them. Personally, while a large salary is of course very attractive, I first and foremost want a job I enjoy, a job where I am respected, a job where I feel like I am making a positive difference. In this economic climate, this ‘ideal job’ will probably change regularly but knowing you made the decision yourself is vital. Martha C. Nussbaum summarises “thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves.” Higher education’s link with employment is important but it should not dictate your learning experience. Put bluntly in his book, Why Education is Useless, Daniel Cotton proclaimed “if education only serves the purpose of employability, it simply makes us into chumps and someone else’s chumps at that”.[7] Millennials have opportunities that the previous generation could only have dreamed of, they only have to seize upon them.

[1] http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/alarming-drop-out-rates-at-third-level-institutions-381946.html


[2] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/may/05/millennials-employment-employers-values-ethics-jobs