Student Affairs asks: ‘What do millennials want?’

What do they want? Customized choices, mentoring, self-expression and transparency.

When do they want it?


The “they” is Generation Y, more commonly referred to as millennials.

At a recent Vice Provost for Student Affairs (VPSA) conference, LINDSEY POLLAK, an expert on millennials, provided insight into how to navigate a landscape in which the nation’s largest generation has come of age.

The annual conference also provides an opportunity for the division’s staff members, who work across two dozen units, to interact.

Farouk Dey
Farouk Dey

“With significant transitions in so many aspects of our lives– national trends, national politics, university leadership, VPSA itself and many of our immediate workplaces – the conference planning committee was interested in exploring the concept of change: how it happens, where it happens, how to adapt to change, how to lead change, the impact of generational change in higher education, in our lives and in our workplaces,” said FAROUK DEY, associate vice provost for student affairs and dean of career education.

Dey was co-chair of the conference with JENNIFER CALVERT, associate dean in Residential Education.

Maligned millenials

Millennials are often maligned as the “me, me, me” generation, raised on mind-numbing technology and reared to expect a trophy just for showing up. However, Pollak noted that throwing shade on the youth of the time is not a new idea. It dates as far back as the eighth century BC, when Greek poet Hesiod worried about the “future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today.”

“What if this is the moment that we finally stopped this attitude?” Pollak asked. “Generational change is not a problem. It’s not a challenge. It’s not something to roll our eyes about.”

To the contrary, she asserted that it was an opportunity we should embrace.

The millennial generation – born between 1981 and 1997 – will be 50 percent of the American labor force by 2020; by 2025, millennials will be 75 percent of that workforce. Globally, millennials will be 50 percent of the world’s population by the year 2020.

With Baby Boomers staying in the workforce longer and Generation Xers in the middle, helping organizations leverage the unique talents, experiences and expectations of each generation is an opportunity to make better decisions about how they relate to one another.

Unlike their parents, who came of age when coffee came in regular or decaf and cars were available in a limited palette, millennials have come to expect a vast menu of options tailored to their individual needs. After growing up on video games and social media, they also have come to expect instant feedback.

“When you’re told that you can get basically anything you want the way you want it within an hour,” Pollak said, “it doesn’t compute” when you tell them they have to wait a week. “This has consequences for how the generation views their careers and what they look for from colleges and universities and their workplace.” She recommended giving feedback during brief discussions.

Student affairs conference
Participants at the Student Affairs conference shared their thoughts with crayons on the subject of change.

Milennials “expect their boss to be a parent; they expect their company to be like college,” said Pollak, adding that Generation Y looks to previous generations to be coaches and mentors. “They want to apprentice themselves to leaders like all of you.”

This generation is intersectional, identifying along a variety of lines, including race, gender, ethnicity and sexual identity and geography. However, they are less likely than their parents to have strong affiliations with political or religious institutions.

Baby Boomers

Moreover, while the Baby Boom generation grew up at a time when voices of authority were preordained, the internet provides a more level playing field in which millennials make their own choices about thought leaders. Many are used to being asked about their preferences.

Whether they are students or staff members, millennials want data. They want to understand why they are being asked to do a particular assignment or why they have to adhere to a particular rule. They want to know up front what the expectations are and what success will look like.

“Be explicit,” Pollak said. “Always explain the “’why.’”

Pollak added that universities should be more transparent when it comes to hot-button issues such as sexual harassment or divestment.

“Over-communication beats under-communication,” she said.

Generation Z

While Pollak’s presentation focused on millennials, she acknowledged that members of Generation X – born between 1965 and 1980 – have an important role to play in the current multi-generational workforce. Though their numbers have been outpaced by the generation that follows them, Gen Xers can act as “the glue” between the generation that raised them and the one whose numbers are outpacing them. “They are bilingual. They know how the world was when Baby Boomers were in leadership, but they also know they need to adapt and change to the millennial style.”

Sheetal Patel
Sheetal Patel

Later in the day, SHEETAL PATEL, director of branding and digital communities for BEAM, Stanford Career Education, shared her research on Generation Z.

She invited a member of that generation, which she described as being born between 1995 and 2009, to speak for itself.

LAUREN CHAN, a Bay Area high school student who has conducted research with Patel, described Generation Z as one that also is “accustomed to customization,” thrives on face-to-face interactions and wants to be socially and politically engaged.

While Generation Z shares a number of similarities with its predecessor generation, its members’ lives are marked by historic political change – from the election of Barack Obama as the first black president to the more recent election of Donald Trump. From as young as middle school, they are engaged on issues across the political spectrum.

“Radical change is the new normal,” Chan said.

Generation Z’s days are bracketed by screen interactions in the morning and just before bedtime, said Chan. “As a result, face-to-face interactions are more, and not less, important to Generation Z.”

Patel noted that the first members of Generation Z are already here among Stanford’s student population. They don’t simply expect singular customized events, but a series of customized, transformative experiences. She challenged her colleagues to collaborate across their units to seek out opportunities to bring different perspectives to bear when creating student events and programs.

So, practically speaking, how do we keep up with the pace of change and produce these kinds of experiences for more than 16,000 students whose generational needs are also changing at warp speed?

“Think about the whole – all of us being on one unified path,” Patel said. “Community is what we do in Student Affairs.”

In addition to the keynotes by Pollak and Patel, the conference included remarks by Provost PERSIS DRELL, who shared her thoughts on change and credited Student Affairs staff for a great deal of the student learning that takes place outside the classroom. “You are front and center on that,” Drell said.