The I.P.O.D. Generation

To work with the millennials in college classrooms today is to understand them.

In his book How Will Millennials Manage? author and Harvard Business School professor (emeritus) James Heskett says that for leaders of the future to succeed they “must have great respect for human value, in-depth knowledge of human intuition and, most of all, the guts to act independently without prejudice to the extent of sacrificing one’s own pursuit.” In other words, we must embrace change. It will take a real understanding of the I.P.O.D. generation.

Who are these I.P.O.D.ers? They are a growing yet significant population that is Internet savvy, Phone-addicted, Opportunistic and Digitally conscious. They arrived after the consciousness revolution between 1982 and 2000 and were the spark that ignited all those “Baby on Board” signs you see hanging in the rear windows of cars across the country. Today, there are 115 million I.P.O.D.ers, the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history. They are also one of the most pampered and dependent. The majority stay connected with their parents by living at home after college. And 73 percent remain dependent by requiring some financial assistance from Mom and Dad in order “to survive.”

I.P.O.D.ers have a variety of extra limbs. Hanging from various appendages you will find their traveling companions: the iPod, BlackBerry or laptop. Since the I-Generation is the first generation raised exclusively by computers, all these things move at breakneck speed, whether it is their fingers text messaging or their work on a project. Technology is their oxygen and they expect things to move fast and as easy as it takes to draw breath. Through it all, they seek the immediate gratification of making an impact by doing meaningful work.

Emotionally, life continues to shape this generation by throwing it curves. From the horrors of Sept. 11 and the limitless possibilities of digital technology, members of the I-Generation have seen the worst and the best the world has to offer in a very short time. These experiences have allowed them to develop global attitudes with both a confidence and optimism not experienced by their parents, yet they remain dedicated to important causes ranging from civic to environmental. They are innovative, self-reliant and team-oriented, and they are fast-tracked and sensitive. Their attention shelf life is short because of their tendency to call it quits if they feel misunderstood or unappreciated. Internally suspended is their desire to be rewarded for changing things instead of maintaining the status quo and their focus on their own personal development.

Effective leaders must learn to extend the expiration date on the I-Generation by debunking myths about this unique age group. Despite their desire for immediate gratification, I.P.O.D.ers do not require a flood of praise. Honest appraisal works best and is valued by these intellectual workers. No, they don’t demand a “seat at the table,” a corner office or an impressive title … at least not yet. This is a group that is structured, dependable but more reluctant to take a chance. Instead of being seen as over-confident and self-centered, I.P.O.D.ers should be viewed as significant contributors seeking opportunity. Their expectations are high, but that only prompts them to demand meaningful work and constructive feedback.

The best characterization of this group comes from Emory University’s associate business school dean Andrea Hershatter. “They are like quarterbacks who like their (family) blocking and tackling for them, so they can run the ball,” Hershatter contends.

“They don’t feel entitled because they are special, they feel entitled to have others support them in their effort to accomplish and achieve.”

Relationships for the I-Generation are built online and through social networks. The typical I.P.O.D.er’s “rule of thumb” is don’t ask until you’ve Googled, and they see technology as a way to answer all questions as well as meet people and connect with friends. Trust does not have to be developed face to face. For a generation that uses the Internet to buy virtually everything from cars to diapers, trust can be nurtured through social networks and e-mails.

The future will be owned by institutions that embrace what the I.P.O.D.ers have to offer, then enable those unique characteristics as a developmental exercise that will ensure future success. Institutions that will become the popular destination for the I.P.O.D.ers will be the ones savvy enough to welcome emerging trends, bold enough to change long before they have to and smart enough to recognize the power of technology as the currency of the future. Like the I-Generation, universities must continue to look around corners and embrace what lies ahead.

We should learn from this generation now. Make no mistake. The I-Generation will seize the opportunities to lead. Our greatest challenge now is to revel in their strengths, understand their weaknesses and harness their energy for a better, more productive tomorrow. Remember, it’s their world. We’re just living in it.

— Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is dean of The School of Business and Technology at Webster University in St. Louis.

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