Adapting Accounting Education to the Generations: Working with the Millennials

By Tracy S. Manly, Ph.D., CPA, and Deborah W. Thomas, J.D., CPA

Editor: Annette Nellen, J.D., CPA

The changing characteristics of college students provide a challenge for accounting educators and employers. This column creates a profile from recent research of the current group of traditional students (born between 1983 and 1996) often called Millennials, Generation Y, or Echo Boomers. Based on their unique characteristics, this column suggests specific teaching techniques to better engage these students in the learning process. Employers should also find these techniques beneficial in working with and training Millennials.

Characteristics of Millennials

The Millennial generation is one of the most studied groups: Its members have been tracked by researchers studying their effects on advertising, American politics, and the business community. With businesses hiring consultants to learn how to deal with this group, accounting educators and practitioners should also take note of the characteristics of this cohort of students. The following characteristics of Millennials have been drawn from current research and reviews, as well as from Millennials themselves in blog entries posted to such websites as Employee Evolution and Brazen Careerist.

I am special: In a report on CBS's 60 Minutes, "The ‘Millennials' Are Coming" (November 11, 2007), Morley Safer referred to Millennials as "narcissistic praise hounds" with doting parents and trophies for everyone, making this group hungry for constant praise. Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled— and More Miserable Than Ever Before (Free Press 2006), found that two-thirds of college students were above average on an index of narcissism. But they do not want empty praise. What this group really wants is face time with the boss.

I have no secrets: Millennials are more likely to share personal information such as finances and income (Williams, "Not- So-Personal Finance," New York Times (April 27, 2008)). In a 2007 study of the Millennial generation by the Pew Research Center, 51% of respondents stated that to be famous was an important goal in life, second only to being rich ("A Portrait of ‘Generation Next': How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics" (January 16, 2007)),. Over half (54%) use social networking websites regularly. At the same time, almost three-fourths agreed that there is too much personal information posted on social networking websites.

My family and friends are important: When asked whom they most admire, Millennials mention someone they know personally more than any other group (prior generations chose political and spiritual leaders most often). They keep in contact with their friends electronically and through social networks. The Pew Research Center study found that half contact their parents daily, and another 23% contact parents at least weekly.

I don't think that's cheating: In survey after survey, young people admit to engaging in cheating. A majority of college students acknowledge that they have engaged in at least one incident of cheating in the past year. Inside Higher Ed reports that two-thirds admit to "questionable behavior" (McCabe and Pavela, "New Honor Codes for a New Generation," Inside Higher Ed (March 11, 2005)). In a 2006 survey by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, 59% of respondents agreed that "successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating" (Josephson Institute, "The Ethics of American Youth: 2006").

I am a leader: Millennials want to lead, not follow. The Boston Globe reported a significant increase in clubs at major universities, from 240 to over 400 at Harvard and doubling at the University of North Carolina to a total of 508. The article notes that "the surge concerns some college officials, who worry that many students start clubs so that they can run a group rather than be a member of an existing group" (Wertheimer, "Join the Club: Colleges See Surge in New Student Groups," Boston Globe A1 (October 27, 2007)).

I am civically involved: Millennials are more engaged with the community, through volunteering more than politics. A study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement concluded that this age group is involved locally more than formerly ("Millennials Talk Politics: A Study of College Student Political Participation" (November 7, 2007)). They really want to make a difference.

I want a passion, a purpose: Job satisfaction is important to this group. Buddy Hobart and basketball coach Herb Sendak, who have conducted seminars for employers about this generation, counsel that they want to make a difference in the long-range strategic plan of their company (Gannon, "Lecturers Say Meaningful Work Helps Keep Gen Y Workers," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (September 6, 2007)).

I work smart (not hard): Millennials want to complete a task without busy work and without unnecessary steps. An example is this post by Ryan Healy at Employee Evolution, a blog by and about Millennials in the workplace ("Enough with the Praise Already, and Start Working Smarter" (November 13, 2007)):

A hard worker will work his tail off for eight hours a day, and no doubt stay late to do extra work whenever asked. A smart-hard worker will take advantage of technology and figure out how to get eight hours of work done in six hours, convince his boss to let him work remotely and spend the next two hours updating his blog, making business connections online and going to the gym to keep in shape.

I am tech savvy: Millennials are comfortable with and know how to use technology. National Public Radio (NPR) reports that 95% of employers are satisfied with the technology skills of new hires. High school students say that they rely on the internet for research or homework. A 2007 survey by the Associated Press and America Online found that teens use technology to avoid face-to-face conflicts or embarrassing moments ("AP-AOL Instant Messaging Trends Survey Reveals Popularity of Mobile Instant Messaging" (November 15, 2007)).

I can't write very well: While their technical skills are strong, the writing skills of Millennials may not be. A survey of employers reported by NPR revealed that nearly half of employers are dissatisfied with the writing skills of new hires ("Survey: Young Workers More Tech Savvy," NPR Morning Edition (September 5, 2007)). Though scores on national writing proficiency tests have increased for some groups, the 2007 results for eighth and twelfth graders indicate that only about one-third of eighth graders and one-fourth of high school seniors are proficient writers.

I read less and read less well: A 2007 report by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) indicates that teens and young adults are reading less and that reading proficiency has declined (NEA, To Read or Not to Read (November 2007)). A research study reported at the 2007 American Psychological Association annual meeting found that college students are more likely to read the textbook assignment if the textbook has high-quality visuals and pictures (Jaschik, "Why Students Read Textbooks (or Don't)," Inside Higher Ed (August 20, 2007)). Other factors influencing textbook reading are the student's gender (women are more likely to read the assignment) and the extent to which the professor ties the textbook to class work.

I multitask: The NEA report found that even when teens and young adults read, they do so while also using other media. In the AP-AOL survey, students reported that they communicate with others using instant messaging while doing homework.

I am impatient: Millennials do not want to wait for answers or recognition. E-mail is too slow; the AP-AOL study shows that they prefer text messaging. Blog entries reveal that young workers expect rewards quickly.

Strategies for Working with Millennials

A better understanding of Millennials should help accounting faculty and professionals develop techniques to work more effectively with them. Those techniques do not include changing course content or rigor but instead focus on the interactions and communications between faculty and students. Implementing a new course policy, assignment, or in-class activity can create a better connection with these students and provide a more satisfying learning environment for everyone. The exhibit gives suggested techniques for working with and teaching Millennials.

Conclusion

Current college students demonstrate traits that distinguish them from most faculty members and managers from earlier generations. However, small modifications in how teachers and employers relate to this age group can make a difference in engaging Millennials in the educational process and the work environment.


EditorNotes

Annette Nellen is a professor in the department of accounting and finance at San Jose State University in San Jose, CA. She is a former member of the AICPA Tax Division's Tax Executive Committee and a current member of the AICPA Tax Division's Individual Income Tax Technical Resource Panel. Tracy Manly is an associate professor of accounting at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, OK. Deborah Thomas is an associate professor of accounting at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, OK. For more information about this column, contact Prof. Nellen at anellen@sjsu.edu or Prof. Manly at tracy-manly@utulsa.edu.

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