Generation "Why": Exploring Millennial Employability

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Luke Oaks
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Generation Y. Millennials. Today’s youth. Regardless of what you label the young adults now entering the workforce, it’s worth considering how they will contribute to a greater purpose. To that end, perhaps we should be encouraging students to explore and ask “why?” more often. It may be time for Generation Y to become Generation “Why” for the good of their future employability.

Many inspirational innovators ask “why?” with intentionality. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson may have asked why he couldn’t advance science as both a researcher and public communicator; Chance the Rapper may have questioned why a champion for independent music production did not yet exist; Oprah Winfrey may have once wondered why the highest-rated talk show in the history of American television was not yet her own. These are real, outstanding people. And they are a few of the most highly employable individuals on this earth.

Employability has previously been defined by Professors Peter Knight and Mantz Yorke as “a set of achievements, understandings and personal attributes that make individuals more likely to gain employment and to be successful in their chosen occupations.” I further define employability as “one’s capacity to create value for others.” Note that while today’s innovators are clearly employable, this is often a result of their primary efforts to create value for others. And while the creative process lacks a universal set of steps, I have found three actions to be most crucial to creating for and serving others. Neil, Chance, and Oprah have done each of them, countless times over.


We all have creativity, but express it to differing extents based on our priorities and willingness to take risks. Consider exploring more than one passion, skill, or academic subject. Become invested in a cause much bigger than yourself – perhaps more so than you already are. Discover what hasn’t been done before, and then ask “why?”

“Creativity – having original ideas of value – is the product of intersection of varying interests.” – Sir Ken Robinson, Do Schools Kill Creativity?

I explore via biomedical research. I make myself more valuable by understanding how nanotechnology and optics can intersect to improve handheld diagnostic technologies. Through national academic conferences – such as the Beckman Symposium, Biomedical Engineering Society, and even the National Conference on Race and Social Equity  – I have traveled far from home to share content and develop valuable connections. You can explore by expanding your social network, joining student organizations, and learning about a topic to a greater depth that you may be expected. Tie into employability through creating value for others. The depth of understanding and personal connections that come from exploration are valuable to others; they make you all the more employable. 


We all have creativity, but it takes time to make the most of your imagination. It is difficult to manage your time and energy well enough to transform creativity into action. Consider setting aside time every week for self-reflection to have some consistency during your journey. Look at your goals as projects that you manage. Contemplate what has been stopping you, and then ask “why?”

“We need more people who ask new questions and find new answers, think critically and creatively, innovate and take initiative, and know how to learn on the job, under their own steam.” – Peter Gray, The Play Deficit

 My introduction to self-management came from designing my own engineering curriculum. As a researcher, I aim to create value by developing point-of-care diagnostic technologies that account for both engineering and human factors constraints. Interdisciplinary engineering satisfies my dual interest in high-level biomedical and systems engineering, such that I will understand physiology, bioresponse, biomaterials, bioinstrumentation, nanotechnology, and human factors at a high level upon graduation. You can improve your self-management by starting a Google Calendar, being judicious with involvement, and better preparing for your most important commitments. Through self-management, you can begin to market yourself to create value in the area of your choosing; it makes you all the more employable.


We all have creativity, but too often keep it to ourselves instead of working together with our peers. Learning is not a winner-take-all endeavor, though. Rather, education is an opportunity for collaboration; with more input comes more solutions. Consider who would most benefit from your support. While leading a team to pursue your ideas is an exciting challenge, at times you may be more valuable as someone’s first follower. Think about bright ideas or friends who don’t yet have a first follower, and then ask “why?”

“The first follower is actually an underestimated form of leadership in itself. It takes guts to stand out like that. The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.” – Derek Sivers, How to Start a Movement

I have enjoyed working with fellow students to develop an Academic Affairs Commission within Texas A&M student government. While I may have succeeded in improving peer mentorship and student feedback on my own, I’ve found the support of an Executive Team to be critical in promoting change. In similar veins, I’ve collaborated with peers to start a podcast, begin an educational technology startup, and teach underserved youth in my hometown community how to play tennis. You can further collaborate by organizing a project/event with friends, bringing your connections together for a bigger cause, or being someone else’s first follower. Great leaders can act as trusted followers. Use your generosity and support to empower others. All things considered, the practice of collaboration will result in valuable friendships and a background in group project work; it makes you all the more employable.

I seek out those who create value. I visit with friends, family, and mentors. I attend concerts, stream movies, and enjoy comedy. I learn from professors, connect with fellow lab researchers, and seek out the multitude of resources available in my large university community. Our future will be shaped by the passionate leaders in industry, research, non-profit and entrepreneurial communities who create value in their own, unique ways. Regardless of where your past has taken you or what your future holds, I believe that seeking out exploration, self-management, and collaboration will encourage you to stand out and create value. I hope that my Generation Y peers build themselves up to employ their strengths for the betterment of our future. There’s a whole world out there. Dream big, Generation “Why”.


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