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The average Latin American Millennial’s Internet use is higher than the global average, in part due to wireless phones. (Photo: Profeco Mexico)
Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Latin America: The Rise of the Millennials

The need to improve education and further integrate technologies will be critical to Millennial’s employment prospects.




Across the globe, a new generation is coming of age – a generation irrevocably shaped by the collaborative nature of the internet and the pervasive influence of social media. Known as “Generation Y” – or, more often, simply “Millennials” – this generation, made up of young people born between 1983 and 2000, is already beginning to make its mark.


In Latin America, there are more than 157 million Millennials – representing some 26 percent of the region’s total population, according to a recent study by the Iberoamerican Youth Organization (Organizacion Iberoamericana de la Juventud). This is a major “demographic dividend”, given a young-skewing population increases productivity and spurs consumption and economic growth. Latin Americans should take advantage of the boost to their human capital stock that this new generation represents. To do that, however, the region’s education systems must adapt.


Millennials’ approach to school is unique in that they are probably the first “digital native” generation, who grew up connected to and immersed in technology. According to a study by Telefonica and the Financial Times, Millennials spend an average of six hours online every day. The study, which relied on over 12,000 interviews across 27 countries, found that the average Latin American Millennial’s Internet use was even higher, at seven hours per day.


This connectivity impacts every aspect of a Millennial’s day to day existence, from the way they get the news, access entertainment, and connect with friends. As Gabriella Ippolito, a 25-year old recent graduate from University of Denver puts it, “the Internet enables me to remain connected to friends from all over the world and to access information whenever I want.”


Part of the challenge facing our education systems is that the low-tech environments of most classrooms don’t match the reality of the students we are attempting to educate for globally competitive jobs, often in the technology or information services sectors. Seventy six percent of Millennials worldwide say that they own a smart phone. In Latin America, 62 percent own a laptop, 58 percent a desktop computer and 22 percent a tablet.  However, the hours they spend in school contrast dramatically, since the technology they are used to – and its ability to be personalized and adapted to their own interests – rarely exists in their education system.  


Thus it seems clear that the current course offerings in colleges and universities will need to undergo an upgrade to keep this generation interested, engaged and learning. How this will happen, exactly, still remains to be seen.


The good news is that young people universally, and correctly, view education as key to finding a good job. They also understand that college is particularly important, with the Telefonica/FT study finding that 53 percent believe that improving education is particularly critical for making a difference in the world, even when compared with other issues such as sustainable energy, environment protections, and food and shelter. 


But the low quality of our current education is still worrisome, especially in Latin America. In a recent poll fielded by the Iberoamerican Youth Organization, more than 60 percent of Spanish and Latin American youths said that their education is just “acceptable” and only 10 percent said that it is “very good.” This low perception of the region’s education systems is another challenge for education leaders.


The need to improve education and further integrate technologies will be critical to Millennial’s employment prospects because the high-skilled, high paying jobs are increasingly reliant on technological fluency. But they also demand higher order critical thinking skills, and a suite of “soft skills” such as entrepreneurial thinking, the capacity to quickly process large amounts of data to make good decisions and “connect the dots”, and adaptability.


These skills are, to say the least, not the skills that are currently rewarded in our traditional school settings. Unsurprisingly, then, more than 60 percent of Latin Americans say that it is challenging to transition from school to work. Millennials are also aware that school is never truly finished, since life-long learning is now a precondition for success. In this context, increasing career training, both on and off the job, is increasingly common in areas such as computer literacy and programming.


It will help that Millennials appear more entrepreneurial and open to freelance opportunities. They don’t seem to mind having to learn, adapt and prepare for different working environments constantly.  As MBO Partners CEO Gene Zaino points out, “four-fifths of the millions of independent professionals in the US right now quit their day jobs to work independently, and 83 percent say they won’t go back.”  This trend will become more pronounced as independence-seeking Millennials come to represent up to 75 percent of the workforce by 2025.


These changes mean that the members of this generation will hold many jobs throughout their lifetimes. They will not receive life-long commitments from their jobs, nor do they apparently want or expect them. The key for making this new paradigm work for both individuals and the economy as a whole will be a revamped education system that takes into account the role of technology in Millennials’ lives and instills in them the skills necessary for success in this brave new world.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is president of Kuepa.com, a Latin American Blended Learning company, working in incorporating technologies to reduce drop out rates. Follow him on Twitter at @gzinny. He wrote this column for Latinvex.

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