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Fail To Understand the Net Generation at Your Peril

by Randall on March 6, 2009 · 5 comments

Posted in: Business Strategy,Economics,Management,New Media,Randall Howard,Social Enterprise,Social Innovation,Social Media,Society

Credit: Don Tapscott

Credit: Don Tapscott

The Net Generation (born 1977 to 1997), also known as Generation Y or the Millennials, is an ill understood lot. Don Tapscott, noted thought leader on digital technologies, is a real cheerleader for them in his recent book Grown Up Digital.

However, while some of his examples may represent the bleeding edge thought leaders of this generation, almost everything he says is well reasoned and researched. I would suggest this book is a must read for the rest of us who will watch this demographically dynamic  generation increasingly dominate all aspects of our society, including business, culture,  education, politics and entertainment.  Many of us are looking at this generation from the perspective of the previously dominant demographic group known as Baby Boomers or Boomers (born 1946-1964), also known as the TV Generation. I would note that already, the Net Generation outnumbers the Boomers.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of this group is that they are the first generation to have been immersed from birth in digital technologies, such as the internet, computers and online media. Because of this, they are sometimes labelled “digitals“, with others who find these technologies more challenging to even baffling being called “analogues”. The Digitals don’t even think about technology, it is just part of the landscape for them. Analogues, by contrast, either avoid it like latter day Luddites or struggle to keep up with the Net Geners.

I’m part of an interesting hybrid group of people who were born analogue but has adopted many of the digitals characteristics. In essence, people like me might be described as a digital immigrant. Consider my digital pedigree:

  • IBM 2741 Terminal for APLI first used computers at age 14, after being invited with a set of Math Contest winners to the University of Waterloo where I had the pleasure of using APL an early math-based timesharing system running on an IBM 360/44 . It is notable that, rather than learning the standard Fortran and programming on punch cards, I started programming using an IBM 2741, which is like an online IBM Selectric typewriter (typeball and all) connected via modem, with acoustic coupler, at 134.5 baud. Prior to this, I had read about computers and thought about them abstractly, but the plain truth is that computers were only accessible to a very small, privileged elite.
  • Honeywell 6050Recently, a friend sent me the directory listing of an old backup tape for the Honeywell 6050 TSS system which reminded me that I first used email in 1975. Yes, we even had mailbox and mbox files way back then. Of course, the email system only connected the almost 1000 users of this computer, yet barely two years later my friend Bill Pase then working at IP Sharp Associates, connected me into a truly global email system run by that pioneering firm. This is primarily of interest because many people I talk to assume that email began in the late 1990’s.
  • Celling at Capella SistinaAround 1990, while CEO at MKS, I remember being at an X/Open meeting in Rome (where ironically, I ran into the self same Don Tapscott at the Capella Sistina of all places) we were working to develop many of the standards that would shape our modern, connected digital world. I vividly recall after hours discussions with other attendees about my misgivings about how an always-on, multi-media world would impact our overall quality of life. As you can imagine, Rome was a fantastic place to have that debate. Even more important, what was esoteric futuristic thinking 20 years ago has largely come true, for better or worse.

So, like Don Tapscott, having grown up with a constant backdrop of technology and really having been part of making this cultural form, I too am a cheerleader for this emergent generation. However, many others, the most famous being Mark Bauerlein, take a much dimmer view of this generation. His book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) might well be the NetGen equivalent to Reefer Madness for the boomers. For me, this shows that many people totally misunderstand this talented generation. Sure, this generation has its flaws like any other, but like Don Tapscott, I’m pretty optimistic about it.

To give a taste of how fundamental, not to mention transformational, the Net Generation culture is, I list the 8 norms that Don Tapscott found and validated through his research.  I would suggest that the following norms need to be underestand by the rest of society so that the generations can build bridges based on the strengths of each constituency. The alternative is to create a new generation gap based on misunderstandings, a neo-Luddite situation if you will.

Here are Don Tapscott’s 8 norms for the Net Generation:

  1. Freedom: this generation demands the freedom to choose at work, in education and the marketplace. And, for them, freedom is so ingrained that it is not an option.
  2. Cutomization: Growing up with computers and software, has made this the mashup generation. Everything from products to lifestyles can be customized. This generation is the living proof of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail phenomenon.
  3. Scrutiny: Living in the epicentre of the blogosphere, twittosphere, SPAM and nonstop marketing, high levels of filtering and scrutiny are the only defence of a generation which has made separating the signal from the noise an artform.
  4. Integrity: The laser beam clarity and transparency of an always-on, Google-indexed world has heightened this generation’s radar for anything that fails to ring true. When there is no place to hide, a lack of integrity becomes glaringly obvious with often severe consequences for people or companies who fail to understand this new reality.
  5. Collaboration: A generation that grew up on group work and online games, now has adopted global collaboration and teamwork like never before. The Net Generation’s digital connectivity likely are another nail in the coffin for command and control organizational design not to mention one-way traditional education models.
  6. Entertainment: Net Geners expect work to be fun and the line between work and play is much more blurry for this generation. This means that some of the pioneering approaches at the Googleplex, may well become mainstream in the coming years.
  7. Speed: Among fellow computer geeks, many used to pride themselves on speed and belittle the slower blink rate of the old fashioned world. Net Geners have taken this to extreme in their always-on, instantaneous world, expecting immediate feedback on everything they do. This could well be one of the biggest intergenerational challenges.
  8. Innovation: This is a generation of early adopters, living on the bleeding edge. Not content to have products and ideas pushed to them like 20th Century consumers, they push collaborative, user-generated approaches to even the products they consume.

In business, government or ordinary society, I think we ignore this tidal wave of new thinking totally at our own peril. The first step is to understand this generation. Then, and only then, can our generation harness the incredible energy, idealism, passion and drive to help us all build a better future.

About Randall

Randall Howard is a serial entrepreneur and long term technologist with a passion for social innovation.

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  • Jon E Worren

    Great post Randall – interesting historical reflections. Reminded me of a point in Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers. He points out that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, Paul Allen, Eric Schmidt, Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Kohsla and Andy Bechtolsheim were all born during a few vital years in 1953-1956 – which meant that they were just about finish college when the computer revolution happened in 1975. If you were born before 1952, chances were you had already started your career with mainframe oriented IBM and would have a hard time make the transition to the messy world of PCs…

    Larry Ellison (born 1944) was the odd one out – he was doing databases in the 70’s – and that turned out to be a decent starting point as well.

  • Jon,
    Thanks for pointing that out. I, too, read Outliers, and was almost eerily struck by the confluence of birth dates of peers in the first wave of the software industry. My birth year is 1954.

    Yet, my primary intent was to show how the antecedents for digital culture were being formed by a few outliers from the Boomer generation. In that sense, those software and digital pioneers might well be prototypes for Net Gen culture. However, it’s also clear that thought leaders amongst the Net Gen have pushed the envelope significantly.

  • Randall
    Excellent posting on a subject that I’ve been thinking about a lot. At the risk of embarrassing myself by expressing the obvious and redundant, I’ll offer a few thoughts of my own.

    Being a bit more “long in the tooth” than you (born 1947)I’ve been an observer over the whole period and witnessed all the changes to which you and your respondents refer; and as a neotlithic era artistic-brush-stroke analogue I’ve only woken up relatively recently to a fuller appreciation of the profund changes of this digital age tsunami and its tonic effect on Social ordering to which you refer. Our unprecendented ability to develop and share our dreams, hopes and stories with the world has changed our world.

    Sure I read McLuhan as he was a living oracle and prophet of these possibilities half a century ago. His institute the Centre for Culture and Technology was seen as as far ahead of its time- but in fact was just in time. From my faltering initial readings and subsequent and regular re-readings, fully comprehending the implications of it all- well let’s say understanding is still a work-in-progress.

    But being a committed participant in the larger Canadian/Global Cultural project, I am very encouraged by the positive effects that I can discern of all this. Particualrly the collaborative tendencies and prospects, and the growing understanding of the central position of Culture (and I use that term in its broadest sense)in creating the habits, relationships and cross-sectoral connections that promote innovation, ideally toward sustainability and widening prosperity. And in this case, the tonic effect of technolgy on culture.

    Habits of innovation and a growing awareness of the fact of the consequences of every one of our actions on a small planet, will ideally move us toward making the best solutions. In other words acceptance that we are all in this together may have profound and positive social/political/and economic/ecological implications. And by creating these condtions and habits of thought technology has played a major role. Risking hubris, one might say that the Blackberry (I’ll chauvinistiaclly quote a local KW technogical contribution!) has had as profound an effect on the process of social re-ordering as did Guttenberg’s printing press. The capacity literally in now in hand to meaningfully trade ideas with a global audience of friends and connections on a casual and daily basis across all sectors.

    What a great moment this is! And I sense that KW at this time is a great locale from which to participate in the world’s progress.
    Alf Bogusky

  • Well put, Alf. Thanks for your thoughtful input. You should be doing a blog yourself…

    And, thanks for pointing out that antecedents to the Millennial generation go back long before my examples, with Marshall McLuhan being the most notable. This brave new world has been a long time in the making. All of us have something to contribute to this, as long as we all are open to dialogue about preserving what is important while embracing change.

    Clearly, the impact of the digital revolution on our cultural communities is profound as you suggest, and we are only now beginning to witness these changes as they unfold.

    Having looked at how we got here, I’m wondering if anyone from the Net Generation might wade in. How does all this look from your perspective?

  • Peter Flass

    Randall – I’m wondering if you’d be willing to release the photo of the 2741 on this post under a Creative Commons license?   The Wikipedia IBM 2741 article needs a photo, and most other images online are just scans from the manual.

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