Grown Up Digital

Don Tapscott is definitely enamored of his kids and their generation: in 1999’s Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, he predicted how their generation would reshape society, and in his latest book, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, he practically deifies them.

I agree with a lot of what he’s saying, such as the ability of the 11-30 age group — the “Net Generation” — to easily consume information from multiple channels, but I think that he’s ignoring some of the research in this area in order to make his point. He quotes a study from the Oxford Future of the Mind Institute that shows that although Net Geners are better at intensive problem-solving than those 10 years their elders, interruptions such as those from text messages and IM makes the differences in ability disappear. Tapscott pooh-poohs this using the rather unscientific counterpoint of his daughter working on an assignment at the family kitchen table with people and dogs around, multiple windows and chat sessions open, and her iPod playing music. He posits that Net Geners appear to have ADD in class (apparently now a common complaint amongst teachers) because they’re bored. I’m just not sure that I buy that; there’s other factors at work here, many of which have little to do with age, and more with work styles.

From a business standpoint, the real value of Grown Up Digital is the chapter on the Net Generation in the workforce, covering how the expectations of those entering the workforce have changed, and how organizations need to change (in some cases) to accommodate this.

One of the key points is that they expect to be able to work when and where they want, and be quickly rewarded through promotion for their achievements. A year ago, when companies were wailing about how the boomers were all retiring and they didn’t have enough new recruits to replace them, this sense of entitlement may have been a realistic expectation for some people in some job markets; in today’s economy, it seems almost laughable. Reuters recently reported that young graduates are having a hard time finding work in Silicon Valley, and that just any college degree isn’t enough to land them their dream job with a gazillion stock options. Not surprisingly, engineering grads aren’t having that problem, neither are people with some amount of practical experience. Earlier this week, Tom Davenport wrote about whether millennials (another name for the Net Generation) can really change the workplace, echoing similar sentiments. Ron Alsop, in his book The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace, quotes a teenage blogger: “We don’t want to work more than 40 hours a week, and we want to wear clothes that are comfortable. We want to be able to spice up the dull workday by listening to our iPods. If corporate America doesn’t like that, too bad.” If the economy stays where it is for the next few years, it might be too bad for the Net Generation.

At some point, however, those 200.5k’s are going to turn back into 401k’s, and the boomers are going to retire, at which time the battle for talent will resume. Banning Facebook — a key networking tool for Net Geners — will no longer be acceptable practice, and companies will have to become more open to the collaborative tools and attitudes that the new workers bring. This isn’t just because that’s the only way to gain those workers, it’s because there’s some valid ideas in there for improving the enterprise by breaking the bonds with traditions of time, place and corporate boundaries. There’s also the issue of customization of tools: the Net Generation expect to be able to configure their working environment the way that they want in order to most effectively complete the tasks at hand, not be forced into someone else’s idea of what might make them productive. There is a lot to be learned from this concept in how we build the user experience for enterprise software in general.

I enjoyed Grown Up Digital, but I took it with a large grain of salt: in part, because economic times have changed dramatically in the few short months between writing and publication, and in part because I think that the average Net Gener may not be as wired as Tapscott’s kids.

2 thoughts on “Grown Up Digital”

  1. Hi Sandy,
    I read Tapscott’s book a couple of weeks ago, and I agree with your assessment. I believe it is never wise to deify anything. Nothing rests well on a pedestal for long, nor does having a sense of entitlement prepare one for the bumps in the road ahead.

    Happy Holidays. Maybe we can get together sometime in the new year.

  2. I have a huge pet-peeve with these books about “millenials” and the “net generation”. No doubt, technology enables different lifestyles and work patterns. But the kinds of gross generalizations you see in this genre of writing are just painful to read. Moreover, go back to approximately 1994 and read what the journalists were printing about generation X. The similarities are eerie. Then go back to the 70’s and read what was written about that generation. ditto. Essentially, each “generation” is an excuse for a lot of well-written prose that waxes prolific (if not profound) about how the new generation is (multi-choice test):
    – selfish
    – technology aware
    – team-oriented
    – naive
    – different
    – able to multi-task
    – not as good as the previous generation in some key way
    – better than the previous generation in some key way

    My experience is that all of this is sort of nonsense. When I was in college, you could not assume that everyone had email. Now you can. No doubt, when many people in the “Millenial” or Gen Y category were in college, not everyone had facebook accounts, but now almost everyone they experience in their lives probably does. But these kinds of differences are happening at a pace that anyone can adapt to if they choose to. I witnessed my parents go from being completely paper-based, to writing fortran for mainframes (Dad), to using a DEC terminal from home to conduct research (Mom and Dad), to using a PC for writing journal articles and books, to using lexis-nexus searches and medline to find relevant reference material for doctors… to using iphones. My point being: the ability of a person to adapt is tremendous. All of the adaptions I just described, of my parents, were accomplished when they were 40 and up. Granted, it isn’t scientific, but I also experienced this in college- meeting professors and scientists who had learned how to write software as adults, or learned a foreign language as an adult.

    Paul Kunz, a high energy physicist at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator (SLAC) when I was an intern there, once reacted to my surprise at how quickly he was assimilating a new concept into his software design… his comment was (paraphrasing): “Scott, *learning* is a skill too, and I treat it that way. I’ve been perfecting my learning skill for 50 years, how long have you been at it?” He really pioneered the transition from fortran to C++ at high energy particle colliders, and he coached me through an interesting project porting a statistical application from NeXT to vanilla unix. But what I benefited from most, was the notion that learning is just another skill to perfect and work on… and it has helped keep me open minded to learn all the different skills and topics that have been useful to me in my career.

    My recommendation to anyone worried or optimistic about millenials or genY or the next gen after that: treat them as the individuals they are. The generalizations won’t be much help for dealing with your own children or others’. Like geographic stereotypes, age stereotypes, and other stereotypes, they have a small amount of utility for describing a group as a whole, and negative utility for understanding a single individual. When you make assumptions based on generation you’re inviting misunderstandings.

    Sorry for the length of the comment 🙂

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