Thursday, January 08, 2009

My Problem with the Net Generation, Millennials, and Digital Natives

I don't have a problem with the people labeled this way, but with the labels themselves. They drive me crazy because they're so misleading. I'm getting really frustrated with books, articles and tv shows that talk about the "net generation" as if a) it's homogenous and b) it tells us anything. Yes, the fact that the younger generation is growing up in Facebook means their social relationships are different, but it doesn't mean that those of us in the older crowd aren't also seeing changes in their social relationships as a result of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. To me, claiming that the net generation is a specific generation of kids who were born hooked up to the Internet takes the easy way out. It assumes that they know more than they do about the implications of the technology they're hooked up too. It can also serve as an excuse for older people to opt out, to say that these things are for young people. Or it can serve as a way to "force" young people to "get back to basics" and learn to read a book already. Or, it can leave older people frantically trying to keep up with the technology but falling into the same trap as their younger counterparts by not fully appreciating the implications of the technology they're using.

Right now, I'm reading two books that tout the special abilities of the net generation, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World HC and Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. I'm only a little ways through both of them. Don Tapscott, the author of Grown Up Digital, has finally inserted a caveat that this generation hasn't come to grips with how to handle privacy. That's about 75 pages in. There are a few things I've read recently that have found that the idea of digital natives is a myth. The thing is, if push comes to shove, I'm going to classify myself as a digital native even though I'm a good 10 years older than the oldest supposed native. Why? Because I was a native before Facebook and Web 2.0. I read bbs, subscribed to email lists, participated in IRC chats, read newsgroups, played video games, and played around with very early web browers. But because most of those activities never made it to the mainstream, no one really made a big deal about it. But those things laid the groundwork for what we have now and most authors and journalists treat all this Web 2.0 stuff as if it burst forth fully formed and nothing came before.

The nature of Web 2.0 is indeed a game changer for many industries, but the change is not going to wait for the next generation to get into the work force and it's been happening over a pretty long period of time. Heck, my generation never expected to work in one job forever. And that's the other problem with labelling a whole generation this way. There's this idea that once the workforce is made up of a majority of netgens, then it will change. Um, not so much. The change is happening before our eyes. And yes, the more netgeners are in the workforce, the more things will change, but it's not going to happen in one fell swoop. Work, education, even government are gradually adopting so-called netgen attitudes. We can't ignore it, and we must adapt. And we can't assume that the netgeners have all the answers. While we adapt, we don't need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. For example, we may need to connect in different ways via different media, but communication skills are still important.

Once I'm through various books and articles, I'm sure I'll have more to say, but this issue is getting under my skin at the moment, so I needed to get it out there.