Today 31% of our student population have been born during or after 1995 – the year our college connected to the Internet. The inescapable truth is that this generation will increase in representation over time – extrapolating from current data they will represent the majority of our student population in under a decade.
Given the inevitability of generation change .. what should we expect – what are the characteristics of the generation growing up in the 21st century?
Marshall McLuhan wrote about the dynamic between technology and culture the phrase attributed to him “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” describes the dynamic at play with what Don Tapscott describes as the “Net generation” – a generation that has grown up digital.
Generation Z have grown up with the tools we shaped for them – the Net, the Web, mobile phones, smartphones, social networks and social media. Generation Z have grown up with information and communication at their fingertips.
While Generation Z are only just starting to define themselves and generalising about a whole population of individuals is so problematic research by Sparks & Honey describes Generation Z as developing their personalities and life skills in a socio-economic environment marked by chaos, uncertainty, volatility and complexity. They have learned that traditional choices don’t guarantee success. They “Intend to change the world. That entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship is one of their most popular career choices – 72% want to start a business and 61% want to be an entrepreneur rather than an employee.
Research and anecdotes offer at least some generalised descriptions we can appreciate:
* “Screenagers” – multi-tasking, multi-screeners
* Instant minded with short attention spans
* Available anywhere, any time
* Global, social, visual and technological
* Communicate at speed – often with symbols and images
* Prefer media that they can interact and collaborate with
* Use social media as a research tool
Writers such as Nick Carr, Mark Baulerein and Sherry Turkle are pessimistic about Generation Z – they worry about the effects of declining real world social skills; reducing attention spans, memory and the ability to “dive deep” into complex information.
Writers such a Don Tapscott, Clay Shirky and Mark McCrindle are more optimistic about generation Z seeing Generation Z characteristics as adaptive responses to their environment. With so much connectivity there comes so much more information to process – the natural adaption is to multi-task and to communicate in smaller and richer ways.
The pessimists look backward and consider Generation Z within a 20th century environment while the optimists look forward and consider Generation Z within a 21st century environment.
The optimists take an evolutionary perspective on Generation Z:
Don Tapscott: “What we’re actually watching is adaptive reflexes—faster switching and more active working memories”. “If you understand the Net generation, you will understand the future”
Mark McCrindle: “They don’t just represent the future, they are creating it.” . “Where Gen Z goes, our world goes.” What that portends is seismic social disruption and the commensurate anxiety.
Others take a psychographic view – rather than a date of birth they see it as a state of mind and refer to “Generation C” as a connected demographic – a population of “digital natives” – comfortable and familiar with technology, Net, Web, social and mobile.
Regardless of age – there is good evidence of how connectivity changes us – how “our tools shape us” for example:
First-time Internet users find boost in brain function after just one week “The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults,
The internet has changed the way we remember things. “If you take away the mindset of memorization, it might be that people get more information out of what they are reading, and they might better remember the concept,”
What is clear is that a new demographic will rise over the next decade – a demographic that is adapting to the connectivity of the 21st century and the information age. While the millennium bug didn’t disrupt the world at the turn of the century – the real millenium bug is about to unfold – those coming of age in the new millenium have adapted to a new environment and are working their way through our society – those organisations which cannot adapt along with the new generation may might just yet have their “Kodak moments”.
“One thing Carr and Shirky agree on is that there are likely to be troubling dislocations and tough adjustments for institutions and industries whose modus operandi largely revolve around scarcities of knowledge and capabilities that no longer exist. Wherever the Web enables people to connect and collaborate around tasks that used to be done exclusively by professionals, there is now an historic opportunity for people with passion, drive and talent to participate fully in forging alternative institutions that do the same things, only better.” ~ Anthony D. Williams
Sources and references
Anne Kingston: Get ready for Generation Z
Michael Poh: 6 Ways The Internet Is Slowly Transforming Our Minds
Anthony D. Williams; Battle of the Web gurus
Nicholas Carr: “Is Google Making Us Stupid”