Friday, June 24, 2011

Net-Gen: Much Ado About [Mostly] Very Little

Some thoughts inspired by the NYT piece "A Generation of Slackers? Not so much" referring to the generation known as the Net-Gen, Gen-Y, Millennials, or "kids these days." A tip of the mortarboard to a tweet by Don Tapscott (about whom there's point 4 below).

Every generation since History began believes that the following generation is a bunch of slackers who got it easy. This cultural constant notwithstanding, there are a few issues worth bringing up regarding the Net-Gen:

1. Having taught undergraduates for over twenty years, both business and engineering and both in Europe and the US, I don't see a significant trend in the average quality of their work. If it's true that the current crop has a lot of distractions during class (texting, facebooking, tweeting), the old crop had their own (doodling, day-dreaming, sleeping).

2. A lot of Net-Gen boosters extol the current students' facility with technology. While it's true that they can type faster than the previous generation could write with a ballpoint pen, other extolled achievements are more the result of great product and usability engineering than of the users' abilities. Many Net-Gen boosters seem to conflate the ability to use a cell phone with the ability to program the tower-to-tower hand-over algorithm that makes cell calls on the move possible.

3. While I'm not a booster for the Net-Gen, it is clear to me that the top draw (in intelligence, motivation, opportunity) of the Net-Gen is likely to be more productive and up-to-date with current technologies than the top draw of the previous generation. This as been the case since the Industrial Revolution. Expanding technological opportunity means that while as I child I played with transistors, capacitors, and resistors, my recently-born nephew will play with network computer languages and perhaps genomics kits.

4. I find it immensely amusing that Don Tapscott, one of the best thinkers about the implications of technological change (though a bit of a Net-Gen booster), glosses over the fact that it's his experience and accumulated knowledge that makes him so.* He is proof that the top draw of his generation, when motivated, is a match for the top draw of the Net-Gen. (My review of Grown Up Digital.)

5. As for the employers' attitude towards the Net-Gen, I think they are right and the NYT is wrong. While a few in the Net-Gen will be in jobs where creativity and non-conformity are paramount, most of them will not. Most jobs depend on fitting in with the existing structures and doing what you're told. So, by making education an "experience" or a "journey of self-discovery," universities lose their ability to screen people who will be good workers (for those jobs). This point seems to be lost on the NYT writer. **

6. There's plenty of evidence from cognitive neuroscience that the brain cannot multitask attention; which would be a problem for Net-Geners if they actually multitasked all the time like the media says. In fact, their attention seems to follow the same pattern as previous generations: they pay attention to what matters to them and space out otherwise. Just because you can see a Net-Gener texting and cannot see his father thinking about a fishing trip doesn't mean the father is paying attention to what you have to say.

7. The attitude of "everything that happened before I was born is irrelevant" and the mindset that structures that evolved over hundreds of years have nothing worth keeping, or even understanding, are dangerous for a society. (Wholesale disposal of accumulated knowledge and wisdom should shock academics; unfortunately many of them are the prime movers in that disposal.) That certainly seems to have worked well for the nuclear family, academic standards in the education system, creditworthiness as an input to loan decisions...

8. The reason for this type of article, I think, is twofold: first, the Net-Gen is not big on reading the NYT, so articles about it are a desperate attempt to forestall bankruptcy marketing action; second, change is news, and so gets attention -- even when the change is mostly an artifact of sampling bias and lack of historical perspective.

There are exceptional individuals in the Net-Gen, as there were in every other generation. Bundling people into generations and making general pronouncements about those generations is dumb but acceptable for the NYT, while treating some individuals in each generation as exceptional is smart and unacceptable for the NYT.

That says something about the decline... of the NYT.

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* Why Don Tapscott is mostly right while being a member of the mostly wrong Net-Gen boosters:

The people who are likely to be influenced by Don Tapscott are the ones at the top draw of the societal distribution: they are the managers of companies that depend on innovation and creative workers, the educators in institutions at the top of their education rankings, the policy makers who have an interest in innovation and creativity, and the creative class itself.

As I wrote in my review of Grown Up Digital, for these institutions the students, workers, and managers are drawn from the top of the motivation, ability, and opportunity distributions. In terms of economic growth and technological progress these are the people who matter in the long run. (Sorry if that offends sensibilities; I certainly don't mean that these are the only people who matter as people.) And for those at the top of the distribution, as I say in point 3 above, it does make a difference what the technological environment looks like.

** In the episode "The National Education Service" of Yes Prime Minister, the PM complains that instead of preparing children for the workplace, schools bore them three-quarters of the time. Sir Humphrey retorts that being bored three-quarters of the time is great preparation for working life.