Net Geners Come of Age

A new generation of Americans that has grown up digital are poised to make history on Election Day, if the polls are right

(Editor's Note: This is the first in an eight-part series of Viewpoints by author Don Tapscott, who will draw on the $4 million research project that inspired his new book, Grown Up Digital, to explain how digital technology has affected the children of the baby boomers, a group he calls the Net Generation.)

The Nov. 4 election will be a spectacular display of the power of a new generation of Americans. I call them the Net Generation because they're the first to grow up digital, and in this election year they've shown that their revolutionary model of working collaboratively online can topple powerful leaders and, if the polls are right, even make history.

Around the world this generation is flooding into the workplace, marketplace, and every niche of society. They are bringing their demographic muscle, media smarts, purchasing power, and new models of collaboration. While some dismiss them as "screenagers," with short attention spans, low IQs, and zero social skills, they are a remarkably bright generation that has developed revolutionary new ways of thinking, interacting, working, and socializing. They are an unprecedented force for change.

Consider how they helped Senator Barack Obama win the Democratic nomination and, most likely, the Presidency.

In Sync with Obama

It's no surprise that Obama has captured most of the youth vote. They overwhelmingly disapprove of President George W. Bush, and they're leaning harder to the Democratic side than their Gen X predecessors. Their attitudes toward social and economic policies put them in sync with the Obama campaign. Inspired by Obama, they been politicized this year. Youth turnout in some primaries tripled from 2004. Although only half of the youngest American voters turned out for the 2004 Presidential election, it's likely they will vote in unprecedented numbers this time.

But their true power as a force for change in politics stems from their ability to organize themselves online, without waiting for instructions from the head office. Obama, unlike his more powerful rivals in the Democratic primary race, tapped into this phenomenal power. In 2007, Chris Hughes, then the 23-year-old co-founder of Facebook, took over as director of the Obama online organizing effort. He swiftly rewrote some of the key rules of campaigning. Instead of using the Internet in an old-fashioned way, to give campaign workers instructions, Hughes made sure that Obama supporters could organize events, tell friends, and of course raise money, which they did spectacularly.

The Net Generation's ability to work together online comes from growing up digital. This generation, which turns 11 to 31 this year, uses technology differently from their parents. They've developed very different reflexes when they're on the mobile phone or on the Internet. Take how they use cell phones, for example. Parents use them to talk on the phone and check e-mail. Net Geners think e-mail is old-fashioned. They'd rather use the phone to text, carry out Google (GOOG) searches, find directions, take pictures, make videos, and collaborate.

TV Is Like Muzak

The upbringing has left a deep imprint on how this group thinks and behaves. Consider the typical teenage media diet. In the late 1960s, the teenage baby boomer watched an average of more than 22 hours of television each week. They were passive viewers; they took what they were given. When the commercials came, they might even have watched them. Net Geners watch less TV than their parents do, and they watch it differently. A Net Gener is more likely to turn on the computer and simultaneously interact in several different windows, talk on the telephone, listen to music, do homework, read a magazine, and watch television. TV has become like Muzak for them.

They're multitasking, and they're talking back. It's a deeply interactive experience. Net Geners are active initiators, collaborators, organizers, readers, writers, authenticators, and even strategists, as in the case of video games. They do not just observe; they participate.

They inquire, discuss, argue, play, shop, critique, investigate, ridicule, fantasize, seek, and inform.

Not Waiting for Orders

They're using their Web, the New Web, to create their own content, collaborate with others, and build communities. It has become a tool for ordinary people to organize themselves, instead of waiting for orders from the authorities.

This has left a deep impression on the sensitive teenage brain. It's conditioned them to expect an interactive, two-way conversation—with teachers, with businesses and stores, with politicians, and even with employers. This challenges the established way of thinking in many domains.

Take education. For this generation, the old model is wrong. It puts the teacher on the stage. The teacher teaches; the students write notes, study, and write exams, alone. This model of education may have been good for training young people to obey orders, but it makes no sense for a generation that's grown up to collaborate and exchange ideas with people around the world.

"Prosumers," Not Consumers

Shopping is an entirely different experience for the Net Geners as well. They don't play by many of the old rules that governed the practice of marketing. Even if they don't use TiVo (TIVO) to skip TV ads, they don't pay much attention to them. Nor do they care much for newspaper ads (if they even read newspapers anymore). Instead, they find out about products and services by asking their friends or consulting bloggers. Some have even become "prosumers," directly helping companies create products and brands.

The Net Generation is just beginning to enter the business world, and already they're challenging some of its long-established ways. Many Net Geners are uneasy about the standard workday in the office; they'd prefer to work where and when they want. They'll probably change jobs far more often than their parents did, too. If they get a chance, they'll even skip the established lines of authority and talk directly to the CEO!

Banning Facebook at Work

Many employers are already exasperated. Some are even trying to make the Net Generation fit into their idea of work—by banning Facebook at work, for example.

It's adding up to a major clash between the generations. But this one is very different from the mile-wide fissure that cracked open between boomers and their parents. Back in the 1960s, the generation war raged on every front: from clothes and music to politics and values. But now, Net Geners and their parents are coming together inside many families. Net Geners generally feel close to their parents; they even like their music. That's no surprise, considering that it was boomers who took the lead in democratizing the family to give their kids a say.

The Net Geners may not be challenging their parents as people, but they certainly are challenging the institutions boomers run, and they have tools of unprecedented power to succeed. We've already seen what they can do in this amazing Presidential race. Don't be surprised if they push for change in every domain they enter.

Society Needs to Change

The bottom line is this: If you understand the Net Generation, you will understand the future. You will also understand how our institutions and society need to change today.

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