The Net Generation Takes the Lead

Enabled by the Web and digital technology, the Net Generation is transforming media, politics, and culture. Will older generations stand in the way?

Editor's note: This is the eighth in an eight-part series of Viewpoints by author Don Tapscott, who draws 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.

In the second half of the 20th century, baby boomers set the stage for how we live and work. The medium that boomers grew up with, broadcast TV, helped to create our consumer culture. The fixtures of suburban life—the SUVs, the expanding floor size, the family room off the kitchen—were created by and for boomers. The many ways that we organize ourselves at work and in our civic lives are based on models that were defined or reinforced by the dominant demographic, the boomers. Their influence is so powerful we hardly notice it.

But now, these old ways are starting to be shattered by the new Web and this new generation. The new Web, which lets people contribute to knowledge and not just consume it, is revolutionary. The great powers, such as the titans of broadcast TV, no longer control the distribution of knowledge. People no longer have to follow the leaders and do what they're told. Now they can organize themselves, publish themselves, inform themselves, and share with their friends—without waiting for an authority to instruct them.

What's more, this new generation, the biggest ever, knows how to use this awesome tool. They've grown up digital. The Net Generation, as I call Americans ages 11 to 31, has been trained since early childhood to collaborate, to hunt for information, to move fast.

With reflexes honed to use the Web effectively, the Net Generation will change the world in unprecedented ways.

Electing a President

They are already challenging the way business should be conducted—by suggesting that business leaders look outside the company for fresh ideas rather than burrow inside the "silo," a business cliché that is revealing because of its origin, in the bulk storage of grain. They're challenging the assumption that work should take place at the office between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.—rather than, say, at home on a mobile device. They're just starting to generate ideas that change the old order, such as Rypple's just-in-time performance reviews. They've already rocked the foundations of the music business, and now they are changing the rules of marketing.

They've just shown their incredible power by helping President-elect Barack Obama win his stunning victory, thanks in part to an innovative online campaign steered by young people. Now they're counting on Obama to keep his promise to make government more open, so that it fulfills President Abraham Lincoln's great dream, to be a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." If he doesn't, watch out. This generation has the technological means to make the demonstrations of the 1960s look like a tea party.

This generation is setting records for civic action and is now using the global reach of the Web to change the world on the ground. One example: TakingITGlobal, a Toronto-based social network for people who want to do good, was founded before Facebook was conceived, by Michael Furdyk. As an adviser to the network, I've watched it grow. Now it has more than 4 million visitors per year, in nearly 250 languages.

Changing the Power Structures

Most Net Geners are seeking to protect the planet, and they find racism, sexism, and other vile remnants of bygone days to be both weird and unacceptable. There are always, of course, evil people who will try to use the Web to spread hate—for example, by creating sickening games that urge the player to kill members of minority groups. But there are far more who want to use this technology for good. It is entirely possible, as Nobel Prize in Literature winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio put it earlier this month, that Hitler's genocidal plot might have failed in the Web 2.0 world: "Ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day."

Young people today want power in every domain of economic and political life. This doesn't mean hierarchies will vanish. Society still needs authority and control in areas ranging from child rearing and executive decisions to law and order. But as the Net Generation grows in influence, the trend will be toward networks, not hierarchies, toward open collaboration rather than command, toward consensus rather than arbitrary rule, and toward enablement rather than control. As students, children, and consumers, Net Geners are pressuring schools, families, and markets to change. As knowledge workers, educators, government leaders, entrepreneurs, and customers, they will be an unstoppable force for transformation.

In the past, many of these so-called postmodern concepts were ideas whose time had not come. They were ideas in waiting—for a new generation that could embrace and implement them. Now they're here. The big remaining question for older generations is whether that power will be shared with gratitude—or whether we will stall until the Net Generation grabs power from us. Will we have the wisdom and courage to accept them, their culture, and their media?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.