Millenials: 'Bathed in Bits'

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An ardent defender of youth says they’re smart and  collaborative—and will reshape the workplace.

Best-selling author Don Tapscott says Millennials—those born between 1978 and 1997, whom he calls the “Net Generation”—are influencing the world of work through their ways of using the Internet.

In his latest book, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World (McGraw-Hill, 2009), Tapscott, a speaker, writer and consultant on business strategy and information technology, says “Net Geners” are intelligent and place a high value on collaboration and freedom. Although their ways of thinking and working may make them harder to manage than workers of earlier generations, he says, they have promise.

What characteristics do Net Geners possess?

Today’s youth are the first generation to grow up “bathed in bits”—surrounded by digital technologies, particularly the Internet. This influences how youth respond to all facets of life—the workplace, school and family. They prize freedom and freedom of choice. They want to customize things, make them their own. They’re natural collaborators who enjoy a conversation, not a lecture. They’ll scrutinize you and your organization. They insist on integrity. They want to have fun, even at work and at school. Speed is normal; innovation is part of life.

You cite critics who say Net Geners lack social skills, values and time for sports or healthy activities, and are ignorant of social mores. They’ve been called spoiled slackers who don’t want to pay their dues and have a sense of entitlement. Clearly, your research proves them wrong—right? How do you see them?

There is no data to support the negative view of young people. It is fiction. This is the smartest generation ever. Volunteering among high school and university students is at an all-time high. Civic action became political action, like in the Obama campaign. In the United States, the percentage of kids that are “clean” in high school—that don’t do drugs or drink alcohol—is up year-over-year for 15 years. IQ is up year-over-year for many years, university entrance exam scores are at an all-time high, and it has never been tougher to get into the best universities.

This is a generation we can be enormously hopeful about. From my research on this demographic and their norms, Net Geners are savvy, confident, upbeat, open-minded, creative and independent, but they can be challenging to manage.

To meet their demands for learning opportunities, frequent feedback, greater work/life balance and stronger workplace relationships, business leaders must alter their organizations’ cultures and management approaches while continuing to respect the needs of older employees.

Why is it important for workers to be able to access Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social networking sites?

Net Geners use the Internet at work to do their jobs and to recharge or eliminate boredom. Most visit social networking sites, catch up on news headlines, Google, IM with friends or watch videos on YouTube several times a day. Many perceive that taking a “virtual coffee break” for 10 minutes allows them to return to their work even more focused. They don’t view such activities as abusing the system.

Far too many executives make no effort to learn from young employees. Too often, young people go to work and hit a wall of corporate procedure and a deeply entrenched hierarchy. The widespread banning of Facebook at work is a classic example of misguided supervision. The Net Generation wants to take a digital break; Boomer employers shut them down. Get ready for the generational clash at work as a generational firewall builds up frustration.

Is it enough to have a policy at work about the use of social networking sites?

The solution is not to restrict access to these sites. If employees are abusing the Internet or the telephone or the water cooler by having too many personal conversations during the workday, recognize that this is a managerial problem, not a technology problem. Business leaders need to embrace the new collaborative platforms. But full disclosure here: I’m affiliated with a company, nGenera, that offers companies software designed to enhance social networking sites.

Studies show that 44 percent of employers use social networking sites to examine the profiles of job candidates, and 30 percent have looked up the profile of a current employee. News accounts tell of young people hiding their profiles or masking their identities so they can do whatever they want. Good idea? Bad idea?

I wouldn't fault a young person for masking his or her identity to avoid employers checking them out. Betterstill, people should carefully use their privacy settings so only close friends have access to personal and private information. On the other hand, I don’t think you should mask your identity to give yourself a license to act recklessly.

Why should employers abandon the traditional model of work? What’s the alternative?

The old HR model—recruit, train, supervise and retain—should be shelved. Instead, companies should adopt a new model—initiate, engage, collaborate and evolve. Employers have many ways to make themselves attractive to a potential Net Gen employee: They can customize job descriptions, use game-based training to train employees for short-term projects, and keep in touch with former employees to find new people and get new ideas. Old-style job interviews are out. Two-way dialogues are the way to hire. And the first three months is a time when the employee is evaluating the company, not the other way around.

My research shows that companies that selectively and effectively embrace Net Gen norms perform better than those that don’t. In fact, I’m convinced that the Net Gen culture is the new culture of work. The Net Gen norms I describe in Grown Up Digital turn out to be the key indicators of high-performing organizations in the 21st century.

But teenagers and young adults entering the workplace are frequently met with hostility. Older workers begrudge the younger generation’s sense of entitlement and what they misinterpret as arrogance. Employers that don’t create the proper climate for this new generation are going to suffer a backlash.

The interviewer is an online manager/editor for SHRM.