Rise of the net generation

Old-style corporate sensibilities will mean nothing to the new breed of digerati.
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The Independent Online
IF THERE is a constant cry from Americans visiting Europe it is that the biggest issue confronting the region is not the single currency but technology. Bill Gates, Andy Grove andother computer industry chiefs have repeatedly warned of economic catastrophe if Europeans do not wake up and catch the internet bug.

And among all these industrialists - who are, so to speak, "talking their own book" - is Don Tapscott, a consultant and commentator who has made a career out of studying the potential impact of continuously developing technology on business. He became an early proponent of the "the only constant is change" with Paradigm Shift, his book of several years ago that played a fundamental part in adding a new concept to the management lexicon, and has lately done even better with The Digital Economy, an attempt to chart where all the action is in terms of cyberspace and the rest of it.

Now, he is back with Growing Up Digital (McGraw-Hill), a book that he says was inspired by seeing his own children and those of others becoming increasingly confident about using the worldwide web and other aspects of the latest technology. Though he claims that the readers most likely to "get it" are those with children, the volume is considered important enough that senior managers throughout the consumer goods company Procter & Gamble are being urged to read it, while the computers and peripherals company Hewlett-Packard has bought 5,000 copies.

Drawing on observations and extensive research, he profiles what is becoming known as the "Net Generation", or those people who next year will be aged between 10 and 22 and who are growing up in the "digital age". As he writes: "Most of these children do not yet have access to the Net, but most have some degree of fluency with the digital media".

This puts them at an incredible advantage over their older fellow citizens, particularly parents, who are seeing their authority challenged. In Mr Tapscott's words: "For the first time ever children are an authority on a central issue affecting society."

But while much of the book discusses the increasingly hostile debate about the role that this sort of technology should have in teaching children, he insists that it is really a business book. And one of his central points is that when the N-Generation enters the workplace, the effects will be far more noticeable than the fall-out from the arrival of Generation X. Indeed, he predicts that when these children "come up against Dilbert Inc, sparks will fly".

The reason, he maintains, is that - just as we have grown used to hearing how Gen X is no respecter of hierarchies and not prepared to wait for opportunities to come its way - so its successor, the N-Gen, does not understand why it should stick by its decisions. Having grown up in a society where choice - of television channels, of clothes and other goods and even of the outcomes of computer games - is taken for granted, it does not see why it cannot move about from one thing to another, whether it be bank, lifestyle or career.

At the same time as observers are realising that Gen X is not all about slacking and grunge music they are understanding that the N-Gen is not all nihilistic and cynical - though it is acknowledged that its members are about as likely to slavishly imitate their parents as the baby boomers did theirs. "They are quite alienated from formal politics and, depending on age, there are growing discussions about the need for fundamental social change. Those who believe that these youths will be passive supporters of the status quo are in for a surprise," writes Mr Tapscott.

The combination of the youngsters' facility with technology, love of choice and demand for instant service will amount to a serious challenge to marketers.

The conventional wisdom that anybody with enough time and enough money can establish a brand is being threatened by the arrival of ever more communications channels. As a result, broadcasting is likely to be replaced by customised marketing, while - instead of spending fortunes on advertising - those seeking to build brands will have to establish relationships to an even greater extent than is already being talked about.

There will be substantial internal, organisational effects, too. "Imagine," writes Mr Tapscott, "the impact of millions of fresh-thinking, energised youth, armed with the most powerful tools in history hitting the workforce."

The wave that has just begun will, he adds, "transform the nature of the enterprise and how wealth is created, as its [the N-Gen's] culture becomes the new culture of work".

Team working, collaboration and empowerment are much more likely to become real in such an atmosphere, he says. Pointing out that the generation is "exceptionally curious, self-reliant, contrarian, smart, focused, able to adapt, high in self-esteem and possessed with a global orientation" and therefore spells trouble for the traditional enterprise and traditional manager. Mr Tapscott adds: "The N-Gen mind is ideally suited for wealth creation in the new economy."