Originally published in the December 2008 edition.
In the recent U.S. presidential campaign, we saw a remarkable display of the power of young people and their gift for using digital tools creatively. Young adults overwhelmingly favored Senator Barack Obama and were critical to his election.
They used social networks to pump up enthusiasm for their candidate: Facebook to share information at Internet speed, raise money, and set up rallies; YouTube to reach millions of potential voters through music; their Twitters transformed the old-style news cycle. Their gadgets made campaigning easier than ever – like the iPhone application that acted like a campaign in your pocket and even kept track of campaign events nearby.
I call today’s youth the Net Generation. Born between 1977 and 1997, these teenagers and young adults are the children of the baby boomers, and they have grown up surrounded by digital devices and media. In 2008, the eldest of the generation turned 31. The youngest turned 12. There are more N-Geners in Canada than there are baby boomers.
Around the world this generation is flooding into the workplace, marketplace, and every niche of society. These youth are bringing their demographic muscle, media smarts, purchasing power, new models of collaborating and partnering, entrepreneurship, and political power into the world.
They multitask, performing five activities at once. To them, e-mail is old school. They use the phone to text incessantly, surf the Web, find directions, take pictures and make videos, and collaborate. They seem to be on Facebook every chance they get, including at work. Instant messaging or Skype is always running in the background. The typical boomer grew up watching more than 22 hours of TV a week. They just watched, zoned out. When the Net Generation watches TV, they treat it as background Muzak while they hunt for information, play games and chat with friends online.
I recently led a $4 million research project that studied this generation in depth, and eight characteristics, or norms, describe the typical Net Gener and differentiate them from their Boomer parents.
1. They prize freedom, and freedom of choice
2. They want to customize things, make them their own
3. They’re natural collaborators, who enjoy a conversation, not a lecture
4. They’ll scrutinize you, and your organization
5. They insist on integrity – being honest, considerate, and transparent, and living up to your commitments
6. They want to have fun – even at work and at school
7. Speed is just normal
8. Innovation is part of life.
For government, N-Geners pose a challenge on three fronts. As employees, their instincts run counter to many traditional public sector workplace practices. As consumers, they are accustomed to and want fast, personalized service. And as citizens, they want a much more participatory democracy.
Net Geners are savvy, confident, upbeat, open-minded, creative and independent, but they can be challenging to manage. To meet their demand for more learning opportunities, frequent feedback, greater work/life balance and stronger workplace relationships, organizations must alter their culture and management approaches, while continuing to respect the needs of older employees.
Compared to their parents at the same age, N-Geners have a much stronger sense of employee entitlement. A large number of N-Geners feel the job should be customized to fit their needs rather than the other way around. More than half, for example, say they want to work in places other than in an office. The perfect world for many N-Geners: replace job descriptions with work goals and give them the tools, latitude and guidance to get the job done.
N-Geners don’t distinguish between being entertained, learning or working. Indeed, some 67 percent of N-Geners we surveyed agreed that “working and having fun can and should be the same thing.” Making a workplace more attractive to the N-Gener means making it more fun. The old paradigm was that there was a time of day when one worked and a time of day when one had leisure and fun. But these two things have become the same activity because N-Geners believe in enjoying what they do for a living.
N-Geners also entertain themselves at work to re-charge or eliminate boredom. Fun tool of choice: the Internet. Most catch up on news headlines, Google, IM with friends or watch videos on YouTube several times a day. Many perceive taking a “virtual coffee break” for 10 minutes allows them to return to their work even more focused; they don’t view such activity as abusing the system.
In recent years, western economies have seen an explosion in merchandising techniques and product variety, giving consumers unprecedented freedom of choice. While older generations marvel or feel overwhelmed by the proliferation of sales channels, product types and brands, the N-Gen revels in it.
Governments offer thousands of services to citizens of different backgrounds, different ages, and with differing expectations, yet most services are delivered on a one-size-fits-all basis. Web services, widgets, RSS and other Web 2.0 technologies could enable service providers to satisfy expectations for customizable or personalized interactions with their government.
Imagine, for example, that every citizen was granted their own MyGovernment page from birth – an interactive space through which they channeled all of their interactions with government, whether renewing a driver’s license, filing taxes, finding a new doctor or registering a business. The service would actively anticipate their needs and deliver information to their platform of choice, including their desktops, mobiles or perhaps their favorite social-media sites.
Even in the shift to e-government, many agencies have largely replicated physical-world distribution systems on the Web, thus ignoring one of its most powerful implications – the ability to create new forms of value by focusing on and transforming core competencies while creating partnerships for non-core activities. By assembling networks of citizens, private firms, non-profit organizations and other agencies on a Web-based platform, for instance, governments can offer greater innovation, choice and variety to their service customers.
They’ve shaken up the traditions of campaigning. Now Net Geners will try to sweep away the conventional model of politics with its “you vote, we rule” style of operating. In the old system, citizens listen to speeches, debates and television ads. They give money and vote. But when it comes to having input into policy and real decisions, they are relegated to the sidelines, while the real powers – the politicians, their financial supporters, and the lobbyists – make all the decisions, often according to their own interests.
Having grown up digital, N-Geners expect to collaborate with politicians – not just to listen to their speeches. They want to be involved directly: to interact with them, contribute ideas and scrutinize their actions, not just during elections but as they govern.
Digital Brainstorms offer a compelling model for how this may be possible. A Digital Brainstorm describes an online facilitated discussion, typically involving many thousands of partici¬pants engaging on an important topic of interest. The most well known and tested model of Digital Brainstorming is the Jam, invented by IBM, which involves intensive seventy-two hour online interactions.
To date, Digital Brainstorms using the Jam model have been used by large corporations such as IBM, Nokia, as well as the automotive industry, and inter¬national organizations like UN Habitat. The idea of government-led Digital Brainstorms is compelling. Engaging regular people using this new technology seems a straightforward way to both promote democratic engagement and draw in expertise and new ideas to public policy.
The UN Habitat’s “Habitat Jam” drew on the expertise of 40,000 people from over 130 countries to develop a list of 600 actionable ideas to promote urban sustainability. Nokia’s Way Jam engaged over 13,000 employees from front offices in Helsinki to manufacturing facilities in Asia to develop the values and ideas that form the company’s mission.
How might governments harness this concept to create a call for action around key topics such as the environment, climate change, or the future of our economies? Digital Brainstorming – now possible on a scale that was previously impossible – offers the alluring possi¬bility that political agendas could be set in closer consul¬tation with a larger proportion of a nation’s citizens. This could lead to greater legitimacy. Intractable problems could be solved when the collective ingenuity of a more diverse set of participants is brought to bear. Important organizational decisions – like setting values or strategic priorities – could be made with broader and deeper citizen input, leading to better ideas and faster adoption.
Get ready for the Net Generation. They will be an unstoppable and overwhelmingly positive force for change within the public sector.