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Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World

McGraw-Hill Companies, The

Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World Overview

SELECTED AS A 2008 BEST BUSINESS BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE ECONOMIST The Net Generation Has Arrived. Are you ready for it? Chances are you know a person between the ages of 11 and 30. You've seen them doing five things at once: texting friends, downloading music, uploading videos, watching a movie on a two-inch screen, and doing who-knows-what on Facebook or MySpace. They're the first generation to have literally grown up digital--and they're part of a global cultural phenomenon that's here to stay. The bottom line is this: If you understand the Net Generation, you will understand the future. If you're a Baby Boomer or Gen-Xer: This is your field guide. A fascinating inside look at the Net Generation, Grown Up Digital is inspired by a $4 million private research study. New York Times bestselling author Don Tapscott has surveyed more than 11,000 young people. Instead of a bunch of spoiled “screenagers” with short attention spans and zero social skills, he discovered a remarkably bright community which has developed revolutionary new ways of thinking, interacting, working, and socializing. Grown Up Digital reveals: How the brain of the Net Generation processes information Seven ways to attract and engage young talent in the workforce Seven guidelines for educators to tap the Net Gen potential Parenting 2.0: There's no place like the new home Citizen Net: How young people and the Internet are transforming democracy Today's young people are using technology in ways you could never imagine. Instead of passively watching television, the “Net Geners” are actively participating in the distribution of entertainment and information. For the first time in history, youth are the authorities on something really important. And they're changing every aspect of our society-from the workplace to the marketplace, from the classroom to the living room, from the voting booth to the Oval Office. The Digital Age is here. The Net Generation has arrived. Meet the future.

Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World Excerpt

grown up digital



Copyright © 2009 Don Tapscott
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-07-164155-5

Chapter One


Chances are you know a young person aged 11–31. You may be a parent, aunt, teacher, or manager. You've seen these young people multitasking five activities at once. You see the way they interact with the various media—say, watching movies on two-inch screens. They use their mobile phones differently. You talk on the phone and check your e-mail; 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. And what's with those video games? How can someone play World of Warcraft for five hours straight?

Sure, you're as cyber-sophisticated as the next person—you shop online, use Wikipedia, and do the BlackBerry prayer throughout the day. But young people have a natural affinity for technology that seems uncanny. They instinctively turn first to the Net to communicate, understand, learn, find, and do many things. To sell a car or rent an apartment, you use the classifieds; they go to Craigslist. A good night to see a movie? You look to the newspaper to see what's playing; they go online. You watch the television news; they have RSS feeds to their favorite sources or get their news by stumbling upon it as they travel the Web. Sometimes you enjoy music; their iPods are always playing.

You consume content on the Web, but they seem to be constantly creating or changing online content. You visit YouTube to check out a video you've heard about; they go to YouTube throughout the day to find out what's new. You buy a new gadget and get out the manual. They buy a new gadget and just use it. You talk to other passengers in the car, but your kids in the back are texting each other. They seem to feast on technology and have an aptitude for all things digital that is sometimes mind-boggling.

But it's not just about how they use technology. They seem to behave, and even to be, different. As a manager, you notice that new recruits collaborate very differently than you do. They seem to have new motivations and don't have the same concept of a career that you do. As a marketer, you notice that television advertising is for the most part ineffective with young people, who seem to have mature BS detectors. As a teacher or professor, you are finding that young people seem to lack long attention spans, at least when it comes to listening to your lectures. Indeed, they show signs of learning differently, and the best of them make yesterday's cream of the crop look dull. As a parent, you see your children becoming adults and doing things you never would have dreamed of, like wanting to live at home after graduation. As a politician, you've noticed for some time that they are not interested in the political process, yet you marvel at how Barack Obama was able to engage them and ride their energy to become a presidential candidate.

You're reminded of the old Bob Dylan line "There's something happening here but you don't know what it is."

There is something happening here. The Net Generation has come of age. Growing up digital has had a profound impact on the way this generation thinks, even changing the way their brains are wired. And although this digital immersion presents significant challenges for young people—such as dealing with a vast amount of incoming information or ensuring balance between the digital and physical worlds—their immersion has not hurt them overall. It has been positive. The generation is more tolerant of racial diversity, and is smarter and quicker than their predecessors. These young people are remaking every institution of modern life, from the workplace to the marketplace, from politics to education, and down to the basic structure of the family. Here are some of the ways in which this is occurring.

• As employees and managers, the Net Generation is approaching work collaboratively, collapsing the rigid hierarchy and forcing organizations to rethink how they recruit, compensate, develop, and supervise talent. I believe that the very idea of management is changing, with the exodus from corporations to start-ups just beginning.

• As consumers, they want to be "prosumers"—co-innovating products and services with producers. The concept of a brand is in the process of changing forever because of them.

• In education, they are forcing a change in the model of pedagogy, from a teacher-focused approach based on instruction to a student-focused model based on collaboration.

• Within the family, they have already changed the relationship between parents and children, since they are experts in something really important—the Internet.

• As citizens, the Net Generation is in the early days of transforming how government services are conceived and delivered and how we understand and decide what the basic imperatives of citizenship and democracy should be. For the growing numbers trying to achieve social change, there is a sea of change under way, ranging from civic activities to political engagement. The Net Gen is bringing political action to life more than in any previous generation.

• And in society as a whole, empowered by the global reach of the Internet, their civic activity is becoming a new, more powerful kind of social activism.

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.


To begin our journey, it's important to understand some earthshaking demographic facts.

The Net Generation is a distinct generation. It is made up of the children of the post–World War II generation, called the baby boomers in the United States. This proverbial baby-boom "echo" generation, in the United States alone, is the biggest generation. Around the world there has been an even greater demographic explosion with 81 million members.

The Baby Boom (1946–64)

Anyone born between 1946 and 1964 is considered a baby boomer, and the boom was heard loudest in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Many families postponed having children until after the war, for obvious reasons. Hundreds of thousands of young men were serving overseas and were not available for fathering. When the war was over, the men came back into the workforce and the pictures of "Rosie the Riveter" that had appeared in Life magazine were replaced with photos of cheery women in their shiny kitchens waiting for hubby to come home from work. I saw this with my own mother. She worked in a steel mill during the war, and right afterward married my dad and had me.

It is 1976. The first member of the post–World War II baby boom is 30 years old. She awakes to news reports on her clock radio about the presidential election and wonders whether she'll vote for Jimmy Carter, or the man who pardoned President Richard Nixon just two years earlier. Turning the dial, she eases into Paul McCartney's new hit, "Silly Love Songs." On her way to work as a teacher (one of the best jobs available to women in the mid-1970s), in her made-in-America car, she notices that she has a special $2 Bicentennial bill in her wallet as she pays for her gas, which cost 60 cents a gallon. After work, she decides to see why everyone is so terrified by that new blockbuster movie, Jaws. Still shaking as she walks out of the movie, she wonders why she isn't married yet—most of her friends are.

The economy was very strong after the war, giving families the confidence to have lots of kids. It is hard to imagine today, but by 1957 American families had an average of 3.7 children. It was a time of great hope and optimism because the Allies had won the war and there was finally peace, and prosperity was taking hold. Immigrants flooded into the United States, contributing to the population boom, and, as their children, in great numbers, matured, they grew into a powerful cultural, social, and political force. (See Figures 1.1 and 1.2.)

The Baby Boom Became the TV Generation

The boomers could be called the "Cold War Generation," the "Growth Economy Generation," or any other name that linked them to their era. It was really the impact of a communications revolution, however—led by the rise of television—that shaped this generation more than anything else. To say that television transformed the world around the boomers is a cliché, but it's also a vast understatement of the impact of the ubiquitous "boob tube." Imagine—or think back if you can—to the world before television. My family used to gather around the rather large piece of furniture, that was a radio, to listen to news programs and The Lux Radio Theater. Our own imaginations conjured up mental images of the announcers, actors, and their environments. My mother remembers that when TVs became popular, our family just had to get one. "This was the innovation of the century," she says. "It was so exciting to think that you could not only hear people who were far away, but actually see them."

In early 1953 when our first set was installed in our living room, the chairs and sofa were moved from their place near the radio and clustered around the TV. I have vivid memories of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, which was televised on June 2, 1953, and of my mother explaining to us that the tears on Her Majesty's face were due to the emotional pressure and also the physical strain of a heavy crown and the rigor of the procession and events. I saw my parents and other adult relatives react in horror as rumors that Elvis would shake his pelvis on The Ed Sullivan Show were spread, and then it didn't happen. I remember my uncle, a music teacher, howling at Kate Smith, saying that she couldn't carry a tune if her life depended on it. I remember Don Larson of the New York Yankees pitching a no-hitter in Game Five of the 1956 World Series. I remember Nikita Khrushchev thumping his shoe on the table at the United Nations and watching, in real time, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. And I remember falling in love with Annette Funicello of The Mickey Mouse Club. The television created a real-time alternate world. It also began to consume a significant part of the day for most people.

A generation introduced to its medium grew with a momentum that swept up the Chicago Seven with Bonanza, Bob Dylan, JFK, Harold and Maude, marijuana, the Vietnam War, the Beatles, and Abbie Hoffman. In 1950, only 12 percent of households had a TV. By 1958, the number had soared to 83 percent. The medium had quickly become the most powerful communication technology available, unseating radio and Hollywood films and newsreels. When the American civil rights movement made its demands known, it was television that served as the messenger and the mobilizer. When the boomers marched in the streets against the Vietnam War, television chronicled and amplified their presence. Television was there to record and broadcast the movements of a massive generation. Right in front of the baby boomers' eyes, television turned youth itself into an event.

It is 1976. The last member of the Boomer Generation has just turned 12 years old. He wakes up and scrambles downstairs to the television set. He changes the rotary dial to PBS, which is playing Sesame Street. He eats the breakfast Mom prepares for him and rides his bike helmetless across the neighborhood to class. After school he rides home, lets himself into the house with the key hidden in the garage, and waits for his mom to get home from work. He and his friends play pickup baseball in the backyard, making up rules as they go along.

Gen X–The Baby Bust (1965–76)

In the 10 years following the boom, birth rates declined dramatically with 15 percent fewer babies born. Hence the name: the Baby Bust. But the term never caught on. Instead, they're called Generation X, after the title of a novel by Douglas Coupland. The X refers to a group that feels excluded from society and entered the labor force only to find that their older brothers and sisters had filled all the positions.

Gen Xers are among the best-educated group in history. They faced some of the highest rates of American unemployment, peaking at 10.8 percent in November—December 1982, although the later Gen-Xers saw unemployment decline much lower. They also saw some of the lowest relative starting salaries of any group since those entering the workforce during the 1930s Depression era.

Gen X—now adults between the ages of 32 and 43—are aggressive communicators who are extremely media-centered. They are the oldest segment of the population whose computer and Internet habits resemble those of Net Geners and provide the closest adult experience from which we can begin to predict how Net Geners will master the digital universe. Like Net Geners, Gen Xers view radio, TV, film, and the Internet as nonspecialist media, available for everyone's use to package information and put forward their perspective.

The Echo of the Baby Boom—Net Generation, Gen Y, or Millennials (1977—97)

The boomers started having children in greater numbers after 1978. By 1997, there were almost as many 5- to 9-year-olds (19,854,000) as there were 30- to 34-year-olds (20,775,000). See Figure 1.3.

Four Generations: From 1946 to Present

1. The Baby Boom Generation

January 1946 to December 1964–19 years, producing 77.2 million children or 23 percent of the U.S. population.

2. Generation X

January 1965 to December 1976—12 years, producing 44.9 million children or 15 percent of the U.S. population. Also called the Baby Bust.

3. The Net Generation

January 1977 to December 1997—21 years, producing approximately 81.1 million children or 27 percent of the U.S. population. Also called the Millennials or Generation Y.

4. Generation Next

January 1998 to present—10 years, producing 40.1 million children or 13.4 percent of the U.S. population. Also called Generation Z.

One of the key reasons why the Net Gen has lasted so long is the number of babyboom women who have put off having children until their thirties or forties. Relatively few boomers became parents in their early twenties, the typical age for beginning the process of marriage and child rearing. Many boomers were prolonging youth. In fact, I am a perfect example of this trend. I spent most of the first decade after college organizing various social movements, pursuing postgraduate studies, learning about computing, writing music, researching various issues, and in general trying to fathom and change the world. Planning for a family and a career was the last thing on my mind. I knew that when it was time to think about such issues, I would be just fine. Self-confidence grew from prosperous times and a rich social background.


Each generation is exposed to a unique set of events that defines their place in history and shapes their outlook. The Echo Boomers (the Net Gen) have grown up with such defining moments as the O.J. Simpson trial, the Columbine school shootings, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Gulf War. Then there is September 11, the war in Iraq, AIDS, Band Aid, and Live Aid. Influential figures are Tiger Woods, Bono, Lance Armstrong, Princess Diana, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George Bush, and Al Gore—first as the man who would be president and then as the campaigner against global warming and champion of environmental protection.

When researching Growing Up Digital, I decided to name the echo generation by their defining characteristic. Today some people call them the millennials, but the advent of the year 2000 didn't really alter the experience of the young people of that time. I suppose we could call them "Generation Y," but naming them as an afterthought to the smaller Gen X diminishes their importance in the big scheme of things.

If you look back over the last 20 years, clearly the most significant change affecting youth is the rise of the computer, the Internet, and other digital technologies. This is why I call the people who have grown up during this time the Net Generation, the first generation to be bathed in bits.

Broadband Internet access is now ubiquitous: iPods are everywhere; mobile phones can surf the Internet, capture GPS coordinates, take photos, and swap text messages; and social networking sites such as Facebook let Net Geners monitor their friends' every twitch.


Excerpted from grown up digital by DON TAPSCOTT Copyright © 2009 by Don Tapscott. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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