The Digital Native Myth

 In News

If you were born in the period between 1980 and 1995, you may be a victim of the digital native myth.

The assumption is that every baby born in this fifteen-year span grew up immersed in a digital age, totally surrounded by technology. They are all, therefore, absolute naturals with computers, and their brains work differently than older generations: they’re quicker with processing information, highly skilled at multi-tasking, ultra-reliant on technology to communicate, less respectful of hierarchies and generally more casual.

Based on these assumptions, worries abound that traditional workplaces aren’t set up to cope with people like this. The so-called digital natives are too different from the Baby Boomers (born 1944 to 1964) and Generation Xers (1965 to 1979) that have established and manage these offices. Now that these digital natives – who supposedly comprise the entire generation – are of working age, some business experts have warned that workplaces must adopt a new management style and be prepared for the technological savvy and insubordination of these young people.

As you may have guessed, these assumptions are barely accurate. Many were based less on research and more on general observations. The reality is quite different than the picture painted above.

It’s naive to believe everyone born between 1980 and 1995 was surrounded by technology, much less had access to a computer. Critics of the above assumptions note that socio-economic circumstances the world over cannot be ignored. Similarly, generalising generations here is a risky business, too. Regardless of age, some people are better with computers than others. Research shows that exposure and experience determine technological prowess. If ‘digital natives’ grew up surrounded by technology, their older siblings and parents certainly couldn’t escape it either. People of any age can view technology fearfully or use it extensively. We have all encountered middle-aged people who are great with computers just as we have encountered people our own age who totally avoid technology if they can help it. Obviously people raised in certain time periods will be similar in some ways, but it pigeonholes an entire age group to call them ‘digital natives’.

These stereotypes undermine the universality of the traits assigned to digital natives – a disinclination for hierarchies, a casual manner and technological-dependence. But even those 19 to 34 year-olds with these traits are not necessarily damaging to the office environment. Employers hear calls that traditional office arrangements and management styles need to be overthrown, but a non-hierarchical system means more collaboration, an informal manner shows friendliness and confidence and offices in this day and age need internet access anyway. These values wouldn’t affect a normal, up-to-date and healthy working environment. Adaptation is a part of progress.

Essentially, the idea that the entire workplace system needs to be revamped in the wake of a generation comprised of digital natives who think, act and communicate exactly like one another and yet differently from all other generations is fraught with faults. The circulation of the digital native myth risks alienating other generations and perpetuating potentially harmful stereotypes about young people’s values and skills.

Based on the management report “The Impact of Digital Natives in the Workplace” by Robbie Noble.

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