Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Bottle and Labels: The Latest Victim of the Modern Age

Nature posted a story last week about some new scientific findings that appear to bust a relatively recent verbal construct that has been rather central to the HR world and the discussion of Millennials in the workplace: the so-called "digital native". It seems this term, created to bottle certain people up into an easy-to-understand construct, may be similarly as meaningless as the now increasingly derided concept of "learning styles".

I have to admit, I somewhat blindly accepted the implication of this "digital native" label myself. Being a member of the newly minted "xennial" micro-generation (oh dear), it made some amount of sense that everyone born after me, or at least most those in the Millennial group, were far more accustomed to digital everything, and analog nothing. For example, how many minutes has it been since you're heard another Gen X or older individual express concern over the lack of cursive classes in today's grade schools? Quick side note: if Millennials are digital natives, what, then, are my two children, both of whom were born post-iPhone and post-iPad, and look at the corded phones that access land-based wired telecommunications as if they were technological fossils of a long-expired civilization?

But back on topic, it seemed to be almost self-evident that digital natives (assuming those exist or existED) had not only a, uh, micro-perspective that wrapped into their generation's perspective, but assumptions and ways of working that were unique to their group, and perhaps even advantageous. They've grown up with keyboards, massive amounts of time sitting in front of screens usually attached to a computer-like device, absolutely stonking amounts of computer storage and processing capability, even wireless cell phones before the smartphone revolution of the last ten years. The research findings in Nature's article do make sense, however.

Keyboards are just tools, and Millennials possess no ways of using I/O on computers and smartphones inherently better than anyone from another generation. They let their email inboxes fill up like (most) everyone else. They play the same games and use the same media available to everyone, all of which has gone electronic. They frequent many of the same websites while gravitating away from traditional cable media services. They have their noses stuck in their phones (just like nearly every adult of every generation patronizing the coffee joint I'm typing this in). Their expectations for how life should move along may be different, but that's not so much a "digital native" thing as it is a Millennial thing, and even less so when one considers the general trends across global society, particularly in workplaces enabled by technology.

I have personally come to a place where I am rather oppositional to the "Millennial" label, so I feel I should divest myself of other labels as well, however well-meaning they may be. "Digital native" should probably be dropped because of at least some assumptions we can now apply data to, that falsify at least some it. I consider myself a digital native, even though I'm a late Gen X. Before I had even completed high school, I was using Windows PCs, and once I entered college in the mid-90s, nearly everything was handled by computer. 21 years later, I do nearly everything not requiring physical effort on a computer or smartphone, and my handwriting has suffered to the point where the old joke about doctors' handwriting applies quite well.

So we as knowledge workers, who may not have grown up with half the things Millennials did but surely use most if not all of them now, should probably drop the labels and focus on solutions for people where they are, and not where they "should" be based on the shelf their bottle - now broken - is expected to be.

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