Peering into the generation chasm

In the NYTimes Week in Review this past weekend Brad Stone wrote an article titled: “The Children of Cyberspace: Old Fogies by Their 20s.” He observed that his 2-year-old is already learning touch-screen technologies and Kindle instead of books. His speculation is that “this generation” (i.e., his young daughter) is going to be quite different from kids now in their teens. There are mini-gaps rapidly developing in the way technology affects experience equivalent to the way we used to think about 20-year generation gaps. He quotes Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.

“People two, three or four years apart are having completely different experiences with technology…College students scratch their heads at what their high school siblings are doing, and they scratch their heads at their younger siblings. It has sped up generational differences.”

So that brings me to something that has been on my mind for some time: With the relentless effort to extend human life — and, concomitantly, work-life — how in the  world are current and future generations going to remain relevant enough to have economic value during the whole of their careers?

This is already a big problem. A few months ago I stumbled across a website (that unfortunately I didn’t bookmark) devoted to baby boomers railing about how they are facing age-discrimination. Trailing-edge baby boomers are still in their late forties and need to work for perhaps another 20  to 25 years. But facing both layoffs and re-employment  in 2009 they feel Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers are labeling them as technologically outdated and unfit for today’s jobs. Needless to say the  people participating in the site were very angry about what they perceive they’re facing. Some blame the Mainstream Media for creating false stereotypes of baby boomers as part of some left-wing conspiracy (I don’t know how they reached that conclusion).

I have to say that I think the younger folks have a point. I’m a recently retired baby boomer. I spent a great deal of my personal time and money during my career staying abreast of personal computing and the internet. I can’t say the same for many of my peers. These days  just having “job experience” isn’t enough. To be a strategic leader you’ve not only got to stay abreast of the basic functionality of  technology but also stay in touch the cultural changes that accompany it. Managers with years of traditional experience under their belts need to understand how changing technology can be applied to innovate business operations and to position the organization for future opportunities. Frequently that’s not what “experienced” people do.

It seems to me this problem will only be exacerbated by the accelerating rate of technological change. People in their 20s should not be too smug; they’ll be looking at the issue from the other side soon enough. And even early-career workers need to consider how they’re going to stay mentally flexible enough to absorb new technology and new culture for the several remaining decades of their work-life.

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