Saturday, July 14, 2012

Generation Y

Generations share common traits because they share common experiences that shape their development when they are young. For the Greatest Generation WWII and The Great Depression made them self sacrificing and frugal. The Baby Boomers experienced a time of prosperity and optimism making them materialistic and confident. Generation X, the latch key kids, grew up self reliant and distrusting. Gen Y grew up in the prosperous tech boom of the mid 1980's-1990's. The ubiquity of electronics and the media they make available has made this generation the greatest consumers of digital media the world has ever seen. For most of them there has never been a time in their memory when their wasn't an internet. Being plugged into the rest of the world and in constant contact with friends and relatives is natural and normal. Their brains and bodies matured with cell phones in their ear and video game controllers in their hands.

In my previous post I talked about the over stimulation created by modern life. Generation Y has lived their entire life in this environment. Its all they know. To them the dystopia I describe may seem perfectly normal. Gen Y is usually described as being digital natives. They are very familiar with digital communication, media and technology. They are also noted for having short attention spans and a need for constant stimulation and instant feed back. I think its obvious the two traits are connected.

Instant Gratification
One of the difficulties in earlier generations dealing with Gen Y is their desire for instant gratification and feed back. For example Gen Y employees seem to need constant feed back on their performance. This is puzzling to the Baby Boomer boss because they were raised with the understanding that you did what you were told and worked hard and down the road you reaped the rewards. That just doesn't sit well with Gen Y. Gen Y is used to the instant feed back of video games and text messaging. They also are used to getting what they want, when they want it. Patience and forbearance are not in their vocabulary.

Growing up with instant messaging, and constant electronic alerts from email or social media has caused their brains to be wired for fast twitch. This allows them to keep up with the excessive volumes of information they are bombarded with, but at a cost. The cost of course is they have very little deep thinking. This leads to quick decisions based on shallow analysis that are often short sighted. It also makes them feel irritated when anything takes too long. I've even noticed this in myself sometime when my computer takes more than a few seconds to load something.

Gen Y expects everything to be as responsive as their iPhone or twitter feed. Unfortunately much of life just isn't like that. Solid human relationships, mastering skills and building a career take time. Some times these and other worthwhile things require several failed attempts before getting it right. If Gen Y quits instead of sticking with it, will they ever succeed at these important slow to be realized achievements? Maybe this is why so many of them are still living at home even into their late twenties and early thirties.

Brain Extensions
Its been said that the internet with its vast knowledge base and advanced search capability has become an extension of out brains. Some people don't even bother to remember information anymore. They just remember how to find it on Google. This is also true of finding your way around town. Many people don't learn street names or directions anymore, they just enter the address in their GPS and listen to the soothing voice say take the exit on the left. Its as though we have delegated these functions to external devices in a way similar to bodily functions like breathing and beating our heart are handled autonomicall by the brain stem, freeing our frontal cortex to contemplate questions like, "why is there air?"

For those who use it, the internet has become the largest source of transactive memory. Transactive memory is nothing new. We all rely on people we know to remember things for us. For example you may ask your spouse something like where are the spices, pruning shears, etc. Likewise a colleague at work may ask you something related to your area of expertise. I remember, as a kid, always asking my mom what a word meant or how it was spelled. In each case you often don't bother to remember the answer long term, but instead you simply remember who to ask. Today that who is Google.

Some believe this has allowed Gen Y, who's brains developed along side the internet, to learn much more. They believe that by just knowing where to find the details, rather than the details themselves, allows them to focus on the bigger picture. To some extent this is true. Really intelligent, capable people have the ability to see both the details and the big picture, zooming in and out at will. If the internet has become an extension of our nervous system allowing everyone to do this, then theoretically we will all be a little bit smarter.

One obvious problem with this is the unreliability of the information. With out making sure the details are correct our big picture could be skewed. In fact much of what's available on the internet is half truth or completely false and it is often difficult to tell without pouring over the details and fact checking. This requires significant amounts of time and effort, something Gen Y is not fond of.

A less obvious problem with this is that unused neurons get pruned. So with Gen Y using less of their brain and relying on calculators, Google and GPS to think for them, they have made themselves dependent on these systems. This strikes me as potentially retarding intelligence, not expanding it. In addition being dependent on these things for information and guidance could leave us in the dark in the event of an outage. If you've never made the effort to remember that emergency phone number or navigate to that important location your self, what do you do when your cell phone battery dies or the GPS network goes down?

A more ominous concern is the emotional reliance on things like social media and shallow online relationships. Many today, especially from Gen Y, measure self worth by how many Facebook friends they have or how many texts they receive. Its as though their whole self image and sense of being has been transferred from their control and relocated externally. As such they make themselves dependent on the availability of the technology and the fickle whims of that cyber community.

Virtual Reality
With the real world being such a depressing and stressful place, is it any wonder there is a strong demand for more and more realistic virtual realities. To answer that demand, much of our modern media is a form of virtual reality. Movies for example are a form of virtual reality. You might even notice the slight disorientation felt after watching an engrossing movie. Like wise video games and social media can be forms of virtual reality. These and other forms of media are all fantasy worlds that we can escape into and forget, at least for a while, the real world.

Generation Y is very comfortable with the virtual world and spend much of their waking hours immersed in it. In fact they often seem more comfortable in the virtual world than the real world. They will make friends with people on line, but feel uncomfortable getting close to people in person. They spend hours and hours on Farmville instead of gardening in their yard. They will spend great amounts of effort mastering their skills at some video game, but very little time building skills they need for a career. Why would one want to spend so much time and effort on something that's not even real?

The problem with virtual reality is its not reality, but it can be so deceivingly real to our senses and emotions that we can often confuse it with reality. When you are in the virtual world you have total control. Even in a video game, though you can not rewrite the rules, you can simply press the reset button. On some sites like Virtual Life you can create your own avatar to look like anything you want. You can fly or pretend to be any persona and all safely behind your computer, where if your not having fun you can just click to some other site. So what effect does growing up in a virtual (e.g. fantasy) word have on someone?

In the real world there are real and sometimes painful consequences. Personal relationships can not be handled the same way as with Facebook and chat rooms. If you are married you can't just click a button and unfriend them. If you have a dog you can't just abandon them because you're no longer having fun, like you can on NeoPets. In the real world there are far reaching implications of your actions that go beyond loosing points. If you do something stupid or dangerous in the real world, there is no reset button.

Gen Y has some advantages to previous generations in that it is more adept at traversing this new modern digital landscape, but without the perspective and ability to think deeply and patiently wait for things, they seem doomed to be unable to accomplish as much as previous generations. It would be advantageous for this and all generations to take a moderate approach to technology use. Unfortunately, from what I know of imperfect human nature, moderate use is unlikely. Instead I firmly believe that Gen Y and each succeeding generation will continue to over use technology to their detriment. Perhaps in a future post I'll discuss why I think this is guaranteed.

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