How generations live in their own digital worlds

Each new generation will change something, see the world differently, and bring new opportunities.

How we perceive our world is to a certain extent shaped by the times we grew up in. People who reached adulthood with newspapers and radio are different from those who grew up with TV, which are different from those growing up with the PC, the internet, or the smartphone. The distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants can roughly be mapped to the common landscape of generations: Generation Y and Generation Z are considered digital natives, while Generation X, Baby Boomers and older generations belong to the digital immigrants camp.

In some respects, each generation lives in their own Parallelwelt.

I am a member of Generation X. Or Generation Golf, named after the Volkswagen car. At the time the internet appeared in my life, I was 25 years old. But the first personal computer – in my case, a Commodore 64 – had come into our house already a decade earlier, when I was still a teenager. And obviously the smartphone came up more than a decade later than the web. Back then, I had been an employee for years. So basically my generation learned to use a PC in their teenage years, saw the internet arriving in their twenties, and the smartphone in their thirties.

Each generation looks at new technology from their own background

People tend to take everything for granted they grow up with. Up to a certain age, most people will adopt and learn to use new technologies. The older they get, the harder this adoption gets, often leading to resistance and dismissiveness. That's why it makes sense to distinguish different generations when it comes to tech and innovation. Roughly, Gen X could be seen as Generation PC, Gen Y as Generation Internet, and Gen Z as Generation Smartphone. This already shows that the binary concept of digital natives vs. immigrants might be oversimplified.

The pre-digital media landscape was defined by mass communications and broadcasting. Its primary usage model was reading, listening and watching. The PC already introduced media production into the mix, at the time known as desktop publishing. As PCs got more powerful, people started to produce audio and video as well. But media distribution for the masses was only enabled by the internet. Media became social, so to speak. And with the smartphone, we now basically carry a media production and distribution tool in our pockets.

Each generation looks at new technology from their own background. Members of Gen Z – the first truly post-digital generation – view newspapers, radio and TV as more or less outdated, since their media consumption is defined by the smartphone. But new generations also have a tendency to distinguish themselves from their predecessors: they closely watch their behaviour, trying to learn what they should do different. And also develop different behaviour just for the sake of generational distinction.

Cultural codes and distinctive work habits

Thus, newer generations tend to avoid the media platforms of their parents, develop their own cultural codes and distinctive work habits when they enter the workforce. Gen Y, for example, probably brought us the rise of purpose in the business world. And Gen Z shows a tendency to demand clear boundaries between work and life, knowing how digital technology blurred these boundaries for Gen Y and Gen X. When it becomes possible to work always and everywhere, new rules are needed to avoid that work eats up the whole life.

Up until the early 2000s, work was tied to the office. When we left office these days, work was almost impossible. We could log into our work email from home, but that required a PC. There was VPN, but not for regular use. Flat rate internet access and wifi at home were introduced less than two decades ago. The concept of email-to-go only appeared with the Crackberry. Mobile data plans became affordable with the proliferation of smartphones not more than a decade ago.

Generation Alpha probably won't use Facebook

Generation Alpha (or whatever comes after Gen Z) will probably view the smombies of their preceding generations with a critical eye and establish new rules for the proper use of smartphones. Likely, they will also demand better algorithms for the curation of their media feeds – less slot machine, more relevance. Generation Alpha almost certainly won't use Facebook, but new platforms we might haven't even heard of so far. A similar phenomenon occurred with traditional TV that is now almost a medium for older generations, while younger generations watch video and TV on digital platforms.

Gen X was the last generation that came of age in the pre-digital world, and the first that had to adapt to the digital world, as well as to the post-digital world we now live in. Exciting times.

Photo by Don Fontijn on Unsplash