Different age groups adapt to and use new technology in different ways. While the study of age-based demographics for new media is far from revolutionary, there are some interesting considerations for how decision makers in the federal government choose to implement new technology. We will use language acquisition as a metaphor for technology adaptation to understand the limitations and tendencies for each generation.
The Youth are Getting Restless
The idea of the restless youth usurping the status quo is hardly new. For thousands of years, a younger generation waited for a chance to prove its worth while the older generation implemented ideas and made decisions. This is not necessarily the case with new media. Older decision makers often believe themselves to be, and sometimes are, unable to fully grasp and understand how to use emerging communication technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. As a result, Subject Matter Experts in these fields are far younger than their peers advising on other issues. Imagine President Kennedy calling in a 27-year-old Harvard PhD student to advise during the Cuban missile crisis. It would be virtually impossible for a neophyte to have an understanding of Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the political machinations behind how the U.S. government makes decisions. But new media often works differently. Substitute Cuba with New Media – that 27-year-old advisor IS the “Cuba” expert, because “Cuba” (New Media in this case) came into being in 2002, while the decision makers only knew it existed 2 years ago. The number of younger Subject Matter Experts overseeing various new media activities throughout the U.S. Government illustrates this point. This phenomenon forces a heretofore unknown cooperation between organizational superior and subordinate “flattening” elements of even the most hierarchical organizations.
The Graying of the Luddites
For each “kid” who has implemented a communication platform using Facebook, Twitter or Second Life, there is still a decision maker who authorized the effort. It is useful to consider who these decision makers are and how their early life experiences with technology alters their perceptions and ability to adapt to technology. The graphic below illustrates how these technology users are different based on similar life experiences. For simplicity’s sake we will consider 3 groups: Generation Jones (the Post Baby Boomers like President Barrack Obama), Generation X, and the Millennium children. Keep in mind that no group is monolithic, and that early adopters and innovators abound in each. However, the behavior of the whole demographic is consistent enough to allow for some generalizations.
First, consider the Generation Jonesers, who are currently the senior decision makers in the Federal Government. These decision makers once looked at this image on a screen with awe and wonder:
The “Joneses” had televisions with 4 channels: ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. They turned the “knob” on the television to change channels, before being exposed to the idea of paying money for additional television channels, an idea many people said was doomed to fail when HBO first debuted in the 1970s.
The speed of technological innovation and evolution has left the Jonesers behind in many ways. Think of technology like a foreign language: foreign language acquisition is virtually impossible for adults, while native fluency is easily achieved by a 9 year old. Technological assimilation seems to run in the same way. The adult life of the pre-generation Xer was busy enough without the addition of New Media social obligations and distractions. The “language” of technological sophistication for this group ended with the first TV remotes, surfing the Internet and using email, and setting up the answering machine. This lack of “fluency” means that “translators” in the form of younger advisors are needed. The use of a “translator” should not be interpreted as a negative trait. A diplomat may have some great ideas for a Russian counterpart to consider, even if the diplomat relies on a translator. In fact, the non-native can often see problems those immersed in the problem cannot. Nevertheless, the Jonesers will always speak “technology” with a heavy accent, they will refer to things in a manner that makes younger, more astute users chuckle at the foreigner speaking “our” language.
Generation Xers are the transitional generation between the child who builds a multi-redundant communications suite with 15 friends for an online collaborative video game (that one was the sole job of a specialist at the Pentagon), and the 60 year old who finds Facebook horribly complicated. Generation Xers understand the world of the Joneses and the world of the Millenium children. They played video games and often had computers growing up, but are the last generation who went outside to play because there was “nothing else to do.” They mastered their parents’ remote controls and often had to get up and manually change the channel on the TV.
Generation Xers can mostly figure out satellite TV remotes and may not intuitively understand their cell phones, but after a quick bit of help from a Millenium child, can use the technology as intended. The Gen. Xers became the gaming addicts obsessively playing video games like Doom or Quake.
The Gen. Xers, and those above and below them, should better understand and utilize this transitional generation for new media communication. They are old enough to understand the organization, and they are young enough to grasp the technology for planning and policy purposes, though execution should be left to their subordinates, even when a delegation of authority is not commonly used. In ten years , Gen. Xers will be the power brokers, and while not able to keep up with the dizzying evolution of technology, will at least “know what they don’t know.”
The Millennium Children section really cannot be written yet, as time will tell in many respects. Perhaps no one fully assimilates technology, and the Millennium Children will be bridge for a later generation. Who knows what form the next revolutionary media will take or if anyone reading this post now will intuitively understand it as well as their children.
We would appreciate your thoughts and comments on these ideas – please post in the comments section.