The Net Generation Is Here

Thirty-somethings today have shadowy memories of learning to use a floppy disk the size of a dinner napkin in computer classes.

by / October 10, 2006
Their parents, who grew up using the typewriter, learned right along with them and trained on clumsy terminals in the workplace.

To this group of technology pioneers, the newest generation of computer users appears surprisingly ingenious. Youngsters quickly learn to navigate computer games with apparent prodigious aptitude, and chatty teenagers communicate on cell phones and PDAs in their own dialect of abbreviations. Text and instant messaging are replacing e-mail for this generation, which carries its entire social, academic and work lives in one or two devices.

The public's comfort with online transactions has encouraged the development of more government e-services and Web portals. As constituents grow to like the ease of conducting their business online, they start demanding that everything be available online. To stay apace, public-sector CIOs are paying more attention to how citizens use technology. But there's no question government IT executives have much to learn about how today's youth perceive and use technology.

Who Are These Whiz Kids?
Don Tapscott, CEO of Toronto-based think tank New Paradigm, has studied and written extensively on technology's evolution and how young people use it. His book Growing Up Digital, published in 1998, was the result of his work with 300 children to determine how the "Net Generation," ages 2 to 22 at that time, was using technology.

"I started studying this generation when I noticed my own children were effortlessly able to use all this technology, and at first I thought my children were prodigies," he said. "But then I realized all their friends were like them, and the theory that all their friends were prodigies was a stretch."

Now Tapscott classifies the same Net Generation as "Grown Up Digital" with unique consumer habits. The eldest of this generation turns 27 in 2006.

Age aside, members of the Net Generation are defined as those who grew up with modern technologies, such as TV, cell phones and computers.

This generation was worthy of study, Tapscott wrote, because their opinions and ideas will form future society. "The culture which flows from their experiences in cyber-space foreshadows the culture they will create as the leaders of tomorrow in the workplace and society."

Rahaf Harfoush, 22, who collaborated with Tapscott in his research, is a member of this up-and-coming generation of constituents. "I have grown up digital in the sense that every aspect of every activity in my life is rooted in technology," she said. "Everything I do, I do digitally."

Cherrie Kong, 20, is a third-year biomedical student at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and another contributor who grew up with technology. "Computers," she said, "were just a regular part of the furniture -- nothing more or less interesting than the TV or the fridge or the phone."

In Growing Up Digital, Tapscott examined how the Net Generation uses technology to do just about everything, and he described the Web as an arena of communication and entertainment supplanting TV. "They use the technology to play, learn, communicate and form relationships as children have always done."

Teenagers in this group influence the spending of some $500 billion per year, Tapscott said, and they consume a broader "media diet" than their parents. They are accustomed to more choices, and the option to customize and interact with advertisers.

Tapscott is continuing the broad-reaching project with its next installment, The Net Generation: A Strategic Investigation. Large companies and participants from all levels of government each pay $100,000 to participate in the first phase of the multimillion dollar initiative, which Tapscott said is further investigating the Net Generation and how it will affect the work force, management practices, the marketplace and public service.

"What makes the Net Generation a force for change," said Tapscott, "is not just the demographic muscle, but the first generation to be 'bathed in bits,' where growing up digital is all part of the experience of youth."

Shifting Expectations
That digital experience has led to a growing disparity between the Net Generation's technological skills and expectations, and what the marketplace and governments can deliver.

"Our generation shops online, dates online and takes classes [online], yet we still need to drive to the municipal office to pay for a dog license," said Michael Melham, president and CEO of AlphaDog Solutions, an IT/Web company primarily serving local governments.

At age 25, Melham was elected to the Belleville Municipal Council, making him the youngest elected official in New Jersey. He now develops Web modules and utilities for governments and said that for now, the Net Generation isn't placing too many demands on governments.

"Most young people don't really have a need to communicate with municipal and county government unless they own a home and have a tax or property issue," he said, adding that governments will eventually need to be more reactive than proactive once this generation is old enough to look for government services.

Some young men and women are already looking forward, however, and imagining how their world should look.

"In the distant future, I would really like government to strengthen the amount of services it offers online, especially at the DMV," said Harfoush. "If I need to get anything done, I have to take time off work so I can make the government's limited hours, and usually end up waiting in line for long periods of time. Also, I would love to see online government representatives who could engage people in online video chat, and I'd like to conduct transactions right over the Internet."

While citizens can, and do, conduct many transactions with their governments online, the functionality is far from ubiquitous.

"Municipal technology is five years behind," said Melham. "We are the debit card and PayPal generation, and this doesn't interact with municipal government. I still can't get that dog license online because most local governments don't accept credit cards. This generation is interested in saving time, and from the comfort of the office or on a lunch break. It's a hassle to drive down to the local office, find a parking spot and stand in line, especially when town halls close at 4:00. It's not really practical."

Local governments can, however, strive to meet the needs of the younger generation when they are ready to use it, Melham said.

"I don't think we can do it with new technologies and flashy-type content to increase use," he continued. "We need to start building the foundation within governments to get ready to embrace that generation once they come of age and start settling down. It's nice to read the history of the government and biography of your mayor, but when it comes down to it, content is important, and if we have to dig and find outdated information, we'll resort to the phone and do it the old-fashioned way. Sites need to be content-heavy."

For instance, streaming municipal meetings would accommodate younger people who can't attend local meetings because they work late hours, he said. "Video, audio and streaming technology is where we are going. I don't think that type of content is enough to lure them, but once they come of age, the content has to be there."

Kong has her own expectations for what government and technology should offer. The New Zealand government offers what she is looking for, but she said she still sees room for improvement.

"I receive weekly updates from the Auckland City Council about renovations to the city and general plans for changes," she said. "There is information about meetings I can attend to voice my opinions. I think that is important, but I would expect this expression to be even easier in the future and more accessible with a wider scope."

Some in Kong's generation are even aiming to teach older generations about IT. At Wellington Girls' College in 2003, Kong was head of the Tech Angels, a student-run IT program for mentoring teachers at the school. Kong, who is also skilled in Web design and is an accomplished blogger, had some thoughtful things to say about e-government. "I would probably expect government agencies to make use of new technologies to operate more efficiently, perhaps similar to privately owned corporate businesses."

She echoed sentiments commonly heard when people discuss government. "I think a huge problem with government agencies at the moment is the amount of paperwork and a general public feeling that it's difficult to get the right information or find the right department/person. Any practices that are established would have to be forward-thinking in that technologies are advancing at an exponential pace, and lifestyles and habits of citizens will probably also change at a rapid pace. So governments have to make sure their practices are up to speed with the changing times."

Watching and Adapting
IT professionals like Gail Roper, CIO of Kansas City, Mo., are already witnessing differences in how generations use technology and communications. During her career, Roper has reached out to underprivileged and younger computer users, and noted that in lower-income neighborhoods, technology use varies generationally. "We see a lot of cell phones with the younger folks across cultures," she said. "We are noticing that a lot of them are not even bothering to subscribe to landlines and have no phones in their homes. Cell phones are becoming the tool for calls and Internet access." On the other hand, Roper said, the elderly population isn't interested in cell phones, tends to purchase the cheapest phone service available and are more challenging to reach.

In Kansas City, technology preferences of incoming residents are shaping the economic development of downtown areas. Young entrepreneurs and business people will be moving into the condominium market, she said. "We are making sure we have Wi-Fi access to provide that 24/7 service they will expect in the urban areas."

Indeed, wireless access -- or at least a broadband connection -- is becoming as basic as the phone line was in the past. Adoption of high-speed Internet in U.S. homes grew twice as fast between 2005 and 2006 than in the previous year, according to a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Middle-income Americans accounted for much of that increase. A December 2005 Pew report found that Internet users ages 12 to 28 are more likely to use instant messaging applications, play online games and create blogs, and users between 28 and 70 are more likely to make travel reservations and bank online.

Kong offered a perspective on what broadband access is worth to younger users. "I have recently moved from home, and I am willing to fork over money to pay for broadband, even if it means eating 'baseline' meals and forsaking other luxuries, just because the Internet is so fundamental to my learning, communication and management of everyday life and events."

She agreed with Roper that technology should be a component of urban planning. "In terms of planning initiatives, the government or government agencies may have to look at new technologies to solve old problems. One example is inner-city congestion," Kong said. "If say, Internet access was made affordable, reliable and efficient, then many more people could work from home."

One example Kong gave of technology improving citizen services in Auckland was through the use of GPS at bus stops. The system lets commuters at each stop know when the next bus will arrive.

Roper said the increasing use of mobile devices to communicate also influences how governments develop Web portals, and younger individuals will expect to use those devices to access payment and billing histories.

"Newer generations are used to the time and convenience of the Internet, and are not going to do a lot of searching on the Web site," Roper said. "We need to make sure that portal is obvious for billing and other purposes."

Government portals can emphasize information sharing so people trust government more, she observed, but also to meet the demand for e-commerce and broadband connectivity. She calls this both a design and a business challenge for CIOs.

To stay in touch with the nuances of technology use among citizens, Roper said, CIOs must get out from behind their desks. "We need to be in the boardroom to be involved in how decisions are made, and we need some sort of interaction with the public to find out what they want and need."

Roper does this by going out to neighborhoods, listening to people and taking note of who is or isn't wired in. She believes targeting populations, such as young people, is a way to reach the whole community. Her department is working to wire public housing and is evaluating programs that would provide laptops for children. "If we focus on the young person, we will typically touch the other populations because the younger ones teach the other household members. The young ones are ahead of us because it's a way of life for them, not just a profession."

From Microsoft 's perspective, technology users between the ages of 17 and 25 are a transformative generation, meaning they will drive and lead changes in public-sector services.

Dan Rasmus, director of Information Work Vision in Microsoft's Information Worker group talks about the "Millennial Generation" as an economic and social force.

"Cell phones, iPods, wireless networks and chat rooms are not novelties to this group of almost 75 million," he said. "They have lived their entire lives in the digital world."

Using these tools, he said, this group will move e-government away from just transactional services as Millennials and public leaders use it to sway public policy.

"The expectation going forward is that government will create an electronic dialog on these issues to have a way of reaching an active voice of people who are engaged," Rasmus said. Blogs with an interactive comment feature are one way elected leaders can interact with younger citizens. "It will be reciprocal. There will be some leading lights in the public sector, and we'll also see greater demand from the generation in general."

Analysts like Rasmus and Tapscott believe the Web and other communication modes are fundamentally changing the way people live and work. In the work world, Rasmus said, Millennials use technology and "time shifting" outside the mode of a traditional corporate mentality, in a manner that may be more suited to telecommuting and flexible hours. "Government has to step up and recognize these changes in the work force," he said.

No one disputes that technological and social change is rapid. It's how the public sector chooses to confront that change that will determine the future of digital government.

Kong expressed faith in her own Net Generation. "I like using technology functions in their 'never-intended' uses. I am very used to facing a problem and solving it with what I have, which may mean using 'old' functions in novel ways. A lot of 'digital youth' are like this -- resourceful and expressive in a way that perhaps is not understood by those who are not so well connected."