I had a recent interaction with an older relative. I am a part of the Millennial generation (birth years 1985-1999), and this individual was a Baby Boomer (birth years 1946-1964). We were discussing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, specifically the debate that every fan has found themselves a part of: did the JJ Abrams film live up to the legacy left by George Lucas? The timing of the film releases made this a perfect Baby Boomer – Millennial discussion: The first trilogy came out when the Baby Boomers were teenagers/young adults, and the prequel trilogy came out when Millennials were teenagers/young adults, making the series formative for many in both generations. Of course, we each had our opinions (it just so happened that they were on opposite sides), and the discussion became a debate, with each of us offering evidence as to why we were right.
Here’s what ended up happening: my family member compared and contrasted aspects of the films, and talked about the opinions others had as a way to bolster the argument. I innately went for things such as critics’ reviews, Rotten Tomato and IMBD facts, and trending sentiment on Twitter and Facebook. What was at play here? Sure, we used different arguments, but I think there was a pattern as to why we used the data point we did. And it centered around this question:
Is the internet and it’s plethora of data a tool, or the toolbox itself?
My relative’s argument was based on personal experience and commentary about the films themselves. Though the internet and social media were used in collecting commentary from others and gauging general sentiment, they were ultimately being utilized as the tool to get at desired information. My argument was the opposite. I did not even consider arguments outside the realm of social informatics (used here loosely). Certainly, I could have talked to friends about their perceptions, but instead I went to Twitter for hashtags, and FaceBook to see what people at large were talking about. The internet was my toolbox: social media, rating websites, and the like were the tools.
Underlying here is a debate as to the role of digital, integrated information communication technologies (ITCs) into daily life, one which may have a generational bend. My undergrad thesis and first publications have centered around Millennial differences, particularly in the workplace, from other generations. Specifically, I have been working to tease out what is unique to Millennials, and what is simply a function of the age.
A very popular argument is that Millennials aren’t really all that different from the previous generations, it is just that they are young. The logic goes (roughly) along the lines that every generation has very unique and ‘spiky’ characteristics while in their teens, twenties, and early thirties, but that those even out when marriage, family, and careers set in. One of my favorite thought leaders, Jessica Stollings, walks through this argument in detail in her book ReGenerations: Why Connecting Generations Matters (and how to do it). Here’s a link to her site and blog. The argument is valid, particularly when thinking of the hippie and Woodstock era of the Baby Boomers, and the grunge movement with X-Genners (birth years 1965 – 1984).
The alternate argument is that there’s something about Millennials which breaks with prior generations. In general, Millennials are more transparent, less monetarily-oriented, and more optimistic than their other generational counterparts. (Boatman, Wellins, & Selkovits, 2011) Embedded in this, though, is inevitably a discussion of the impact that ubiquitous and integrated ICTs have had on Millennials. In this sense, Millennials may not be entirely unique, as the AO generation (birthyear 2000 – present) also exhibits these traits, but rather the first generation in a gestalt shift. (Hiester & Hovsepian, 2014)
I take the approach that both arguments are, in some ways, correct. To say that the advent of the internet did not have a fundamental impact on the first generation to grow up with it would be underselling the world wide web. But it would also be true that saying only the internet had this much of an impact devalues other ICT developments. Take, for example, the impact of the radio. The Traditionalists (who preceded the Baby Boomers and came of age during WWI and WWII) were realistically the first generation to have a readily-accessible, nationwide network of news and entertainment. Throughout the US, the population was hearing the same news, listening to the same shows, and getting information at the same time as everyone else for the first time in history. This had a profound and lasting impact on their development and values. The nation as a whole went through WWI and WWII together, unified in the war efforts, broadcasts, and radio personalities. This served as the bedrock for that generation’s notable patriotism and loyalty to the family with whom they listened to the world unfold. Similar arguments could be made for Baby Boomers and the spread of television.
So I believe that it is an accurate statement to say the Millennials have very unique traits from prior generations. The ICTs of the day shape the behavior and attitudes of each generation who are the first to experience a revolutionary new technology. This same theme underlies various dispositions for each successive generation. So yes, the Millennials are highly unique from prior generations in their approach to information and communications. But so is each generation from the generations before them.
We all have a toolbox, it just gets updated every generation or so.
Boatman, J., Wellins, R., & Selkovits, A. (2011). Generation Next: Ready to Step Up or Step Out? Developmental Dimensions International.
Hiester, S. J., & Hovsepian, N. (2014). Managing the Millennnials: A Philosophical and Practical Approach. New Perspectives in Mentoring. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Mentoring Institute.