The Generation Lap

To some, the tech wreck proved the idea of the Internet as a catalyst for social revolution was hyperbolic. However, a generation born into a digital world is starting to enter the workforce, bringing with it expectations informed by a world of technological connectivity and information democracy.

Welcome to 1999, five years on.

Generational tension is an unusual topic for the tax office. It was notable, then, when Reserve Bank of Australia governor Ian Macfarlane wrapped up his November 2002 speech to the Melbourne Institute's Economic and Social Outlook Conference dinner by warning that the post-war baby boomer generation - people now aged from their early 40s to late 50s - could be facing the end of its time in the sun.

The federal government's first Intergenerational Report in May 2002 focused on how a shrinking working-age society will support the boomers as they age and retire. Macfarlane implied this was short-sighted: We had to go further and condition the public (particularly the grey-headed part) to accept that policy must be forward looking, directed at ensuring a vigorous Australian economy 20 years hence. "This will mean giving priority to tomorrow's working-age population, rather than satisfying the demands of yesterday's," he said. Otherwise, we face a near future of resentment between a generation of asset-owning, technology-agnostic business leaders - physically and financially healthier than any generation in history and unwilling to relinquish the reigns of power - and a post-Internet workforce brought up in comfort and impatient to take control.

US author and academic Don Tapscott coined the term "N-Gener" to refer to this generation (born between the late 70s and the late 90s) in his 1998 book Growing Up Digital: the Rise of the Net Generation - Amazon.com's first ever non-fiction bestseller. He clamed this crop of youngsters, exposed to an unprecedented plurality of ideas, opinions and possibilities, had different beliefs and expectations from those that had gone before.

Interviewing groups of kids aged from four to 20, Tapscott found the connected world of the Internet was replacing parents, teachers and other linear, command-and-control structures as the main source of information for youngsters. His theories might seem a little over-optimistic following the tech wreck but its themes remain accurate. N-Geners ask questions and, critically, have little respect for age, experience or hierarchy. More of them are entering tertiary education too.

Phil Ruthven, chairman of economic research firm IbisWorld Australia, says they are the most well educated, digitally adept generation in history. He presents the Net generation as community-minded risk takers, nation-builders and wealth creators.

Following the theory of generational cyclicality first presented in US historians' Strauss and Howe's book Generations, N-Geners are a civic generation (the last of which in Australia was the Federation generation born between 1901 and 1924). In his own forthcoming book, Ruthven nicknames them ferals, "not suggestive of being a wild animal so much as being . . . unconstrained in time, space and distance", because of the revolution in communications technology. Therefore, they can roam the world.

Feral and, according to some observers, fickle. Indeed, one of the main themes to emerge from the recent CIO Perspectives conference in the US, according to online journal Darwinmag.com, was that CIOs are concerned because members of this younger generation do not seem to exhibit company loyalty.

Exposed to a culture of instant gratification from early age, "they have no concept of gradualism or build up", says KPMG partner and author Bernard Salt. Where previous generations better understood gradualism, N-Geners bring to the workplace short attention spans and a demand for immediate satisfaction and consumption informed by a world of digital knowledge and information. The Internet has been generally available from 1993. N-Geners were the first generation to have digital watches, which became widely available around 1983. "Previous generations of children did not know the time," says Salt. "They didn't need to; childhood was endless . . . Immediacy and real time is all they relate to." He says cyber sex fits this mould nicely: "I want my satisfaction right now. Wham, bam, thank you Lara Croft."

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Just Rewards

One person to have exploited the Net generation's consumption habits to great effect is Domenic Carosa, 29-year-old founder and CEO of ASX-listed Web-development and music-technology company Destra. Destra's products allow instant purchase and download of music online. Carosa says N-Geners are keen on getting rewards upfront. He points to rising credit card debt as a symptom. Almost an N-Gener himself and boss of many, he admits his own impatience has driven him to success. He dropped out of a commerce degree aged 19 to start the computer game retail business that evolved into the $15 billion Destra.

With this kind of success as a case study, the Net generation seems poised to alter the power balance between managers and workers, forcing leaders to forge new partnerships with employees based on the negotiated abilities of people and teams, regardless of age or seniority, to execute change, promote skills and harness emerging technologies in the service of business goals.

Of course, there are those who believe it is little more than a fashionable tag for a group of people who are not easy to define. Certainly the claim that everyone under the age of 25 is computer literate and ready to embark upon a future of workplace democracy is offensive to the world's have-not majority. Figures from the Pew Internet Project do indicate that the 18 to 29 age group is more likely to be online than its elders but - as MIT Technology Review Web-logger Simson Garfinkel (who was unable to speak to CIO because of illness) suggests - this does not a workplace revolution make. Young people have always adopted new technology and ideas willingly and fearlessly. It is normal.

Moreover, according to Kurt Reiter, CTO and founder of Red Source Group, the parent of several media, technology and communications businesses, technology is a symptom of environment, not the other way around. Technologies that affect business practices are those that help overcome the challenges of that environment. "Technological solutions," he says, "are a result of the general population wishing to improve things - be it communication over distance or removal of mundane or repetitive business processes." These advances, whether it is bridge building letting us cross rivers to trade more freely or Wi-Fi hotspots letting investors trade stock in Starbucks, occur in line with the demands of humanity.

Technological development is simply one expression of evolution, says Reiter. Tapscott's promises were hyperbolic: the Internet has proved to be more evolutionary than revolutionary. Reiter - who is just over 30 years old - agrees that being au fait with new technology does not set N-Geners apart. To suggest today's technological advancements are any different from those of the past is to stick two fingers up at science and history. In being different, N-Geners conform to the norm.

Reiter refers to baby boomers' parents' concerns during the 60s - arguably a far more revolutionary period than today. "Their parents thought the future was doomed. The reality is generations step up to the plate when they are handed the reins." That is, using this mixed metaphor, each successive generation will assume responsibility when it is their turn.

Nevertheless, optimists such as Ruthven believe the Net generation will do more than step up to the plate. When they hit positions of power en masse in 2020, he says the world will change. They will pick up the plate, redesign it and make it available to everyone else too, because that's what we've brought them up to expect. The Net generation will not see the digital basics it has grown up with as value-adds, it will simply expect them - as we expect access to technological utilities such as electricity or running water today. Many N-Geners - particularly the younger ones - were born into post-Internet society. As running water has changed our expectations of access to sanitation, so the impact of the Internet has been to extend the notion of freedom of access to ideas and information.

"The real challenge for CIOs and CTOs is to 'crystal-ball' what information will next be required," says Reiter. It does not take a genius to work out that people may want to access their bank balance via their mobile phones; what is harder to ascertain is what else the Net generation will expect to have at its fingertips.

Managing these expectations is the key challenge of the early 21st century. Reiter says keeping up with technology is the easy bit; what marks N-Geners out is that they will take less crap from work. "As N-Geners start taking operational, management and executive positions in organizations," he says, "they will expect to be able to access dynamic business information and data in the same efficient and easy way they currently look up their star signs. And if they don't have it, they'll be stamping their feet on the floor demanding it in order to work efficiently."

Rightly so. "Very few companies carry people any more," Reiter adds. "The N-Gener manager will happily take on the challenge of working the job of five people without a PA but in return will expect information to be managed in real time."

CIOs who understand the business they work for and provide services to will be best placed to understand the information their staff, clients and suppliers will need and provide it using emerging technologies. "Just as the first banks to provide Internet and phone banking made their customers sticky," says Reiter, "organizations will win staff loyalty by making working life easy and efficient for the N-Gener."

If lifestyle is jeopardized by having to work on mundane or repetitive tasks or because they have to wait for data or information to perform their role, Reiter believes they will react violently. N-Geners have had a world of access not bordered by their parents' choosing; they do not take kindly to not getting what they want.

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High Hopes

Macfarlane's comments in Melbourne referred to the difficulties of maintaining the high standards of living Australian baby boomers have come to see as their right as the working-age population decreases - as did the Intergenerational Report. Growing up in that environment has informed N-Geners' expectations. As they shoulder that tax burden, they will expect a lifestyle at least as comfortable as that of their childhood.

Tapscott wrote in Growing Up Digital that N-Geners who meet resistance would decide to "abandon the status quo and create their own enterprises". They are not the first generation to lose respect and trust for institutions. Peter Fuda, a 34-year-old change management consultant currently writing his PhD paper on managing Generation X, points out that very few employees under the age of 40 expect loyalty from an employer. Too many have seen parents, friends and colleagues retrenched after 30 years' service. Some of them have even been retrenched themselves.

Unsurprisingly, N-Geners do not see being an employee as a particularly attractive option. This trend - which took root as a reaction to the downsizing and casualization of the workforce of the 1980s - will put pressure on the traditional corporation, as employees "reclaim" outsourcing and contractualism by opting for collaborative self-employment models rather than traditional careers.

"Up to now," says Ruthven, "organizations have owned employees. The Net generation will not see itself in that role . . . The idea of climbing bloody ladders will not appeal to them." The N-Gener is more likely to pitch himself or herself as a skilled service provider and demand more seasons in life - requiring regular opportunities to re-skill and take on new challenges.

As this happens, the shrinking workforce plays into N-Gener hands because these will be employees who think they are doing employers a favour by working for them. Managers will find it harder and harder to keep young people motivated. CIOs who get it right - by using technology to provide the kind of lifestyle and intelligence-rich working environment in demand - will be priceless. Salt likens them to the railway stationmasters of the 19th century. "As gatekeepers to the leading technology," he explains, "they were regularly featured in newspaper social pages."

Tapscott's vision rings true.

"Technocrats will hold an increasingly elevated position in society as the technology they control impacts more and more on our daily lives," Salt says. He goes as far as to suggest the possibility of a digital underclass of tech-illiterate boomers.

Likewise, failure to value the role of technology, IP and RD will isolate organizations from the workforce. IP could become the main form of asset growth - as the Net generation seeks to create wealth with what is available to it, rather than the property assets owned by its parents. "If they don't find that mind-set in a company, they'll see it as a hard slog run by idiots," says Ruthven.

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