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Developing the Digital Generation Part 1

August 15th, 2010

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Our organization is consumed with developing this next generation of students into leaders. They will soon be adults and will lead our world into the 22nd century, if you can believe it. They’ve been called all sorts of names as sociologists have tried to wrap their arms around their identity:

  • The Millennial Generation
  • The Internet Generation
  • Echo Boomers
  • Nexters
  • Generation Y
  • The Nintendo Generation
  • The Sunshine Generation
  • The Digital Generation

I like to call them “Screenagers” because so much of their interaction takes place on a screen. They truly are the digital generation—having grown up their entire lives with access to digital technology. What name do they prefer? Year ago, several thousand of them sent suggestions about what they want to be called to the late Peter Jennings at, and “Millennials” was the clear winner.

“In this uncertain economy and highly competitive business environment,” says Claire Raines, “companies across North America recognize that the differentiator is their people. Those organizations that emerge as winners in the battle for talent will have their fingers on the pulse of this newest generation. They’ll design specific techniques for recruiting, managing, motivating, and retaining them. 

“The Millennials are just entering the workforce, and, as they do, employers are scrambling to find out everything they can about them. Are they Gen-Xers on steroids? Or are they a new breed entirely? How do they choose a career? And why? How will they change the workplace as we know it today? What are they looking for when they post their resumes on What is their work ethic? What is unique about them? How do the best and brightest managers communicate with and motivate them?”

First, Let’s Understand Them

Before we talk about how to develop this generation into effective leaders and workers, let’s summarize the factors that have shaped them. Let me suggest a few factors below.

1. Terrorism.

You and I became familiar with it as adults. They grew up with it. 1993 in New York City. 1995 in Oklahoma City. 1999 at Columbine High School. 2001 at the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

2. Heroism.

Following the 2001 terrorist attacks, our kids heard the word “hero” more than they had in the entire previous decade. And the heroes were policemen, firefighters, city mayors and ordinary citizens.

3. Multi-culturalism.

Talk about diversity and tolerance. Those words are their middle name. They not only plan to travel and work abroad, the world has come to them—with a rising Latino, African and Asian population.

4. Patriotism.

After Vietnam and Watergate, patriotism reached an all-time low in America. September 11, 2001 change all that. Today, voting is up, civic service is up and flags waving in front of homes is up.

5. Syncretism.

This generation has embraced seeming contradictory beliefs. They’re values are pluralistic and they attempt to reconcile varied and opposing principles, parties or practices so they can co-exist.

6. Nepotism.

Parental leadership is huge. Kids welcome it at school and work. Family is a top priority for most of them. Parents plan to direct their kids and secure their future. This can be a controlling factor.

7. Consumerism

Research shows these kids want both influence and affluence. They don’t take “no” for an answer and are used to getting what they want. They want “things” and are impatient if they have to wait.

8. Technology.

This generation considers technology an appendage to their bodies. They connect via screens: texting, Facebook, internet, gaming, YouTube. Technology enables them to change the world.

Relevant Ideas for Developing Them

Based on research from Neil Howe, William Strauss, Mike Males and Claire Raines on this Digital Generation, let me suggest some relevant ideas to develop them into leaders:

  1. Design their work space so that they are set up physically to share ideas. They love community and constant communication. They generally perform better in teams and with interaction. Create community at the workplace and expect the interaction to eventually improve your outcomes.
  2. Provide consistent feedback. You may have been the type that said, “Just leave me alone once you give me a job.” This generation is often the opposite. They are used to constant affirmation.
  3. Establish a reverse mentoring program. Companies such as Procter and Gamble and Siemens have set up tutoring for middle-aged executives Young newcomers help the executives navigate the Net. Jack Welch (formerly CEO of General Electric) says that “e-business knowledge is usually inversely proportional to age and rank. GE matched 1,000 managers and 1,000 young employees. Even though the younger cohort had just joined the firm, they often understood new technologies better than GE’s finest.
  4. Consider assigning projects to groups of employees who are evaluated as a group for reaching a goal. This is what these young people have been used to at school. Don’t worry. You will find out who did most of the work and who performed as the most valuable player. But almost everyone in this generation is better by working as a team.
  5. Communicate outcomes you wish to accomplish—but don’t measure hours. These kids are not into clocking in hours, but finding the most innovative ways to reach a goal. Measure what really counts—results. Let them work odd hours if possible.
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