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How and why the Digital Era has redefined the concept of a "Generation"

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jc
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ILab Notes
What's a generation anyway?

Note from our editor:

In his last article of the series, Diego takes us to an uncomfortable space where the concept of generations ceases to apply. In this lively piece, Diego explains how technology - specifically the part of it that has connected the world - creates a paradox he calls "polarization-unification," that brings people of a similar age closer together and at the same time separates them. He gives vivid examples of how him and fellow blogger Marc, separated by just a couple of years, use social technology in markedly different ways. 

This is good advice for all of us in business. Approaching the way we design, hire and market using a concept that is not longer relevant - like the concept of generations - will only ensure we hit a wall we didn't even know was there. Another insight from a kid who just left the neighborhood playground and is now playing in ours. Take note.

Two generations: uncomfortably differentiated by just a couple of years.

Written by: Diego Martinez, diego@ilab.dk

What's a generation anyway?

The concept of generations has prevailed throughout modern history as a socially constructed and widely accepted differentiator between ages. Traditionally we’ve used this concept not only to help us group cohorts of people together, but also to distinguish between them. It’s easier to analyze advances in society when you split society into the comfortable intervals of time we call generations. Even at the personal level it’s easier for us to relate to and find comfort in the people of our own age - our generation has traditionally felt like our "tribe."  

So what marks generations? Traditionally anything from advances in technology to cultural eras such as the baby boomers, the rock-n-roll or the Apollo was enough to mark the differences amongst generations. But that handy way of segmenting is fading. We're currently advancing so quickly that we can no longer distinguish between technological or artistic epochs. There no longer exists the idea of an artistic “trend.” Artistically, there are infinite niches one could fit. Simply put, the Internet has expanded the social realm so much so that it has completely redefined what it means to belong to a generational period. 

Generation gaps, by tradition, are the core agents of societal conflict. It is nearly impossible to change that because it’s in our nature to exploit seniority. What is changing is the separation between generations, both polarizing and uniting age groups. Let’s have a look at the different ways generations are brought together and are completely separated in 2017, and reflect on what that means for you in terms of businesses and innovation.

A car-full of generations.

The paradox of Polarization-Unification

We feel a certain irreplaceable comradery with the people in our age groups, principally because they are the ones whom we identify with when we are affected by social changes. We live through and develop artistic trends, political crusades and advances in technology together. Yet, as we find ourselves moving more towards collective global knowledge, we begin to see how it is much more difficult for us to distinguish between “generations.” Information sharing has advanced so much so that it has come to both bridge the gaps between generations and separate them completely. In a way, we are living in an era which both polarizes age groups and unites them like never before. This paradox of polarization-unification through technology can be seen in media, art, business and most social trends. 

For example, ask any twenty-year old, like myself, if they use Facebook and the answer is most definitely. I was there when it launched, and I’m still here. Ask any seventeen-year old that same question, like my friend Marc (go read his blog if you haven’t already), if they use Facebook and the answer is most definitely no. Email? His answer is "Why would I want to write letters to everyone?" 

Wait: kids are not on Facebook?

The simple nuances in technology use between age groups now take place within an impressive one or two-year span of time. It no longer takes us 10 to 20 years to find major differences in social upbringings; the newer “generations” are separated by a small margin that only shrinks in size every year. I remember my first phone, the Motorola Razr flip phone, as a revolutionary step in communications and cellular tech. My brother is a mere three years younger than I am and doesn't even know what Razr is. This is the “polarization” part. What does that mean for you as an employer? It just means you have to be wearier of your new hires' age gaps and understand that in 2017, we don’t really connect with people on the age basis as much as we used to. Don’t trust two employees to get along just because they are in their twenties, one or two years' difference may mean completely different approaches to the world. 

Now to the “unification” aspect of our social paradox. Technology and especially social media have broken the typical marketing barriers that small companies faced before. All you need these days is a well set up Instagram page and you can take your product straight to your consumers. Forget the laws of supply and demand. Haven’t you heard? It’s trendy to be “rare” these days. Forget professional experience, too. 

Just look at Mo’s Bows, the bow-tie company which was started by twelve-year-old entrepreneur Moziah Bridges a couple of years back and has now struck a seven figure deal with the NBA. When was the last time your savvy professional marketing team landed a similar feat for your company? Again, there is the paradox of the polarization in technology trend and the unification of social trend. Mo and I may have grown up in two completely different periods of time in terms of technology (mind you we are only 5 years apart) yet he built a million-dollar business and I didn’t, using the same tools I have at my disposal. The older generational standards are centered on a strict level of seniority, experience and hierarchy, but the digital era has thrown us all in the same jungle and said: “play!” Any game is anyone’s game, and the social image of the generation is slowly fading into a synonym for anti-progressivism.

Why not be unified? Why not work with competitors simply because it will make a better product? Imagine if we took age out of the equation when hiring employees and took them on based on their ideas for business innovation. These are the questions that the unification aspect brings along with it - the total re-invention of what it means to be with, act like or work with people your own age. At the end of the day, age is just a number, right? 

What’s next?

So we find ourselves in this paradoxical mess of society losing the ages-old concept of generations, where things don’t seem to make sense yet they flow as easily as ever. What can we take from our current state of affairs to help us make wiser choices in the future? Luckily, the ages-old advice for businesses and managers to be open to new ideas without bias towards the source of innovation still applies. Every single year businesses will harvest new minds and cater to new audiences, so it’s essential to keep up to date with how social trends are affecting people regardless of age.  

Designs need to keep track with movements and innovators need to keep track with new innovators. Age should be no factor here.

Kids playing Basketball and Kids in Car photos courtesy of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Christopher Michel.