This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2013

In defence of the iGeneration

Renée WilsonWebsite

iGen_screengrabA scientific and anecdotal rumination on why today’s kids are more than all right—they’re the best generation yet

I had only been a College professor for three years when Gregory Levey’s controversial and much-discussed magazine piece “Lament for the iGeneration” was published in 2009. I interpreted it as a cautionary tale: if we’re in the hands of the next generation, we’re really screwed. Levey, a Ryerson communications professor, basically argued he’s pretty sure education has tanked; the iGeneration (those born in the 1990s) can’t handle post-secondary learning; and that the gap between the schools and the kids is too huge to mend. Dismal stuff, but I understood where Levey was coming from—kind of.

I was terrified when I first started teaching. I didn’t have any teacher training. I got hired via email. There was no mentoring, no lesson plans, no prep. One day I was writing a magazine column in my crap clothes from home, and the next I was dressed like a grown up stammering through a lesson at the helm of a full class. I just wanted them to like me. I guess that’s why I took it personally when they paid more attention to Facebook than they did to me during a lecture. It was an out-of-body experience to have to tell them to turn their computers off and listen to me. I felt the same frustration Levey described in his article: “Radical advances in technology over the past decade have made today’s young minds incompatible with traditional learning. It isn’t just what they know or don’t know. It’s also how they know things at all.”

Seven years later, I still die inside a little bit when, inevitably, I have to give the speech about shutting down screens when I’m directly addressing them. I hate that I have to say it, but now I don’t take it personally. I still worry that they won’t get the crux of the lesson if they don’t give me their full attention, but I know they’re not mentally flitting around out of disrespect. Instead of finger wagging, I immersed myself in learning what makes them tick. Asking them to drop their tech would be like asking you to wear your shoes on the wrong feet. It’s do-able, of course, but does it ever feel wrong. What I found is that this generation multi-task very well, and that the cynicism surrounding the iGeneration is dead wrong. Not only are the kids alright, they could be the best generation yet.

My cynical generation is great at slapping critical labels on the iGeneration. We do it all the time. “Everyone dumps on the youngest generation,” says Giselle Kovary, co-founder and Managing Partner of Toronto-based ngen People Performance Inc., which specializes in managing generational differences in the workplace. “But this generation is scary smart.”

The generation born in the 1990s has pretty much always known things we haven’t: Facebook (est. 2004), YouTube (est. 2005), Twitter (est. 2006), Google (est. 1996) and Wiki (est. 2001). Social networking to them is what colour TV was to GenX: It’s hard to remember life before it—and just like T.V. used to be the big scare, we are obsessed over what the internet does to children of the iGeneration, especially now that they’re growing up. All of this freaky attachment to tech is seriously messing with the “social” part of their brains, some experts say. Everyone — including iGeneration itself  — is extremely sensitized to the way young people interact with technology. The list of scientific studies on the topic is as expansive as the more amateur commentary making its way through social media circuits.

The conclusions that such technology-attached-brain studies and commentaries reach are overwhelmingly scary. They ring not of advancement and exciting future possibilities, but of one word: beware. Take, for instance, the conclusions of one cautionary book. “Besides influencing how we think, digital technology is altering how we feel, how we behave, and the way in which our brains function,” says Gary Small in his book, iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind, which he co-wrote with his, wife Gigi Vorgan, in 2008. “As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills, such as reading facial expressions during conversation or grasping the emotional context of a subtle gesture.”

In other words, the iGeneration’s techno brains are morphing them into socially-inept robots.  It’s easy—perhaps too easy—to agree with this assessment, but I don’t buy it. In my seven years in the classroom, I’ve witnessed how much more mature this generation is than I ever was as a student. On the upside, this techno brain phenom has resulted in a cohort that can think on its feet, make snap decisions and, on the flip-side of all the negative studies about them turning into social morons, there’s just as much research to show that students who use tech to communicate are actually fantastic collaborators. It’s like they’re wired for it. They are fearless about pushing buttons—literally and figuratively—and, as one article put it, it’s “as if they’ve been programed how to know what to do.”

I’m in constant contact with my students, partly because they demand it and partly because it’s just easier that way. Why wait a week to get an answer from me, when they can fire off a quick message, get the direction they need and then press on with an assignment? Isn’t that just working smarter? I’ve talked a student through a class project at 8 p.m., while she was still at school and I was grocery shopping. I’ve conducted a class from my hotel room at Disney World during March Break without a single hiccup. The students didn’t think twice about passing me around on an iPad to answer questions. What’s more, they all showed up to class, even though they knew I wouldn’t be there in body.

“This generation is known for its innovation and creativity,” laughs Kovary over the phone. “Think outside of the box? Um, they don’t even know there is a box.” This generation only knows a world where the next-best version is released quarterly. What they’ve internalized is that there’s no need to wait until every detail is perfect. Instead, you make adjustments as needed, in real time. This freedom of approach is what, perhaps, makes them the gutsiest of all generations.  As Kovary adds, the iGeneration doesn’t get stuck in the older generation’s static world, or even in the status quo. Change is okay. In fact, it’s great.

If the box no longer exists, neither does any sort of social or geographical barrier. Enter the now ubiquitous crowd-sourcing movement. What once was a small world has become a teeny, tiny world and no generation is more adept at taking advantage of that than the iGeneration. When I was a kid (Ugh. Did I just say that?), I wanted to be a travel agent. (Don’t laugh. Who saw Expedia coming in the ’80s?). But I didn’t know anyone in the field, I couldn’t find a college or university program, and that dream died. Today, those obstacles don’t exist. The iGeneration doesn’t blink at the thought of finding valuable life, job, or education connections though technology or social media. Just as those from other generations might ask their spouse, mentor or close friend, the iGeneration will source hundreds of “friends” and “followers” for love advice, career advice, and even thoughts on what to eat for lunch.

It can seem gutsy to put out a public SOS on Facebook or Twitter, but that’s the way the iGeneration rolls. “They will crowd source, no matter what the challenge,” says Kovary. “Their ‘pack’ is 700 people.” While critics lambast the generation for its me-me-me focus, the truth is that collaboration comes naturally to this extended pack. Their willingness to source what other people have to say almost makes relying on others second nature.

In one class, for instance, I blindfolded my students and told them to make their way around the classroom, being sure to touch each of the four walls before returning to their chairs, in an unconventional attempt to teach them about deadlines (newsflash: I set them because I can see what’s coming). Almost the entire group instinctively worked as a team, made a human chain and executed the task in a pack. In the end, I made my point about deadlines (my due date is preventing you from ramming into the proverbial desk you didn’t see) and they reinforced the notion that there is power, and trust, in a pack.

Perhaps surprisingly, rather than creating a generation of followers and drifters—as is so often suggested—this ask-everybody-and-anybody-everything-and-anything attitude has created a cohort of peers. This extends to all areas, including business, and pretty much anything where top-down leadership was once instinctive. Now, says Kovary, everyone within a corporation is a peer.  “If a senior manager says ‘email me’, [this generation] will,” she adds. “If you’re going to tout open communication, get ready!”

Whereas other generations were meant to maintain respectful distance, connecting with people—all people—is the iGeneration’s natural expectation.  Or as 23-year-old Katie Fewster-Yan puts it, because her generation is able to make so many easy connections with people, the top-down model of leadership seems unappealing, even obsolete. Instead, she suggests the term micro-leaders. She is co-founder of Ruckus Readings. Ruckus is a Toronto-based reading series that promotes spoken word literature, one of many, she admits, that exists in Toronto—an exercise in diversifying options, instead of competing for an audience. “Since it’s so easy to connect with people,” she adds, “You can really choose to follow the ones you’re drawn to.”

For Fewster-Yan, this has nothing to do with a sense of entitlement (another common, and tired, criticism of today’s twentysomethings.) In fact, she mostly feels like she has the inverse of entitlement: that her resume is one small sheet in a massive stack of overqualified resumes, not even entitled to minimum wage despite her university education. She guesses that, more than anything, is why many of the iGeneration start things on their own, like she did with Ruckus Readings. It’s not that they feel entitled to be happy or immediately successful or even that they should jumpfrog over others with more experience. Rather, there is a general sense that the old model of “shimmying in at the bottom, hanging tight and working your way up” is broken. And why, in this new world of change and crowd-sourcing wouldn’t it seem that way? “I think of plenty of people as role models,” says Fewster-Yan, “but I see them more as exemplary peers than superiors.”

Or, as 22-year-old Chanelle Seguin says: “The best part is that the older generations are learning from the iGen.” Seguin is the sole staff reporter at the Pincher Creek Echo in Alberta, where she is responsible for writing and designing the weekly community newspaper. In addition to putting in a solid eight hours at the paper, she also works part-time at Walmart to pay off the line of credit she needed to move from Ontario to Alberta for the reporting gig. Plus, she is a volunteer Girl Guide leader, is planning to coach hockey and is working on her own sports magazine start-up, Tough Competition.

She says her generation was forced to become leaders. They had to teach themselves how to use Facebook, Twitter, smartphones, Bluetooth—and the list goes on. Her generation doesn’t, she adds, follow the same way other generations did. In that way, she admits, they kind of deserve the selfish moniker everyone slaps on them. “We are almost selfish,” says Seguin, “because we lead ourselves and don’t consider following anyone.”

Even so, don’t ask for an iGeneration’s undivided attention because you’re not going to get it. It would be like asking a Gen-X to go back to changing channels without a clicker, or trying to convince a Traditionalist that debt is good. It just feels wrong. The iGeneration is of the “do it now, fix it later” mentality. But why wouldn’t they be? They’ve come of age at a time when technology changes quarterly. Change is good. Rapid change means things are getting cooler.

Some have labelled this trait as the desire for immediate gratification, or a lack of stick-with-it-ness, but I think they’re wrong. I think it’s a matter of momentum. They can’t stay static because everything around them, the social life-sustaining technology that triggers their all-consuming dopamine, is in perpetual change. Science tells us that brain function from age 15 to 25 is dopamine induced, which is why this is life’s most emotionally-powerful span. It isn’t until later, sometime from age 25 onward, that the ability to control impulses kicks in. Dopamine is the feel-good chemical, it’s that little Russell Brand voice in your head that whispers, “Go ahead, luv, have another piece of cake.”

The iGeneration is swimming in it. Science also tells us that hits of dopamine, for the iGeneration, come from things like Facebook status likes and ReTweets. It’s easy to confuse this with narcissism. While nearly all researchers peg key human development on ages birth to three years, prominent figures in adolescent research beg to elaborate. They say people ultimately become who they are during adolescence. The prefrontal cortex—the steady-eddie part of our brain—starts developing just before adolescence and doesn’t stop until we’re in our mid-twenties, which means from puberty until then everything feels really intense. We can blame this intensity on dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres and gushes when we do something that feels good. This entire process is about preparing young people to shape their own notion of who they are as people, as they strive for self-actualization.

In Jennifer Senior’s article, “Why You Truly Never Leave High School,” published in January in New York magazine, the power of dopamine is explored. She quotes studies on the “reminiscence bump”—the term used for the fact that, “when given a series of random prompts and cues, grown adults will recall a disproportionate number of memories from adolescence.” This explains BOOM radio, mullets in 2013, why NKOTB can still sell out, and why otherwise placid grandparents can still bust a mean jive at a wedding reception. Societal circumstances change with the generations, but basic brain development doesn’t. The drastic variable with the iGeneration, though, is the breakneck speed of technology. According to iBrain, we haven’t seen this kind of leap since humankind first learned how to use a tool.

Every human being experiences the same stages of brain development, in that we’re all in prefrontal cortex development from puberty to our mid-twenties. The difference today is that dopamine hits are coming from tech, and tech is everywhere, and tech equals perpetual change. According to Joel Stein’s article, “The Me Me Me Generation,” published in May in Time magazine, in order to retain this generation in the workforce, companies must provide more than just money; they must also provide self-actualization. “During work hours at DreamWorks (for example),” Stein writes, “you can take classes in photography, sculpting, painting, cinematography and karate.”

This whole self-actualization thing is a bit much for Gen-Xers and Boomers to stomach, especially in the workplace. I get it. And it took me a few runs at it, but I now see that self-actualization is the only way to truly reach the iGeneration in the classroom. I don’t fancy myself Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in Dangerous Minds, and I certainly have nothing on Dead Poets Society’s captain-my-captain, but when I handed out marshmallows to students in a magazine writing class I knew I grabbed them tighter than Facebook in that lesson. I had found a way to tap into their value system. It was all about them (ahem, self-actualization), yes, but I knew every student also had a story to tell.

Still, I had completely underestimated the power of my marshmallow lesson. I was humbled when one student’s composition described how it made him feel when he and his sister roasted marshmallows by candle flame because, as “apartment kids”, they never had the privilege of a backyard campfire. In Marshmallow, I expected a literal description of the taste of a marshmallow. Perhaps I underestimated the trust they had in me, and in their classmates, to share such personal stories. Educators need to find out what iGeneration’s values are by sneaking up on them with unconventional lessons.

I remember another lesson, where I had students write a hate letter to anyone or anything. Dear Money. Dear Coffee. Dear Dad. Anything. One girl, a Harley-Davidson employee, addressed her letter as: Dear Chrome-Loving Douche Bag. Of course, when I read it aloud to the class, there was an extended laughter pause, but the content of the letter revealed a real revulsion, and fear of, a middle-aged man who flirted with her during a sale. It’s bizarre. I’ve had some of the best Canadian journalists come speak in my classes, and I still catch students sneaking Facebook during the session. Yet, the Douche-Bag letter warranted undivided attention.

In a world so saturated with noise, it’s like the iGeneration is thirsty for honesty and direct, transparent communication. If you spin an inauthentic response, they will quickly abandon ship. I have to admit, there’s something endearing about a generation who wants to cut through the bullshit—much of it knee-jerk criticism of themselves.

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