Millenials, New Media and Social Change (Part One)

Last year, I was interviewed by José María Álverez Monzoncillo from the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos for a report he was preparing Telefonica, Millenials. La Generacion Emprendedora.  The transcription of the interview was published in Spanish so I asked him if I could reprint the English language original here for my readers, and he was happy to agree. This question about how digital media may or may not have shaped the first generation to have come of age with no exposure to a pre-digital world has generated interest from educators, parents, and policy makers around the world. The report makes some recommendations to business who deal with millennials as both consumers and employees.

You can get a sense of the report from what the back cover says:

Who is part of the Millennial generation? What differentiates them from other generations? Do digital natives have new skills? How are they informed and entertained? Have they buried the couch potato forever? Will your personal information become merchandise of data analysts? What vision do you have about life? What are your expectations? How do you define success? Do they have problems adapting to companies organized hierarchically and vertically? What do companies expect from them? How is the relationship between Millennials and Baby-Boomers? How do they face the clash between television and the Internet, rent versus ownership, passivity versus participation, transparency vs. privacy, together vs together alone? Are the environment and technology the keys that differentiate generations? How do they innovate? What do you want to be when you grow up? Are they as collaborative as they say or maybe the property does not interest them? Is flexibility their key? What are the key success factors of this generation? Do they have a hacker ethic? Who are they?

We are facing an ambitious book that reflects on these issues. There are answers, more questions and especially debate. Since William Strauss and Neil Howe coined the term "Millennial" at the end of the 1980s, to refer to the demographic cohort that would come of age in the year 2000, academics, consultants and institutions of all kinds have carried out studies that They try to understand this cultural group. The reader will find an in-depth analysis of the existing bibliography and three specific studies that offer original research results. For this we have focused on a concrete effect: the growing entrepreneurial current shown by members of the millennial generation in our country. To do this, the environmental factors are analyzed to determine if this effect could be conjunctural or was influenced by a structural change, but also intrinsic aspects of the generation itself.

The figure of the Millennials is approached with a central objective: to better understand the minenic entrepreneurial initiative. With a qualitative research approach, we conducted in-depth interviews with a group of Millennials, and subsequently, we developed a survey to expand our knowledge of some of the key success factors that were appearing during in-depth interviews. So the importance of knowing another language and having lived in another country, the motivation to undertake, the level of education or the impact of family support, mentors or acquaintances, were aspects that helped us to better understand how Generation Y undertakes in our country.

But this is a collective work. To complement the aforementioned nuclear study, this book has varied perspectives that significantly enrich the analysis: from the consumption of information, its level of training, its attitude towards unemployment and the new way of working, its capacity for adaptation, etc. To conclude, an interview with Henry Jenkins is offered, which offers a more international perspective of a generation that enters its maturity and that during the next decades will be of vital importance to understand how the present century evolves at the doors of the third industrial revolution and its socio-cultural and economic challenges.

In short, a book of great novelty and interest, written in a pleasant way. We wanted to be original, and offer a different vision of a generation often misunderstood in our country, and above all more committed and entrepreneurial than the topics imply.

The following quote (which was translated from Spanish) gives you some sense of the position taken by the authors of the report:

"It is a wrong perspective to think that the digitization of companies is to introduce the Internet in some of its processes, when, in reality, it linked to a change in corporate culture, and implies a constant process of renewal and improve to provide a better service or make a better product. The innovation involves intergenerational collaboration. Experience and a new impulse new in a technological paradigm shift is a good basis for restructuring many small and medium enterprises. Our analysis of the key factors of success (FCE) makes us think that there is a need to integrate the skills of different generations" (p. 364).

With this context, I will now share over the next few posts my responses to the questions these Spanish researchers posed to me.

A personal question: Why do you think you have connected so well with young people and have become a reference for them in spite of belonging to another generation?

My work has always focused on the ways that ordinary people deploy new media and popular culture resources in the context of their everyday life. This focus emerges from strong traditions in British cultural studies that have stressed that “culture is ordinary” and that forms of cultural expression are a normal aspect of how we interact with each other and with powerful institutions in our lives. These assumptions inform any work I do on children, youth, and new media. Often, there is an autobiographical dimension to my work -- my attention is drawn to forms of culture that are immediately around me, that have touched myself, my family, my students, or other important people in my life.

My earliest work on children and media, thus, involved me working through some of my concerns as a parent about the place that media played in my son’s life, starting with the ways that television programs became raw material for his play and social interactions with his friends and, in turn, thinking about what it means to play with television content as opposed to other kinds of cultural identities and traditional materials. I saw links between his backyard play and accounts in classic children’s novels which saw Anne in Anne of Green Gables, Jo in Little Women, Tom Sawyer, and others re-enacting stories that loomed large in their culture in the nineteenth century. I wrote about how video games might duplicate some of the processes of forging masculine identity through bonding via competition, risk, and mastery that had been identified by historians and sociologists looking at other generations of children at play. As my son got older, my interest shifted from children and media to adolescents and later college students as they interacted with new media. I was interested that his first girlfriend was an online relationship with someone who lived on the other side of the country, and later the other side of the world, or that his strongest social connections were with communities of shared interests that were not necessarily geographically bound by his school or neighborhood. These observations led me to read more deeply into work on learning and education, but also adolescent socialization processes and, more recently still, on how young people acquire political and civic identities.

A second source of my insights for much of the past twenty years came from my experiences as a housemaster in a MIT dormitory, living and interacting with some 150 undergraduates of diverse backgrounds, most of whom were well ahead of the adoption curve in their use of new media platforms and practices. Walking the halls and interacting with students offered me many glimpses of what they were doing with new media and why, and these encounters also inspired some key insights in my work. For example, watching international students share their own media traditions with their contemporaries, or for that matter, seeing murals on the walls of the dorm of anime and manga characters, inspired my interest in pop cosmopolitanism -- the idea that this generation is defining their identities in opposition to the parochialism of their parents’ culture by embracing popular culture from other parts of the world. At the same time, I was interested to see international students listening to podcasts or streaming radio from their mother countries, maintaining closer ties to the world they left behind than would be characteristic of earlier generations of students studying overseas.  Our dorm was  a place that accepted and embraced diverse subcultural, ethnic and sexual identities, so it was a place where I could learn more about goths and gamers, see new and emerging forms of fan culture, and develop a deeper appreciation of how these young people were communicating via social media even amongst people living side by side in the same building.

Part of what has allowed me to make such discoveries has been my openness to popular culture. I have always defined my identity in relation to fandom and so I do not dismiss forms of popular culture that are meaningful to the young people in my surroundings. Too many academics and educators are cut off from the realms of popular culture that matter in the lives of youth, do not appreciate why or how they are meaningful, and so often do not see what is right in front of their faces. As someone trained in cultural studies, we start from the premise that people do not engage in meaningless activities. We may not instantly understand why something is meaningful to someone else, but we have an obligation to identify its meaning and its fit in their cultural context, rather than simply dismissing it as trivial.

How do Millennials differ from other generations? How are Millennials similar to other generations?

I have to admit up front that I have a deep suspicion of the concept of the digital native, which runs through so much writing about contemporary youth around the world, and insofar as the concept of the Millennial becomes another way of expressing that same underlying paradigm, it produces a similar degree of discomfort. For example, consider the language framing a recent call for papers at an academic conference:

“Members of the millennial generation, or Generation Y, were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. Therefore, most of them are offspring of the baby boomers. They are also known as the most technologically savvy generation. Even though Generation X’ers were known to heavily consume electronic media because they were born when the Internet was in its infancy, the millennials were born into a media-saturated and consumer-driven culture. Moreover, unlike the members of the previous generations, they were surrounded by digital media technologies since they were infants. In a way, they live in a digital media ecology and in fact are known as “digital natives”....Since they live in digitalized platforms, millennials are often disconnected from the members of the previous generations. For the most part, rather than being community oriented, they are self-centered and self-absorbed. Perhaps, this why they are known as the “Generation Me.” ”

This passage sums up all of my concerns in a nice package.

Initially, digital native had some use value insofar as it encouraged adults to recognize and value young people’s unique relationships with new media. It encouraged educators and policy-makers to question taken-for-granted preconceptions about what they might value about formal education, what forms of cultural expression and experience were meaningful, and what activities would prepare youth for their adult lives. Young people, we were told, learned differently as a consequence of access to and familiarity with different media platforms and practices, though here, the argument already starts to veer into a technological determinist argument that video games made them smarter or Google made them stupid. Insofar as the term opened our eyes and minds to new possibilities, it had some constructive impact, but quickly it has become a way of shutting down questions through making universal or general claims rather than being attentive to the particulars of diverse young people and their lives. 

We cannot generalize across all of the members of a generation even in the U.S. context, let alone a global context, and assume that everyone had equal access to the resources, experiences, and knowledge required to meaningfully participate in the new media environment. Access has in fact been unevenly and inequitably distributed across this generation just as other technological and cultural resources have been unevenly and inequitably distributed across prior generations. Not all millennials, even in the industrialized West, grew up with easy access to networked computers, high speed bandwidth, mobile technologies, or game systems. Not all of them spent time with social networking technologies or playing massively multiplayer games. Not all of them wrote fan fiction or mucked around with Minecraft. So a key concern here is that the language we use to talk about millennials or digital natives is not sufficiently attentive to the diversity and inequality in the ways different young people access and learn through these various new media platforms and practice.

A second concern is that the language of the digital native tends to erase the process of learning -- we need to be attentive to the ways that engagement with these practices and platforms enables people to actively master skills, acquire language, and not just assume that these skills come naturally as a consequence of being in the vicinity of computers. Researchers are more and more attentive to how different communities playing with the same technologies may have differing degrees of learning, may or may not be able to articulate what it is they have learned, may or may not be able to transfer that knowledge to other contexts, and may or may not be able to meaningfully deploy such knowledge and skill in relation to educational and economic opportunities. These have been central concerns animating researchers in the Connected Learning tradition that has come out of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative. No one lives exclusively in a digital environment, so the effects of these early experiences with new media get shaped through the larger context of young people’s lives, whereas the rhetoric of the digital native tends to exaggerate digital media’s influence and often dismiss the active agency of those who have sought to build meaningful lives for themselves in relation to the online world. At its worse, the digital native rhetoric tends to focus on what media does to young people and not what young people do with media.

A third set of issues centers around the implicit and often explicit contrast between the digital native and something else -- what sometimes gets described as the digital immigrant, the adult population that came of age prior to the widespread introduction of networked computing. This framing tends to deny the value of what adults bring to the table -- the kinds of skill and knowledge they can transmit to the younger generation. In reality most of the sites of informal learning that have excited educators about the online world are places where adults and youth participate together, often with different, more fluid relationships than those found within traditional families, schools, churches and other institutions. Here, learning is more reciprocal than hierarchical. Adults learn from youth as well as the other way around. Researchers tell us that most youth lack access to adult mentors who can help them understand the ethical choices, risks and opportunities that they encounter in their online lives, and this lack of adult mentorship has consequences in terms of their ability to fully integrate learning with educational and economic opportunities. We should be encouraging more fluid intergenerational experiences online rather than seeing digital literacy as the natural byproduct of a generation that has come of age as the feral children of the Web 2.0 wolf pack.

The use of generational terms to describe media literacy potentially blurs another set of questions we should be asking about whether what we are observing reflects a particular life stage which shapes what people do with networked computers at particular ages as opposed to some permanent traits of a generational cohort that grew up at the same historical moment. For example, someone writing about the Baby Boomer generation in the 1960s might have defined it around the counter-culture and campus protests of the period, which certainly was one formative set of experiences for this generation, but fifty years later, we’ve seen that generation develop other traits and identities over time, and often, see the protests as specific experiences of adolescents and students living in a particularly charged period of American history. It is too soon to make lifelong generalizations about who millennials are, what they value, what their personality type is, etc. Does their media literacy reflect generational differences or simply the kinds of opportunities offered them as people in their teens and twenties in a specific historical and cultural context? It may tell us less than we think about long-term dispositions that come out of this early access to media.

Finally we need to be attentive to the commonalities across generations created around shared experiences of class, race, religion, geographic location, nationality and ethnicity, etc., all of which shape us in powerful ways, perhaps even more powerfully than can be accounted for by generational differences. At the end of the day, these young people share much in common with the older generations in their families and communities.