• January 1, 2009
  • By Jessica Tsai, Assistant Editor, CRM magazine

Required Reading: The Ne(x)t Generation

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In a follow-up to his 1998 best seller Growing Up Digital, author Don Tapscott revisits the kids who grew up on technology and the Internet as they become the most influential generation in history. Ten years later, Tapscott’s new book, Grown Up Digital, explores characteristics of these digitized “prosumers,” who expect to be involved in the products they consume. This generation is fundamentally different from all others before it, but Tapscott doesn’t treat it like an insulated anomaly. This generation has already shaken up traditional institutions and will inevitably shape the future. In a conversation with CRM’s Assistant Editor Jessica Tsai, Tapscott explains why we should forget the myths that technology is rotting their brains, or depriving them of social skills—in fact, it’s doing just the opposite.

CRM magazine: You speak to two different audiences, those in the “Net Generation” and those on the outside. Did you have this dual audience in mind?

Don Tapscott: I started off writing to people who are not in the generation because I wanted them to understand how today’s youth is different. They work, learn, collaborate, play, shop, and think differently than Gen X or the Baby Boomers, their parents. But as I got into it I found myself speaking to young people as well because the great historical challenge that we’re going to have over the next period is overcoming the generation firewall that exists in our institutions and in society. That’s going to require thoughtful behavior on the part of both generations.

CRM: Today’s youth may be tech-savvy, and yet I’ve heard from high school teachers that their students know how to blog but don’t know how to change the margins in Word.

Tapscott: Our old institutions die hard. A young lad [I met] just dropped out of a college course where he was studying communications. He said that the program wasn’t relevant to him because they didn’t view the Internet as part of communication. It was all focused on print, radio, [and] television. Young people today—typically, they don’t watch a lot of television and they don’t read newspapers. They get their news and entertainment from other sources.

My experience is that they learn it when they have to. You don’t go study the Internet, you don’t study Microsoft Word. When you have to use it, then you learn it—and learning it is a lot easier for them than it is for older generations.

CRM: You go in-depth to describe eight key values that shape this generation: choice, customization, scrutiny, integrity, collaboration, speed, entertainment, and innovation. How are these different than the values of other generations? Does Gen X not value integrity?

Tapscott: Not the same way. Let’s take scrutiny—when I was a kid, I saw a picture and it was a picture. I’m looking at a picture today and I [still] see a picture…. A woman in a fashion magazine, for example: I look at her and I see a woman; my daughter looks at her and wonders how she’d been Photoshopped. Her neck is longer, her cheeks are bigger.

When I grew up, my generation—Baby Boomers—we watched 24 hours a week of television. These kids watch a lot less television and they watch it differently. [They] may have the TV on in the room but it’s kind of like music—background information—and [they’re] doing seven different things at once on the [computer] screen.

So viral marketing campaigns, for example, must be authentic. You’ve got to say who you are. You can’t [fake] a graffiti campaign for Sony PlayStation because the real graffiti artists are going to know that it’s fake.
I was in a store called TopShop in London…. I saw these young women’s flats. They were all the same, except they were in about 200 different colors. I looked at that and I couldn’t tell one from the other, but all these young girls are feasting over it, “Oh, look at that one, look at the yellow, and that and that.” That’s the choice norm that’s kicking in.

All of our marketing is oriented to a broadcast, one-way world, where you [were able] to control the message. But now this is a whole new world we’ve entered into. For CRM this is great, because it’s all about the relationship.

CRM: Will the market shift occur naturally as this generation rises up or will they revert back to traditional practices as well?

Tapscott: [The Net Generation] is not going to change. The opposite will happen: Our institutions will change to meet them. The reason they’re not going to change is that their brain is different. The structure of [their] brain is different than my brain. [Their] synaptic connections and the way [they] process information [are] different.

In [this generation’s] culture, in their behavior, is the new consumer, the new brand, the new model of marketing. We need to listen to young people and learn from them. [Then] you’ll understand how marketing and customer relationships need to change.

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