Our young generation is one of “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, cell phones, tablets, video games, and of course the Internet. They have been called by many names: the N Generation (N for Net), or the Digital Natives. Whatever we may call them, our young people have proven that they are radically different than any other previous young generation before them. Today’s youths – from kindergarten through university – represent the first generation of young people to grow up with disruptive innovation and technology. They are at home in the midst of the accelerated rate of change, replacement and innovation of technology. They not only follow this disruptive innovation, they demand it, they lead it. Therefore, I have found that the most useful designation for our young digital natives is the Disruptive Generation. They are “disrupting” the way we do business: many times their opinion carries more weight than that of their adult guardians, they exert their influence over other customers through the internet, and they are rising into business and political decision-making roles earlier than previous generations. However, this generation is bringing a positive disruption, as they are more connected and much more aware of big global challenges such as inclusive globalization, gap between the rich and poor, natural resources, multilateral world, and the list continues. Their thinking together with their use of technology will equip and help them address these global issues better than previous generations.
Why is the young generation the disruptive generation?
The young generation of today is unlike any other previous generation. Today’s youths differ from those of the past not only in the way they talk, the slang they use, the way they dress, their styles – these were the usual changing characteristics between previous young generations. But not anymore. The young generation of today is the first of its kind to understand the uses of new technology and to follow its change better than older generations. Young people have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using mobile devices, computers, video games, and all the other gadgets of the digital age. They are used to receiving information very fast. They prefer graphics before text, and hypertext before pen and paper. They function best in a network, especially social network, and they are always connected. These are the new characteristics or skills acquired and perfected by the young generation through years of interaction and practice.
Everything in the lives of our youths is somehow touched by technology, and they seem to understand very well the enabling impact and influence technology has on our lives and indeed on our businesses. Young people have a powerful opinion when it comes to consumer behavior, both in their families and over other customers. For example, car manufacturers today have to take into consideration new research which says that more than half of the decision-making process on buying new family cars is in the hands of children below 15 years old. Young people also have influence over customers through the internet. They share their opinion quickly, repeatedly and freely on social media and beyond, and managed to disrupt entire industries. An example is the hospitality industry. Websites like booking.com offer customer reviews that carry a lot of weight with consumers and act like an alternate advisor when deciding to make a purchase. But we cannot fully understand how as a result of the disruptive technological innovation around them, young people became a disruptive force themselves, without understanding the cycle between this generation and the technology they consume.
Disruptive technological innovation
There can be little innovation without technology, if any at all. The ICT industry (information and communications technology industry) started with room size computers for governments and corporations, and evolved to producing small gadgets for consumers in only four decades. How did huge computers get packed up in our pockets? Moore’s law predicted a technological evolution pattern that sums up this development. Transistors on a chip scaled down and multiplied, driving the computing power to double every year, while the size of devices actually decreased. While other industries experience a climactic change then plateau in terms of innovation, ICT keeps advancing at a fast pace, accelerating its rate of change. As technology accelerates in performance, it also brings innovation to every aspect of our lives – and it is a disruptive innovation. The capability of the latest technology rapidly enables the development of the next improved technology, which in its turn replaces or changes the previous technological product. Think of the evolution of cell phones, or indeed any other digital device.
The positive power of disruptive innovation and the disruptive generation
The rate of technological change and the wave of disruptive innovation create great opportunities in the market place. From a bakery to a bank, every and any business can be enabled if they choose to ride this wave of innovation and technology. And indeed, any bakery or bank should think of business in terms of software. If they choose not to, then others will take their place.
I am currently coaching three global banks, and some important reminders I have for them is that even though a bank will maintain its core products, just how they will maintain and deliver them will continually change. This is where software and technology services play a crucial role because the delivery to customers and assuring their satisfaction is of crucial importance. Youths play a big role in almost any business because they have a big say in terms of how good and especially how bad a product is, and they love to share their opinion and plant it all over internet channels. As I mentioned earlier, the Disruptive Generation not only shares their opinion readily but also influences other consumers with those opinions. Furthermore, the young generation is rising into business and political decision-making roles earlier than previous generations. Just an example is European Union’s current foreign affairs minister from Austria who is only 28 years old. Young people are connected, dynamic and much more aware of big global challenges. That is why this generation is bringing a positive disruption. At the roots of their positive disruption are global concerns such as inclusive globalization, closing the gap between the rich and poor, protecting our natural habitat, and multilateralism. Their thinking together with their use of technology has enabled them to address these global challenges better than previous generations. I believe the positive impact this generation will have on our world will be immeasurable.
Why is there high unemployment among the digitally native Disruptive Generation?
There are many issues with youth unemployment, but I can point out two main ones. They both relate to education: the structure of the education system and subjects taught seem to not prepare our students for the job market. As I mentioned earlier, our young people have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach. Whether as a result of the disruptive technological innovation around them or the sheer volume and diversity of their interaction with it, today’s students think, process information, and learn very differently from previous generations. These differences go far and beyond the current structure of the educational system. But luckily, the solution is at hand – we must use technology in the classroom. I always say technology can do three things for the education system. Firstly, it can encourage personalized learning that combines graphics, text, audio and video to more easily fit different learning styles. Secondly, it can make learning globally accessible through the internet and cloud computing. Thirdly, it can enable global collaboration. For example, teaching tools can incorporate communication platforms like Skype where students can collaborate, help each other, or work in teams, wherever in the world they may be.
The second issue related to education has to do with the subjects our young people are encouraged to learn. There seems to be a gap between the skills needed on the job market and the skills and knowledge our young people gain in schools. That might be due to the issue I explained above, as the teaching tools are not advanced enough to teach or keep interested our Digital Natives. Or, it might be due to not teaching enough of the requested subjects such as computer science, mathematics, and engineering. The Digital Natives consume technology better and faster than any other generation, a fact that has fundamentally changed them and the world, but they are not the main creators of that technology. I believe we are underutilizing the potential of the Disruptive Generation. They have the capability to propel our economies and our world into a new level of innovation and prosperity if we enable them with the right tools. They are already more connected than any other generation. The next step is to enable them with the skills and knowledge of how to create software, leverage Big Data and cloud computing. Our Disruptive Generation will fiercely take on global challenges and champion a new level of positive disruption we cannot yet imagine.
Author: Jan Muhlfeit, Global Strategist / Coach / Mentor / Ret. Chairman of Microsoft Europe