Ken’s View: Move Over, Millennials

Move over millennials, here comes iGen, Gen Z, or a gaggle of digital natives. Take your pick. For those of you scratching your heads over this proliferation of appellations, those last three are just different monikers applied to the same cohort. Keep in mind, too, that millennials used to be Gen Y before they got a better, or at least different, name. Also, there is no consistency when it comes to naming or capitalizing generations, so don’t blame me for that first sentence. It’s not my fault.

Maybe we’ve made too much of this generation thing, but as long as someone broached the subject, let’s not confuse iGens with millennials 2.0. They, iGens, that is, aren’t merely enhanced millennials, generational pundits assert. They’re a different flavor. Well, that clears that up.

“Digital native,” however, is my favorite term, although its meaning is likewise a bit foggy. Presumably, digital natives are those who have grown up with digital “devices.” At the very least, they seem to own a lot of them. One university president reported students brought an average of seven devices to campus with them. And you thought books were expensive.

More importantly, the term digital native seems to suggest that those so anointed are tech savvy or digitally literate. Not necessarily, it turns out. One educator tells the story of a digital native who didn’t know he could use Microsoft Word on an iPad. Like anything else, these so-called digital natives need to be taught how to use their devices in an academic or work setting. In the kid’s defense, however, I don’t see why anyone would want to use Word on an iPad. In my view, he’s showing good judgment.

When people say digital native, I think they most often mean someone who is fluent in social media — which is what they would have said in the first place if they were themselves fluent in some language. Social-media proficiency or being tech savvy is not the same as digital literacy; it’s a different flavor, as they say.

Digital literacy, to cite just one real-life example that recently came to my attention, means knowing things like the fact that hyperlinks are not substitutes for attribution or footnotes, especially since hyperlinks simply don’t translate to the printed page. You have to name your source in visible, printed words, not as a scrap of digital formatting that’s floating in the cloud somewhere. Besides, most readers won’t follow the link anyway, so your attribution really isn’t an attribution no matter how much you argue it is. To be fair, digital natives can’t be expected to know that simply because of their exposure to devices.

Also, if what I read is true, iGens are more cautious, fear failure, and are way more anxious than previous generations. I can’t say I blame them, but previous generations of college students faced plenty of uncertainty and turmoil. What’s different this time around? I don’t think we know that with any certainty, other than to say “times have changed.” That’s always a great conversation ender.

The image left to me is of a sad, bewildered, anxious college freshman, standing in the rain at iUniv., weighed down by a backpack full of his or her seven devices, not knowing what any of them is good for, where to charge them, or which one contains his class schedule. Good luck, kid. — Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

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