Ending the “Digital Native” Millennial Stereotype

Digital native Digital immigrantIn a 2001 article, educator Mark Prensky coined two terms that have become ubiquitous in the past decade: “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” According to Prensky, “digital natives” are those who “spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, video games, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.” In shorthand, they are those born after 1980 and easily correlate with the Millennial generation and later cohorts. “Digital immigrants” on the other hand are those born before 1980, forced to adapt to a digital environment to which they are not native-born and in which they will always retain an “accent” and a foot in the past.

Prensky’s article focused on educators and students and how differently both groups now approach teaching and learning. But its effect reaches far beyond that. “Digital natives” now describes an assumption of the Millennial generation – that Millennials are native speakers of digital media, easily able to traverse the millions of different technology forms, while Xer’s, Boomers and Traditionalists are immigrant adapters whose slow adaptation to new technology is accepted because they are late arrivals to this new digital frontier.

In the past several months, I have heard at least half-a-dozen legal industry speakers use the term “digital immigrant” to describe themselves, and to explain why they are unable to adapt to new technologies. I heard a partner explain how her associates were “just born” tech-capable and she was “too old” to learn their new tricks. I heard legal industry panelists call themselves “inept” at learning the new technologies available at their firm and how thankful they were that the younger employees could use them. I even heard a keynote speaker, after a young attorney spoke about new online platforms for client access, throw his hands up in the air and despair at what “all these kids” were talking about.

These incidents all led to easy chuckles from the audience which is what they were intended to do. However, they mask a dangerous, and resentment-building, assumption: that the digital immigrants are never going to be as good as the digital natives and everyone is just fine with that.

As a Millennial, I find that assumption both frustrating and counter-productive. First, Millennials are adopters as much as anyone else in the workplace. Even the youngest Millennial attorneys didn’t grow up with e-discovery platforms or cloud-based servers. Is it easier for those who grew up with keyboards and joysticks to use touchscreens and smartphones? Perhaps. But we’re not native speakers of it; we had to learn, just like everyone else.

The “digital natives” assumption also ignores the many Millennials who did not grow up with access to the technology that Prensky and others think was universally available to our generation. Several surveys have demonstrated that ease of technological adaptation is a matter of affluence, not age. Moreover, even those who did grow up with that technology may not be as digitally savvy as others. As Professor Estzer Hartigay, a communications professor at Northwestern, wrote for the Huffington Post last year:

While it is certainly the case that most children and young adults have grown up surrounded by technology and indeed spend considerable time using digital media, it is wrong to equate hours spent on such devices with automatic savvy.

Unfortunately that’s not the assumption that many older workers have about their younger colleagues. The assumption often is that we know exactly how it works. In many cases (not all) that’s only because we have repeatedly tried and failed and tried again, and also, because we know to quickly use Help files, YouTube, and Google to find an answer to a question. Rather than doing either of those, the older employee finds that it is much faster to ask the Millennial the next cubicle over to solve the issue.

But this leads to a second conundrum – the many Millennials in the workplace who spend large portions of their workday serving as free tech support for their older peers. In her book, You Raised Us. Now Work With Us, author Lauren Stiller Riklen reports that many of the Millennials she surveyed complained that they spend far too much of their already busy workday assisting older employees with technology. As one respondent reported:

When I previously worked at a firm, I often had to teach the secretaries how to create forms … I had a similar experience with regard to older workers and keyboard shortcuts. It often ends up that younger, well-educated workers were doing menial tasks, just because they were able to do them quicker because of their ability to better use the technology.

When Millennials are repeatedly asked to help others save to the cloud or navigate Outlook, their own work will inevitably suffer. They may find themselves having to put extra time in to make up for that time lost. And for attorneys in particular, the time they spend helping an older colleague isn’t necessarily time they can bill. Just because Millennials can do it faster and better, doesn’t necessarily mean they should be the ones doing it in the first place.

Rather than allowing this status quo to continue, managers should take active steps to address the underlying issue. The reality is that many Millennial employees can utilize technology more efficiently than their older colleagues. However that should not excuse older employees from learning the same technology that Millennials have had to learn as well. Managers should also recognize that not all Millennials are created equal – some are digital natives, others are immigrants much like everyone else.

Additionally, managers should realize that allowing a system where Millennials offer tech support for free can not only lead to resentment, but will also result in older employees never truly learning the technology that is supposed to make their workdays easier. And Millennials are unlikely to complain about their superiors if they think retaliation, implicit or explicit, might ensue. If there is tech support in the company, managers should encourage all employees to utilize that support and get training as needed. If, as is likely to happen, older employees continue to rely on Millennials for assistance, managers should acknowledge that and compensate Millennials for time spent; even just public acknowledgment and recognition might be enough.

Finally, managers should incorporate Millennials into their technology decision-making. It is very likely that Millennials are not the ones deciding a company’s policies, software and vendors. However, to the extent that there are digital natives able to easily understand and utilize these new technologies, and ones who will likely be assisting other employees in using them, the firm should involve them in the decision process when it comes to which new technologies to adopt.

The digital native/digital immigrant divide is not as large or as insurmountable as many may think. Effective management can reduce difficulties on both sides. There are enough people out there trying to portray the workplace as a Hunger Games-type arena where generations battle each other for supremacy. Instead of perpetuating that myth, let’s do what we can to ensure that younger and older employees, natives and immigrants alike, all feel that they are working together to navigate our new frontier of modern technology.

This article was previously published in the January issue of Legal Management magazine as part of Michelle’s new monthly Millennial Mouthpiece series.

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