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The Generation Lap

The Generation Lap

To some, the tech wreck proved the idea of the Internet as a catalyst for social revolution was hyperbolic. However, a generation born into a digital world is starting to enter the workforce, bringing with it expectations informed by a world of technological connectivity and information democracy.

Welcome to 1999, five years on.

Generational tension is an unusual topic for the tax office. It was notable, then, when Reserve Bank of Australia governor Ian Macfarlane wrapped up his November 2002 speech to the Melbourne Institute's Economic and Social Outlook Conference dinner by warning that the post-war baby boomer generation - people now aged from their early 40s to late 50s - could be facing the end of its time in the sun.

The federal government's first Intergenerational Report in May 2002 focused on how a shrinking working-age society will support the boomers as they age and retire. Macfarlane implied this was short-sighted: We had to go further and condition the public (particularly the grey-headed part) to accept that policy must be forward looking, directed at ensuring a vigorous Australian economy 20 years hence. "This will mean giving priority to tomorrow's working-age population, rather than satisfying the demands of yesterday's," he said. Otherwise, we face a near future of resentment between a generation of asset-owning, technology-agnostic business leaders - physically and financially healthier than any generation in history and unwilling to relinquish the reigns of power - and a post-Internet workforce brought up in comfort and impatient to take control.

US author and academic Don Tapscott coined the term "N-Gener" to refer to this generation (born between the late 70s and the late 90s) in his 1998 book Growing Up Digital: the Rise of the Net Generation - Amazon.com's first ever non-fiction bestseller. He clamed this crop of youngsters, exposed to an unprecedented plurality of ideas, opinions and possibilities, had different beliefs and expectations from those that had gone before.

Interviewing groups of kids aged from four to 20, Tapscott found the connected world of the Internet was replacing parents, teachers and other linear, command-and-control structures as the main source of information for youngsters. His theories might seem a little over-optimistic following the tech wreck but its themes remain accurate. N-Geners ask questions and, critically, have little respect for age, experience or hierarchy. More of them are entering tertiary education too.

Phil Ruthven, chairman of economic research firm IbisWorld Australia, says they are the most well educated, digitally adept generation in history. He presents the Net generation as community-minded risk takers, nation-builders and wealth creators.

Following the theory of generational cyclicality first presented in US historians' Strauss and Howe's book Generations, N-Geners are a civic generation (the last of which in Australia was the Federation generation born between 1901 and 1924). In his own forthcoming book, Ruthven nicknames them ferals, "not suggestive of being a wild animal so much as being . . . unconstrained in time, space and distance", because of the revolution in communications technology. Therefore, they can roam the world.

Feral and, according to some observers, fickle. Indeed, one of the main themes to emerge from the recent CIO Perspectives conference in the US, according to online journal Darwinmag.com, was that CIOs are concerned because members of this younger generation do not seem to exhibit company loyalty.

Exposed to a culture of instant gratification from early age, "they have no concept of gradualism or build up", says KPMG partner and author Bernard Salt. Where previous generations better understood gradualism, N-Geners bring to the workplace short attention spans and a demand for immediate satisfaction and consumption informed by a world of digital knowledge and information. The Internet has been generally available from 1993. N-Geners were the first generation to have digital watches, which became widely available around 1983. "Previous generations of children did not know the time," says Salt. "They didn't need to; childhood was endless . . . Immediacy and real time is all they relate to." He says cyber sex fits this mould nicely: "I want my satisfaction right now. Wham, bam, thank you Lara Croft."

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