Technology

Focus On the Net Gen Family


The kids who grew up digital are closer to their parents than the previous generation. And they'll bring new attitudes into the workplace

Editor's note: This is the seventh in an eight-part series of Viewpoints by author Don Tapscott, who draws on the $4 million research project that inspired his new book, Grown Up Digital, to explain how digital technology has affected the children of the baby boomers, a group he calls the Net Generation.

Think of the old family organizational chart: The father was the CEO. The mother was the chief operating officer reporting to Dad. The kids reported to Mom. (I was the eldest kid in my family; the dog reported to me).

This org chart was deeply embedded in popular culture and embodied by the television and radio shows of the 1950s and 1960s, shows like Father Knows Best.

Democratic Families

Today's family setup looks more like concentric circles. The child is in the center surrounded by parents and step-parents, who are in turn surrounded by grandparents. Most Boomers like me don't even try to order our children around as our fathers did. We're now part of a more democratic family that gives the kids a voice in family affairs.

These new families are both tighter and more collaborative than the families that raised Boomers. And the children of these new families—the Net Geners, age 11 to 31, who have grown up digital—have been deeply affected. This upbringing is influencing the way they behave as parents, as consumers, and as employees. Business should take note.

Net Geners, for instance, often have closer links with their parents than Baby Boomers ever did. Roughly 80% of Net Geners age 18 to 25 years report speaking to their parents in the past day, nearly three-quarters see their parents at least once a week, and half say they see their parents daily. Even college students who no longer live at home touch base with their parents an average of more than once a day via phone, e-mail, text message, and other means.

Staying Close

Two out of three teens and college-age young adults say they would first call their parents if they were in trouble. Furthermore, these young people are twice as likely to trust their parents over their friends. They are also more likely to discuss serious issues with their parents than with their friends.

Consider what this means if you're hiring from Net Gen. Chances are, the parents may be involved. Nearly one-third of employers in a 2007 survey report that parents help with résumés, and 9% say parents help negotiate their kids' pay raises.

This family closeness will also affect the way Net Geners deal with their careers. They're less likely to sacrifice home for career than their parents were. For 63% of Net Geners, getting married, having children, or owning a home is more important than becoming a manager, earning a certain salary, or starting a business.

Kids Direct Spending

These tight ties may also have a direct impact on shopping. Net Geners have enormous influence on their Baby Boomer parents and their money—some $2 trillion in spending a year. Young people age 13 to 21 influence 81% of their families' apparel purchases and 52% of car choices. Even younger children have powerful sway; Kids between 5 and 14 influence 78% of total grocery purchases.

Growing up in collaborative families has also made a deep impact on these young people. When Net Geners become parents, they're unlikely to return to the old, authoritarian ways. If anything, they'll be even more collaborative than their parents were.

Consider the issue of what your kids are seeing on the Internet. Although Boomers have given their kids a say in family life, many are worried about their kids' online activities. Half of them have installed blocking devices to stop their kids from viewing pornography, or violence, crime, or other inappropriate content. The devices can even allow parents to track—i.e. to spy on—their kids' activities.

Collaboration Is Key

I avoided these steps with my own kids. In the open family we tried to develop, we talked honestly about issues like porn on the Internet—and about the far greater danger of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Our children signed a deal that they wouldn't agree to meet—or actually meet—anyone they met online without their mother and me in attendance. In return, we wouldn't spy or censor. We trusted each other, and we both kept up our side of the bargain. Of course as with any family, there were problems and breakdowns. But we worked hard to build trust by making sure that information flowed freely.

When members of the Net Generation become parents, I think they too will adopt this open model of parenting. Instead of censoring or spying or ordering, these Net Gen parents will negotiate with their kids, explain, and build a common view. Maybe they'll even revive the wonderful tradition of the family dinner as a place to talk about issues, rather than to give and receive orders.

This is a different model of authority inside the family. It has conditioned Net Geners to recognize that the best way to achieve power and control is through people, not over people. I believe that when they start work, they will bring these attitudes toward authority with them and change the fabric of the working world.

Don Tapscott recently led a survey of 11,000 young people around the world. He is the Chairman of nGenera Insight and has written 12 widely read books on the impact of the Internet on society. He is also an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. His 1996 book Growing Up Digital defined the Net Generation, and the sequel, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World was just released.

Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World, is the founder and chairman of nGenera Insight. Other books he has authored or co-authored include Wikinomics, Paradigm Shift, The Digital Economy, and Growing Up Digital.

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