What's 20 years to a Millennial? An entire lifetime

What's 20 years to a Millennial? An entire lifetime

Summary: ZDNet's 20th anniversary: Internet years are kind of like dog years. Twenty years is a very long time.


What were you doing 20 years ago? A lot of you were probably teaching. Others, I'm sure, were in private industry, with just the smallest seeds of Dilbert-esque angst that would ultimately lead you to leave a lucrative career for one in public education. Some of you may have only recently been born, although readers of this column tend to at least be a little bit older than that. I was wrapping up my freshman year in high school, already thinking about college and leaving what would be a relatively unpleasant four years behind. And ZDNet, like a few of my readers, had just been born.

That's right, ZDNet is turning 20, which, in Internet years, is practically forever. It's gotten all of us ZDNet bloggers thinking about where we were, what we were doing, and just how much things have changed since 1991. That was, after all, the first year I ever had the privilege to use WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS as I helped write my school newspaper. We'd type up stories in WP, print them out on one of the school's 2 laser printers, and then cut and paste the columns onto big sheets of graph paper for printing.

If I had been born in 1991, however, the idea of a "word processor" wouldn't have been quite so novel. Obviously, word processing software had been around for a while by then, but as with most things technical (even today), it took a while to become mainstream in K12 education. If you were students in 1991, how often were you required to type your work? And if you were a teacher, were you accepting that work via email, your SIS, or a social learning tool? Probably not.

Generation Y, or the "Millennials" are defined chronologically in many ways, but are essentially those kids born in 1991, +/- 10 years. I'm from the latter part of Generation X, but experienced the explosion of computer technology (personal, business, enterprise, and Internet) in very different ways from my Millennial successors. We often throw around Prensky's "Digital Native" term: today's Millennials were the first who could actually qualify to be Digital Natives, to take personal and networked computer technology for granted. Many sociologists, in fact, refer to 1991 as the first year of Generation Z, synonymous with the so-called Digital Natives.

Chances are, none of these young people ever checked their email using Pine. The youngest of them may, in fact, never have checked email at all, opting instead for social media and instant messaging. The years since ZDNet opened its virtual doors constitutes an entire lifetime for the average Millennial, meaning that their experience with technology began in the time that ZDNet set out to chronicle and explain.

Much has been made of this generation and the impact that it has only recently begun to have on business, but it's important to remember that a majority of this generation, with sensibilities and assumptions that even those of us in our mid-30's don't necessarily share, is still in high school and college. Their approach to knowledge access and management, collaboration and teaming, and even interpersonal relationships may not mesh well with those of their future teachers and employers. How many of us used Facebook to coordinate and prepare a group project in school? None of us - because it didn't exist yet. I know I have a few teen and 20-something readers, by the way. I don't mean to exclude you. But the vast majority of us simply didn't grow up with the Internet as the social tool that you have. It may have become that for us too, but it certainly didn't start that way.

The pace of technological change in the last 20 years ensures a different sort of generation gap than anyone experienced in the 50's and 60's when the term first became popular. This isn't to say that plenty of 30, 40, 50, and 60 year olds in business and education aren't brilliantly adept with technology. However, when your first experience on a computer is a social one, rather than a utilitarian one, it makes for a very different perspective on what computers should do and be.

2 decades in the life of a Millennial (or is that a Digital Native? Or a Gen Z something or other? Whatever...Read on...) »

Let's look, for example, at the life of a kid born the same year as ZDNet. We can safely assume that it will be at least 1996 before she uses a personal computer. Age 5 is probably a bit of a stretch compared to those born after 2000, but we'll assume that she is part of a well-connected, digitally savvy family. By the turn of the millennium, she is using the Internet daily and is relatively adept at finding information online. Google hasn't even gone public yet, but Yahoo! is booming. So are, for that matter, countless other dot-coms.

September 11th, 2001: The Internet slows to a crawl because it's the first place to which most people, including our 10-year subject, turn for information. The notions of privacy and security change drastically and our 10-year old continues to grow up in a time when privacy is dead, whether by choice (Facebook is just around the corner), for the sake of convenience (Google will go public in a few years), or because the government can use its security trump card (can you say "Patriot Act"?).

The years tick by and PCs get faster; phones get smarter, more mobile, and more ubiquitous (it won't seem completely strange for our now 14-year old to have one of her own); and the Internet becomes the first stop for everything she might want to buy.

And then this whole social thing happens. It had been happening slowly, even with illegally downloaded content that became so easy to share around the turn of the century, but it comes of age with MySpace and Facebook. Twitter evolves into Foursquare and next thing our 20-year old test subject knows, she shares every detail of her life online. The Facebook backlash begins, but she still uses it because everyone else does and who really wants to rebuild all their contacts and "friends" somewhere else? It just isn't worth the effort, no matter how much she hates Farmville. Besides, CityVille really is a great game, isn't it?

And college is great, too, especially since half her classes are online and professors are so happy to post notes, quizzes, slide decks, and everything else she might need on Blackboard. There's this one really old professor who makes her print things out. She's thinking about dropping the class.

The last 20 years have seen the computer transform from a necessary business tool to a window to the Internet. The average 20-year old barely remembers a time when everything he or she needed wasn't at her fingertips (or, more likely, her thumbtips), regardless of what sort of computing device she was using. Chances are, she probably doesn't have the perspective to even wonder just how wild a ride the next 20 years will be.

» Return to ZDNet's 20th Anniversary Special

Topics: Privacy, Google, Government, Printers, IT Employment, PCs

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Millenials

    Let me say I was born in the Stone Age, 1959. And, for better or worse, my wife and I have raised 2 millenial sons.

    After 20 years of observing them, and their friends, I've come to a couple of general conclusions about our children.

    First, they have a far greater sense of entitlement than we grew up with. Bad enough that we ourselves have a greater sense of entitlement than our parents, many of whom grew up in the Depression. I'm not saying they won't work for things; but they seem to expect that they deserve great things for rather mediocre effort.

    Second, their sense of wonder is atropied. Audio-visual media has turned everything into just another special effect. They only take notice if the sounds are louder, the lights are brighter, the stench is worse, etc. Why try to discover anythng new when everything worth discovering has already been discovered?

    Finally, their ability to dig deep into things seems lacking. Maybe it's that 10 minute maximum attention span due to schools and television. How many millenials do you know have the willingness and drive to tear down and rebuild a car? Design and build a home? Plan and landscape a yard? Do a real thesis and not just a web cut-and-paste? Participate in a local election?

    This sounds awfully negative, I know. But I'm afraid that our children are not going to be the ones able to answer the problems our generation are preparing to pass on to them; to their detriment and ours.
    • RE: What's 20 years to a Millennial? An entire lifetime

      I was born in 1965, and I hear that all of the time from my clients. (I'm a network administrator for a small ISP.) And what I tell those people is the same as what I'm about to tell you. "They said the same thing about my grand parent's generation." They always assert it's different this time around. "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

      I wish I could find it again, that quote from a Senator in Ancient Rome about how the youth these days don't respect their elders, talk funny, the boys wear their hair long, the girls wear their skirts too short.

      Nope. The tech has changed, but humans are still humans. Even this new generation.

      What's different this time around are not the humans, but the problems.
  • RE: What's 20 years to a Millennial? An entire lifetime

    "However, when your first experience on a computer is a social one, rather than a utilitarian one, it makes for a very different perspective on what computers should do and be."

    And for most, once you move them outside of the social experience on the pc/mac, they are dumb as a box of rocks in regards to how a system works...I work for a community college and see it all the time...no concept of virus protection, no thought to NOT downloading & installing everything & the kitchen sink and then asking why their once fast machine now runs like a model T in the mud...Yes they can out social network me with 1 hand tied behind their back, but my job (tech support) is not in jeopardy from what I have seen...Just a lifetime of customers....lol
    • It's fun...

      trying asking them to explain the process by which essential utilities are delivered to their homes;-)
      Richard Flude
  • RE: What's 20 years to a Millennial? An entire lifetime

    How about going back another twenty years when some of us were paying out lots of bucks and time for almost nothing in computer power.
    That's where things really started.
  • RE: What's 20 years to a Millennial? An entire lifetime

    Good post, Chris. It made me ponder...<br>I was born in 1983 (I guess that makes me a Gen Y'er?), and I consider myself privileged to have experienced "both ends of the technological spectrum." <br>On the "old-school" side, I was trained in researching primary (offline) sources, I understand what life was like before, and have a sense of perspective.<br>On the other hand, I've been around technology my whole life. My grandparents had a C-64 that I was lucky enough to use (with the help of my older brothers) and my 2nd grade classroom had an Apple II that my teacher was very good about using with the class. Things evolved over time, and I can only imagine how differently people even 5 or 6 years younger than me grew up.
    • A lifetime

      I think the article discusses something entirely different than what some of the comments are touching on.

      I was born in 1984, so I too feel thankful to know how to use a card catalog and Google, not that there is much opportunity for the former these days (my local library just started checking out ebooks). I do feel a slight disconnect with people even just a few years younger than me, mainly because I have no desire to stay so closely wired to my social network as the ones I know do. A little quiet time, please. But I can't imagine not having been introduced to computers in second grade, but rather well into my career, as it worked for my parents. They do well enough, but I notice that they view computers and smart phones as work, rather than as having an entertainment aspect.

      As for the comments about Gen Y in general, I take offense to those for a few reasons. First, as a woman who became an attorney at age 23, I think my attention span is perfectly fine, thank you very much. But also, unlike the commenters, I do realize that one or two examples does not make for a great sample. Finally, think back to the Baby Boomers. I'm sure they thought the evolution of society at that point had created a bunch of ungrateful monsters in Gen X. Each generation does, but so far the cream has risen to the top in each one, and working closely with tons of motivated Gen Y-ers, especially women, I definitely have hope for a great future.

      Valerie @ miniskirtmurder.com
  • Some Ideas tweenty years later!

    I was born in 1965, spent a bunch of money in the 90ss on nvidia video cards, big HDDs and building my own Jeep. Now after 24 years of service and a freshly gotten PhD I go back to teach. I'm back to the classroom to try to challenge my teachers and students to think out of the box. I know it is not easy but I believe it is worth to try to teach them meta-cognition and the path to be knowledge workers instead of just information collectors or consumers. I think we teachers need to rethink our role in this infolithic era of google, wikipedia, twitter, facebook, CNN, BBC, black berries and iPhones.
  • RE: What's 20 years to a Millennial? An entire lifetime

    I think some of the things people are posting in response to this about the millennial generation are a bit unfair. I am in college right now and to those of you who are saying that we are all stupid outside of social media aren't completely correct. Some of us are, sure, but we don't all have a ridiculously short attention span and we don't all just download anything and everything without a thought to viruses, etc. And it is really funny to you who wonders if we will sit down and do a thesis without plagiarism. Do you think that people of your age, our professors, are that stupid? Think again. Speaking of the internet, they can easily search for copied information just by scanning a paper and searching certain websites. I could give you a positive example for everything negative said about us here just from my college campus, and I know we are not an anomaly. Obviously some things you say will be true for some people, but don't generalize so much. And don't call us all "dumb as a box of rocks". No wonder we all think you are all narrow-minded and tune you out.
  • RE: What's 20 years to a Millennial? An entire lifetime

    At age 56 I may not be a digital native, but I'm no digital immigrant, either, and I daresay the same is true for many long time ZiffNet/ZDNet readers. The term I've coined to describe myself is "digital naturalized citizen." While I don't have the same outlook, affinity, and experience as a millennial, I'm more than comfortable and competent in their natural world. I owe a lot of that to ZiffNet/ZDNet, which, over the last two decades, has been my go to source for anything computer/internet technology related.
    The generation gap to which you refer does not need to be as great as you expect it to be. Assuming that we can never understand the perspective of someone whose first experience with a computer was social is selling us short.
  • RE: What's 20 years to a Millennial? An entire lifetime

    Your last statement is odd and negative. Shouldn't it be a wise thing to actually ASK the gen Y or Z kids what the ride over the next several years should be? Try releasing a product that they don't like. See if it doesn't die as fast as it was born. Please rethink that statement.
    Shigan bi ekun
  • RE: What's 20 years to a Millennial? An entire lifetime

    I am a Boomer or Gen Jones and every time I look at a old concert on youtube, download a program in seconds, google something in seconds,read a newspaper article I last read in high school even though I have been doing these for things for years a little part of me still thinks it's a miracle. I think I have an appreciation that those always have had it can't. On comments section on youtube or elsewhere I have been asked a questions that are easily googled or found in Wikipedia within minutes. But the Millennials do the whole networking thing better then I can. When I do it I still have to think through the steps from the course I took, its natural for them. As much as age discrimination that is a reason why boomers are having a much harder time finding jobs after they have been laid off then younger generations. Of course as the younger generations have gotten power they have made networking almost the be all and end all in job finding. Don't get me wrong being a good "salesmen" was an important advantage back then, but it is much more important now.