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

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.

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