Net generation comes of age

Professor Larry D. Rosen takes a look at how MySpace and more have shaped the psyche of a new wave of young people.

Miriam Olsson Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Miriam Olsson covers innovations in technology.
Miriam Olsson
7 min read
The so-called Net generation, a young, tech-savvy group, has begun hitting the workplace in recent years.

Larry D. Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, has been studying this group. While Rosen has studied the impact of technology on people for 20 years, he specializes in the effects of technology on kids and parents. He is currently working on a book, "Me, MySpace and I," where he examines the differences and similarities among the generations and how they can work together.

In his book, he defines what he calls the Net generation, post-Generation X, as children and young adults born in the 1980s and '90s, parented by the baby boomers. The generations differ on numerous levels, including how they communicate and how they get a job done, according to Rosen.

In an interview with CNET News.com, Rosen reflected on the Net generation.

Q: You're about to publish a new book. Tell us more about it.
Rosen: It looks at the positive impacts and what parents can do to enhance the positiveness of MySpace and other social networks. The book is written primarily for people who need to deal with the Net generation kids on a daily basis. That includes parents, school educators and bosses who are now dealing with the Net Gen entering the workplace. It's also geared toward the professionals, because it's full of research about these kids, how they are, and what they do. What I'm telling them is to find the best use of technology for the kids to help them make the most out of it and to grow emotionally healthy, which we know they can. The goal is not to yank them off the computer and pull the plug, but to figure out how to help them grow up as good human beings, while they get to use their technology and to multitask.

The goal is not to yank them off the computer and pull the plug, but to figure out how to help them grow up as good human beings, while they get to use their technology and to multitask.

In your book you're focusing mainly on the generation commonly called Generation Y. You're talking about the Net and MySpace generation. What's your definition?
Rosen: Everybody has a name for this new generation of kids born in the '80s and '90s. I call it the Net generation. Other people call it Generation M for multitasking or for media. Some people call it Generation Y, which I never quite understood...What I read was they call it that because this is a generation that they think asks "Why?" a lot. Other people call it the ADHD generation because these kids show the signs of having Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder, but that's also not true. I prefer the "Net generation" because this is a generation of kids, children, teens and young adults who have known no other world than that with complete technology, Internet, text messaging, cell phones and video games, etc.

Given that somewhere over 50 percent of these kids are on MySpace, I think of the MySpace generation as a subcategory. You might even want to call them the All Technology generation.

What defines the All Technology generation, according to you?
Rosen: This is a generation of kids, teens and young adults who have been raised from the very beginning immersed in technology. Most of them know no other world, no world that doesn't include the Internet. They are defined by their reliance on technology, their use of technology, and particularly their propensity for multitasking technologically; they are also defined by the fact that they use a variety of media to communicate with the world, with their friends and even in the business world. Those kinds of communication technologies are different than the ones that previous generations are used to.

They don't use technology, it simply is. It's the main focus of their life. See, that's the difference. A baby boomer and even a Gen X would say, "Well, I use the Internet" or "I use my cell phone a lot" or "I text message" and so on. Gen X learned how to use technology, whereas the Net Gen kids were raised steeped in technology and they don't use it, it just simply is.

What does your research for the book show?
Rosen: Most research tends to focus on the downsides of the Internet--the sexual predators,...cyberbullying and Internet pornography--and rarely deals with the positive impacts. But I firmly believe that there are a number of positives that people are ignoring such as the development of identity and personality. Kids online develop strong friendships with people that they know in the real world, as well as people that they have never met. Kids use the Internet and their cyberspace world to help work through what I would call teen angst, that quest for "Who am I?" and "How do I fit into this world?"

Will they take those experiences to the "real world" and use them?
Rosen: What's interesting is as these kids become more immersed-- moving from elementary to junior high to senior high to college to being in the work world--it does appear that they are taking their style into the world. What that does, interestingly enough, is it creates somewhat of a friction between the Net Gen kids and their, in general, baby boomer bosses and that has a lot to do with their style of communication and the way they see the world.

Kids use the Internet and their cyberspace world to help work through what I would call teen angst, that quest for "Who am I?" and "How do I fit into this world?"

One of the things that we found in our research is that these kids are not comfortable at all unitasking, whereas people in the baby boomer generation are quite comfortable unitasking. In fact, that's what business meetings are all about, they are unitasks. You get together, you talk, you discuss a business issue. And if you bring a Net Gen kid into a business meeting like that, they will typically drag out their laptop or their BlackBerry or their cell phone and multitask. If the baby boomer boss complains that they are not paying attention, well, in fact they look at them incredulously because, of course, they are paying attention. They know full well how to multitask and get the best out of both worlds.

Baby boomers seem to have problems managing the Net generation, but they were in fact the ones who brought them up. How does that connect?
Rosen: Yes, they raised those kids, but they worked at the cost of spending time parenting. Because work was everything, trying to provide for the family, those kids were left to their own devices in a lot of cases. One of the things they did right as parents was that they gave a lot of positive reinforcement to their kids. What they did wrong is they reinforced everything, any behaviors whatsoever, in the hopes that it would improve the kid's self-esteem, so that the kids would be better off than their parents were. But kids really want limits and structure, something these parents in many cases weren't giving them. They were pretty much letting the kids select their own structure. If the kids were on the computer, well that was just fine with the parents because the kids were in their room quiet and not bothering them when they needed to work in the other room or get dinner ready, if they ate dinner together.

How do you keep the Net generation youngsters in a company?
Rosen: Give them the job, stand back, and let them work. They will do a good job, that's part of what this generation has been raised on. When they have finished it, give them a ton of positive reinforcement. They like being reinforced both verbally, physically and tangibly. Reward them with money, with time off, with positive strokes, "employees of the month," and "employees of the week." Give them special parking places for their BMWs, all sorts of things that are important to them. But don't focus on the process, focus on the product.

Are companies aware of the needs of the Net generation?
Rosen: I think that they recognize simply by attrition that their model of business is not necessarily the same model of the generations that are coming after them. I don't know that they've done that very successfully. I think they need a lot more awareness that both models work, their model of process, and the new model of product. And that, if they want to retain their employees as well as keep a good product, they have to respect the differences and they have to try to work out a way that their philosophy of work is not foisted upon kids who don't like that way of working. Until they do, they're going to have employees who stay only for couple of years. They train them, they stay for a couple of years, and they'll get bored, unchallenged and move on.

How can employers benefit from different generations?
Rosen: By taking advantage of both Gen X and Net Gen kids' experiences with technology and facility with technology. Both of their drives to be very product-oriented, and to do the best job possible. The way that baby boomer bosses can make this all happen is two things: One, to let them do it their own way. Give them a job and give them a date. They'll get the job done and it'll be done well because these kids are really bright and very self-confident. No. 2, don't call them for a lot of meetings and don't get heavily involved in process.