The real digital natives

If you were born in the mid 90s or later, many will describe you as a digital native. You were born in a digital age: you’ll be fluent in social, mobile and gaming; you’ll have been using technology since birth, sippy cup in one hand, iPad in the other.

As a quirk of your date of birth, employers will be queuing up to hire you. You’re part of the hallowed millennial generation seen by executives has possessing mystical powers of technology insight and able, just by doing all the things that come naturally to you, to present a compelling future view of the workplace.

But is this really true? Are teenagers and workplace newbies the real digital natives?

In full transparency, I’m slightly older than 25. Actually, I’m significantly older than 25, firmly in middle management and the middle of my career: 20 years in and 20 years to go, but in every definition of a digital native I meet the criteria in everything but age.

I was a primary (elementary) school pupil when the BBC Micro was introduced. At school, I got hands on with computing and coded my own stuff. At home, starting with a ZX80, computers were part of the routine: for games, for coding and later, for word processing and home accounting. I wrote my first program at 8, passed school exams in computing at 17, sent my first email at 18 and developed my first website at 22.

Like many others of my vintage, I grew up with the technology that is prevalent in our personal and business lives today. It’s native to me and part of my life since I was pre-school.

There’s an important differentiator between my generation and those labelled as digital natives: that the suite of technology we use now are not the same as the set I was born with. The revolution happened as I aged whereas millennials arrived with current workplace technologies largely in place. The difference is important and hugely valuable.

I remember a time before email, a time before mobile phones, before websites and before social networks. Messaging was slow and asynchronous and it required effort to contact people and make progress on projects. But this means that I (and other Gen Xers) appreciate the true difference that technology brings. I still find it slightly magical that when I can see and speak to a colleague over my computer and hear the ‘ping’ as a file I’ve sent arrives with them 4000 miles away.

It’s the appreciation of the opportunities that technology can bring and the differences it can make to our business and personal lives that is critical. I wonder if millennial digital natives are just a tiny bit blasé about it’s brilliance. Generation X digital natives exist and unlike the next generation, they’re already in positions of influence and power to change companies now.