Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 10, Number 6: May 2010

Making it Work


I’ve frequently argued that generational differences and generalizations (what I call “gen-gen”) are generally overstated and damaging. I’ll continue to make that case—that focusing on generational differences gets in the way of treating people like people.

There’s a difference between generalizing about generations and recognizing that age can make a difference, at least sometimes. The first portion of this essay deals with one such case—a case where, if I denied that age has anything to do with outlook, I was wrong.

on age, technology, and culture.

That’s Jenica Rogers’ title for an excellent commentary posted February 9, 2010 at Attempting Elegance ( She starts by saying the issue isn’t just age:

Of course there are librarians over 35, 40, 60 who are tech-savvy and have chosen to dive into online communication and the identity it creates. Of course there are librarians straight out of grad school who think Twitter is inane. Of course all teenagers don’t know how to hack their iPhone or program their mom’s Roomba or do more than post a cell-phone picture to Facebook. Of course.

But just because blanket generalizations are (usually) wrong and frequently damaging, some of us may go overboard in denouncing generational differences…to the extent that Rogers was warned she could be at risk of an age-discrimination suit for even offering an opinion about age within the library profession, based on her own experience, “even with caveats and generalizations.”

And so I feel compelled, since it is such a hot-button issue that prompts such immediate ire and conflict from people, to state what I do believe, based on my own experiences and my perceptions of our profession and our professional culture.

What I believe is this: Because of cultural shifts, generational differences and the ongoing permeation of our culture by technology, we are thinking about technology differently as time moves forward, and as with anything that moves from being a novelty to being an integral part of daily life, where you were and what you were doing when that became true for you then serves to define how you interact with the thing at hand.

That may not be true for everybody, but it is a legitimate point.

I believe that there are real, measurable differences between the way that, in general, the leaders and holders of official and unofficial power in our libraries relate to technology, online communication, and online identity, and the ways that our up-and-coming users, say, the cohort that’s currently at age 13, will relate to technology, online communication, and online identity in five years when they walk in the doors of my library.

I don’t see that statement as discriminatory. I see it as cultural fact. Different generations, different experiences, different adoption models and behavior patterns that create different assumptions and different expectations.

If that’s true, what should it mean? “I long to see more library leadership trying to forge a path that’s designed around the needs and wants and emerging culture of those young users, not around the needs and wants and established culture of libraries and librarianship.”

What Rogers is arguing for, I believe, is to include library patrons as part of the decision-making process. That’s not a generational issue, but—for academic libraries perhaps more than public libraries—it’s one where the age of most users is an issue.

I would exhort all librarians, in a position of current power or not—young, old, or in between—to realize, acknowledge, and pay attention to the fact that our internet—the internet we love, that we hate, that we use, that we teach—is not the internet that our young future users see and immerse themselves in and use and love and hate.

I would also exhort all librarians in a position of current power, be it leadership power, administrative power, or the power of longevity and respect, to support rather than belittle the colleagues at your institution who want to bridge the gap between us and them. To encourage rather than stifle those librarians and library staff who want to try to think like the user, who want to build systems and services to meet their needs. Because we are not them, and they are not us, and we mustn’t build systems for ourselves. We must be sympathetic to their perspectives, and move ourselves toward being what they want and need us to be. We cannot build libraries that satisfy just us, because it’s not about us. It’s about them.

A point worth making and worth considering regardless of your age. If you belittle those who want to be sure patron needs and preferences are considered, you’re undermining your credibility and your library. An interesting point emerges in the comments (and has been seconded by other research): Older librarians (Baby Boomers and those of us even older) have, by and large, never started reading blogs. Here’s how I responded to that apparently-true note earlier: “If you’re one of those—like this over-60 person—who believe that the most interesting ideas and discussions on professional issues are taking place on blogs, it’s a startling statement.” Startling and unfortunate.

Online Identity

Rogers also posted “IOLUG speaker’s notes on online identity” on January 5, 2010. She goes through her own online presence and how easy it is to determine what she’s all about through a little Googling. Rogers is 33, among the younger academic library directors out there. She’s active in quite a few social networking venues. She has a robust online identity and is aware that online identities tend to blur distinctions between professional and personal. And she’s been warned that being open on the web could hurt her:

I was told, for example, by another library director, that I would never have a leadership position in an academic library if I continued blogging and sharing so much of my true thoughts about the profession and our daily work, and about my own daily life online. He seemed terribly threatened by the idea that librarians in leadership positions would speak openly about their thoughts; he seemed to feel that it would threaten the power structure, challenge the status quo, and generally leave a leader vulnerable to…something.

That was three years ago. I’m proud to have proven that director wrong, because I think transparency and communication are the cornerstones of a strong information exchange, and I’m proud to continue contributing to that. But I did make changes to how I approached my online identity after the conversation because it was clear that the leadership of the profession was not ready for what I wanted to share. And it was clear to me that I was going to have to wait. I dug in my heels, made changes I wasn’t happy with, and said to myself, “I can wait this out.” Someday, one of three things will happen:

1.      All of those cranky old bastards will retire

2.      I will outgrow my youthful rebellion, or

3.      The internet will change dramatically and rapidly and my stand on this issue will become irrelevant.

I suspect answer number 3.

She’s learned lessons, some of which do have to do with generations—and some I’m going to include even though they probably belong in an essay about social networks and personal identity.

First, online identity is fluid: “Never assume you will end where you start…and plan accordingly.” You may need some separation between personal and professional. Second, you will send “mixed messages” and need to be ready to defend them. Third, “find your voice and know your boundaries.”

If your online voice and your real voice aren’t compatible, you’ll lose all credibility in your online presentation of yourself. Everybody hates a poser. ..

Here’s one I’d stress: “Let your voice change over time—either naturally or because you need it to.”

Using myself as a case in point: the Director of Libraries cannot talk about the work of the Libraries in the way that a librarian can.

The Director of Libraries cannot talk about conflicts with other staff in the way that a librarian can.

The Director of Libraries should not talk about a lot of things that might reflect on her institution in a way the institution would find unsettling.

So as much as I value being transparently and authentically myself, I cannot fully do that, and so my voice, in my professional spheres, has changed.

And you may discover that you yourself change as you write and talk. You may become a different person. You may join new communities. You may find a different purpose. You might want to be a different kind of speaker and writer.

And here, generational issues do enter: “We’re not ready for online identities as a profession.” Rogers finds that most of her virtual colleagues are “a younger group, newer to the profession, much more comfortable with technology and the internet and all that it implies for our culture and our profession.” I can’t argue.

And while I work with and admire many librarians with careers far longer than mine for their work in these areas, we still have large numbers of us who are resistant to these changes.

Who won’t willingly put their photo on the library’s website. Who think Facebook is a timewaster and Twitter is idiotic. Who can’t understand why you would blog rather than write for a journal… Who tell eager young librarians to stop blogging because no director could retain her power if people knew what kind of person she really is.

And they are shaping our path as much as the technophiles are, because, another generalization here, the positions of power in our profession are not yet inhabited by people who have that comfort level that my tribe does. So if you want to have a transparent and vibrant online life, you may encounter pushback. Strong pushback. You may have to fight, and you may have to adapt, or wait.

Rogers says this is a problem because librarians are, by and large, old—and she regards 33 (her age) as old. Why? Because she’s an early adopter even among librarians in her age range—while most college library users are teenagers and early adults.

These people “are not us. They are not me. They are not you. They’ve had access to video games, computers, the internet and cell phones since birth… They will shape our information environment, starting any day now, but certainly within the next five years. So we need to catch up. We need to join in, and work harder to understand the implications of living in this blended, transparent, and ubiquitous online information environment.”

She urges librarians to build authentic online presences. I think that’s good advice, even if you’re less certain there will be dramatic, rapid change.

Other Voices

Notes from other commentaries that are either about gengen or reek of gengen. Why do these go so far back? Because I was doing generation-related write-ups elsewhere.

The Language of the Millennials

Wayne Bivens-Tatum grumps about the Beloit College Mindset List and other overstatements of generation gaps in this July 9, 2008 post at Academic Librarian.

I now declare to the world that I don’t want to hear any more librarians try to tell me that college students today are so vastly different from normal human beings that no one can communicate with them. Since when did adults become such anxious ninnies about college students? I hate to make generational generalizations, but is it a boomer thing? Were they obsessed with their self-proclaimed specialness as youths and are now obsessed with their children? Or is it librarians who themselves feel out of touch who then tell the rest of us that we’re the ones out of touch?

Recently I heard from a librarian that it was as if college students today were from another planet and that they knew much more about all this techie stuff than anyone in the room. Um, sure. Speak for yourself, buddy.

Bivens-Tatum attended an ALA Annual program on “speaking the language of the millennials.” An organizer started in with the Beloit list; Bivens-Tatum wondered whether professors were so anxious about presumed fundamental gaps when he started college in 1991. I’m pretty sure they weren’t back in 1962, when I started college.

It was with the first speaker that I knew I was in the wrong demographic for this talk. He started with a list of eight questions… [e.g.] How many of you have a cell phone? Use IM and/or text messaging? Have a digital camera? Post photos to Flickr or something similar? Watch Youtube? Post videos to Youtube? Have a Facebook/Myspace profile?... Almost everyone raised a hand at almost every question. Even me. An entire audience of tuned in, plugged in, socially networking, socially softwaring librarians coming apparently just to make sure they weren’t missing anything, anxious to learn how to speak like these millennial people. The speaker seemed taken aback. He paused for a moment, then said “Oh. Then you’re a lot like the college students I see coming in every year.” So much for difference. The first slide, and first statement after the questions, was something like, “the Internet is an important tool for modern communication.” At that point I walked out. I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Bivens-Tatum works with new college students all the time. “Somehow I never seem to have any problem communicating with them or speaking a language they can understand. Where I work the language of the millennials is English (for the most part). Is that not the case elsewhere in the country?” He doesn’t buy that librarians need to learn some special language—or that new college students are inherently more tech-savvy than “we benighted librarians.”

Most commenters were on B-T’s side (but then, most of them are older than Millennials). Steve Lawson noted, with reference to the Beloit list, that he suspected “many students come to college--particularly to Princeton or to private liberal arts colleges like the one I work for--with the expectation that their experience and interactions will transcend pop culture and technological fetishism.” Very good point.

Talking about my generation

That’s the grammatically correct title Michelle McLean used for this August 11, 2008 post at Connecting Librarian—and it must be my “silent generation” fingers that want to type that as “talkin’ ‘bout my generation.” (The Who: All but one of them part of the Silent Generation—and the one exception, Keith Moon, an early Boomer, is also the only one who died before he got old. But that’s a digression—something us old farts do a lot of.)

McLean is either a young Boomer or an old GenXer, who’s “always felt more affinity to Gen Xers and it always made me feel a little bit younger to label myself as such too.”

But recently I have been feeling like I’m not much of a Gen X-er either, especially in relation to what others of my generation seemed to be focused on. Quite often I feel more of a digital native like my kids, I am soooo comfortable with most technology. I game like they do, although my regular gaming is more online board games (which is definitely in line with my demographic), although I do get with the kids and play X-Box or Nintendo DS on the odd occasion.

She thinks she’s like the immigrant who goes overboard in embracing their new home. But she also thinks “the shine is going off the relationship a bit.”

·         “The development of Web 2.0 tools seems to have slowed down.” She’s hot for Twitter but finds FriendFeed “too chaotic.” Nothing newer has caught her interest.

·         Her coworkers, friends and family are not “well entrenched in Web 2.0” and she finds this frustrating. “They don’t see these tools and their potential the way that I do and I can’t find the way to help them to do so.”

She asked for feedback. The first commenter also found that early fans are dropping off and wondered “how do we rekindle the flame” as people lose interest. (I guess I’d wonder why it’s necessary to rekindle the flame, but that’s a Luddite attitude, I suppose.) A coworker says her enthusiasm is having an effect…and a GenXer admits to being “pushy” to shove friends and colleagues into the new tools. One person suggested that maybe it was time to back off the shiny new toys and consolidate, maybe even try to measure the impact of 2.0 services.

Is this an actual generational issue, or perhaps an issue of shiny toys that really didn’t speak to people’s needs? Is it necessary for everybody to use Twitter for it to be useful? (I’m convinced that FriendFeed works partly because it hasn’t grown to gargantuan size.) If people have dropped off social media and social networks, could it be because they find their balance and their benefits elsewhere?

What’ll we call the generations?

That’s Stephen Abram at Stephen’s Lighthouse on August 22, 2008, quoting from a survey by Harris Interactive about different generations. The results seem scattered and in some cases contradictory—e.g., Boomers are “most widely viewed as having a positive effect on society,” followed by GenX—but Silents and the “Greatest Generation” are “the most widely admired” and Silents and Boomers “the most generous.” So it goes. (I wonder whether people over 83 are as tired of “Greatest” as those of us between 64 and 83 are of “Silent”? Maybe not: “Greatest” is at least a positive name.) I found it bizarre that most people—including GenY/Millennial respondents—thought Millennials (here called Generation Y) are “the most self-indulgent” (really? not Boomers?).

The fun part: GenY respondents dislike “Generation Y” and “Millennials”; 32% of them would like to be called “the Internet Generation.” GenXers dislike “Generation X”; 25% of them would like “Generation Tech.” (Note that, as reported here, in both cases it’s “Gen Y would like to rename themselves” and “Gen X would choose to rename themselves”—although less than one-third of respondents chose that name. So generalizations are appropriate even when they’re clearly less than one-third applicable: A rule to generalize by?) Boomers—well, 27% of them—”really like the name given to them.” Really? The closest to a majority renaming: 44% of Silents would prefer the “Responsible Generation.” To which, as one of them, I can only say “Oh puhlease.”

The discussion is amusing because, since it’s based on a poll entirely about absurd generalizations (people were only invited to rank generations, not people), it’s supposedly proof that America is not riddled with ageism (really? try getting a new job when you’re over 55) and younger people do have respect for older people.

As soon as something becomes a label many people reject it. It’s pretty funny actually. Then again, you have to get over it. If I spent as much time rejecting labels as some folks do and rejecting the label Boomer and trying to prove I am not a stereoype I’d never get anything done. Labels are useful in the moment for conversations and then we move on. Hopefully mature people recognize diversity in any cohort.

Useful for the moment? I disagree. Change “label” to “stereotype” and maybe it’s clearer why people reject them—and maybe not so funny.

Social Media vs. Knowledge Management:
A Generational War

This one’s such a startling example of generational stereotypes gone wild that I had to mention it—but you’ll have to go to Venkatash Rao’s full, 3,300-word, post on September 28, 2008 at Enterprise 2.0 blog for the full flavor.

You might not think that an opposition between social media and KM even makes sense—it might sound like a war between newspapers and waterfall development strategy or a war between lizards and lemons. But Rao sees an “industry-wide KM-SM shadow war” and he thinks the two “look very similar on the surface.” Not to me, they don’t—so maybe I don’t find it as “hilarious” as he does that “most of the combatants don’t even realize they are in a war” (for the “soul of Enterprise 2.0,” if you’re wondering).

Then Rao starts his wild stereotyping about this “cultural war”—which comes about because KM is “a top-down Boomer…management effort” and Social Media is “a Millennial/Gen Y movement.” Five salient points, each given in boldface and expounded on in the post: “Gen X is currently neutral” (and even though GenXers are “the leaders and mentors” of SM, “neither set of ideas” is due to GenXers to any degree!). “KM is about ideology; SM is about the fun of building”—oh, and just to write off three generations, we’re informed that Millennials are “the first generation since the Greatest…that likes to build…social institutions.” Wow!

Third: “The Boomers don’t really get or like engineering and organizational complexity.” Right. He explains that Boomers didn’t really build personal computing or the IT infrastructure or…; that was all GenX. I should note here that Rao is a self-identified GenX person. #4: “The Millennials don’t really try to understand the world.” Nope, they don’t give a damn—their fundamental collaborative “cultural DNA” means they cannot think in terms of worldviews. Yes, he does say, in precisely these words, “Millenials fundamentally cannot think this way…” Oh, and as always in this GenXers view, GenX manages to hew the line blending adversaries… Finally: “Boomers speak with words, X’ers with numbers, Millennials with actions.” Followed by more stereotypical nonsense: “The best [Boomers] can do is talk to themselves.” And so on…

He continues with five “technological dimensions of the war” but I’ll spare you that. Let’s say the stereotypes just keep on coming. “Millennials just want to connect indiscriminately.” “Millennials are merrily tagging everything in sight with no larger end in view”—but the Semantic Web is a “Last-Gen” Boomer notion. And, of course, “the war” will end with the Millennials winning as the Boomers retire… He ends with this plaintive note:

The tragedy of Gen X is that we will not be remembered as a big-idea generation. We will likely be remembered, via a footnote (much like the Silents), as the generation which made the fateful decision to trust the creativity of the generation following it over the values of the generation that came before.

There are 60 trackbacks and comments. The first actual comment may be all that needs to be said, except for using this article-length post as an example of why generational stereotypes are not only useless but also actively harmful:

The technology stuff is reasonable, but the crude characterization by age group is nonsense. So-called Boomers are amongst the highest adopters of social computing… People do not have ideas and attitudes by age group ….

Teens Don’t Tweet…Or Do They?

That’s the title of an August 6, 2009 post by danah boyd at apophenia, based on a Mashable report on some Nielsen numbers on Twitter headlined “Stats Confirm It: Teens Don’t Tweet.” boyd followed the way this report played out on Twitter and was “astonished by the misinterpretations in every which direction.” For example:

·         Nielsen’s methodology is open to question—and, even if the methodology is correct, Nielsen’s findings boil down to teens not being proportionally heavier users of Twitter than older people. “Don’t” means “don’t as much we expected they should, although they do as much as their elders do.” boyd says it better:

So, really, what Nielsen is saying is, “Everyone expects social media to be used primarily by the young but OMG OMG OMG old farts are just as likely to be using Twitter as young folks! Like OMG.”

·         Mashable presented the results in a misleading manner—and, since Nielsen’s age bracket was 2-24, you can’t infer teen behavior from the results.

·         Most people aren’t on Twitter regardless of age: “Those who use Twitter are not a representative percentage of the population.” Geeks, newshounds, and celebrity-lovers are way over-represented (boyd’s notes). “Age is not the right marker here.”

·         “Saying that 16% of Twitter users are 24 and under is NOT the same as saying that 16% of teens are on Twitter. We don’t know what percentage of youth (or adults) are on Twitter.”

·         “Teens Don’t Tweet” is simply nonsense. There are thousands, probably millions of teens on Twitter. But “the presence of teens on Twitter doesn’t mean that Twitter is a mainstream tool amongst teens. It’s not.”

boyd saw all this and thought the Nielsen report and Mashable post were irrelevant—and then it became a “trending topic.” So, since understanding this stuff is part of what boyd does, “I spent 6+ hours reading the messages of the people who added content to the trending topic, reading their posts about other things, going to their profiles on other sites, and simply trying to get a visceral understanding of what youth were engaged enough on Twitter to respond to the trending topic.” Whew. Some of her thoughts (her quantitative data wasn’t ready yet):

·         Most teen responses were to the headline: “I’m a teen and I tweet. So there.” Many were responding to other tweets and had never actually seen the Mashable post. Lots weren’t from the U.S. or Canada.

·         She found teens’ Twitter streams fitting into three categories: “1) geeky teens, tech teens, fandom teens, machinema teens; 2) teens who are in love with the Jonas Brothers/Miley Cyrus, musicians, or another category of celebs; 3) multi-lingual foreign teens with friends/followers around the world who seemed to participate in lots of online communities.”

·         She doesn’t believe tweeting teens (at least those responding to this topic) are representative of teens as a whole—and also doesn’t think they’re dragging their friends into Twitter.

boyd points out that this post was not a report or a study—it’s just a post, to give you “a sense of what I’m seeing.” Looking at the comments, it’s interesting to see how easily people fall into stereotypes. A teen mentions “better things out there” such as Facebook and says “adults can’t be bothered with sites like these.” Yep: there’s nobody over 21 on Facebook, not a soul, at least nobody who actually uses it.

Memed Digital

According to Rochelle Mazar (who posted this at on May 28, 2009), she’s never liked the “digital immigrants/digital natives” divide, another form of gengen. She thinks it sells “digital immigrants” short and assumes today’s undergrads are wired differently and “way more adept at technology than me”—which is not her experience.

Mazar notes Don Tapscott, one of the great gengen purveyors, who’s given to using his own kids and their friends as anecdata: What he believes to be true of them must be true of the entire generation—and it’s fundamentally different. Not that Tapscott has actual evidence (as Mazar notes, even the brain chemistry evidence he cites doesn’t actually prove generational differences), but that’s never stopped him.

Different behaviours and activities can be more popular with certain age groups than others, which makes this “digital native” thing an issue of correlation, not causation. However: do we have evidence that more teenagers are interested in the digital life than any other generation? Gen X is small compared to the “millennials,” correct? In 1994 Wired predicted that by the year 2000 the average age of internet users would be 15. Then I wonder why, in 2008, the average age of internet users in the UK is 37.9? As of right now, NiteCo lists the average age of internet users as 28.3421. I’m not suggesting that teens aren’t interested in the internet and in digital life; it’s just that it’s not primarily or only them. It’s not a factor of their age. This isn’t even like Elvis, when the kids loved the rock’n’roll and the adults hated it; it’s nowhere near that clear cut.

Mazar should be ashamed: Quoting an absolute Wired prediction that’s more than two years old, and noting that it’s turned out to be false, is as bad as, say, quoting predictions from Tapscott, Negroponte or any of the other Gurus and noting that they’ve been dead wrong. They’re always right—no matter how often they’re wrong.

Most of this post is about something other than age—she calls it a “cultural meme,” a series of metaphors. Thus, those who subscribe to a “digital culture” and want to be connected all the time are “digital natives”—regardless of their age.

Forget Gen Y: Gen X is Making Real Change

Another piece of straightforward gengen, this time from a site that loves oversimplification—ReadWriteWeb, posted September 11, 2009 by Steven Walling. It’s based on a Forrester survey of 2,000 “information workers.” According to Walling’s take on the survey, “despite the hype, it’s not Gen Y that’s getting business to adopt collaborative technology. Gen X, those who are 30-43, are the ones leading the charge for social computing.” In some ways, that makes sense: those under 30 “don’t yet have the clout within organizations to make real change.”

This survey is mildly interesting because those asked are supposedly employees, not management—but they’re all employees of medium-sized and large companies, which is limiting. The survey also found that “Gen X” and “Gen Y” were roughly equivalent in use (and active use) of discussion fora, social networks, blogs and wikis. Does that undermine a “myth”? Maybe, but I thought the gengen was that Boomers couldn’t cope with that social stuff, not that GenX (whoever that might be) was similarly incompetent at social networking.

I love the comments, which are mostly silly, since we get Gen Xers claiming to have built all the new technology GenY is using. What goes around comes around. One comment is, however, either stupid or badly misinformed:

Of course Gen-X and above are the “fastest-growing demographic” in social media. That’s because all of Gen Y is already on it. Boomer/Gen X usage is growing because their Gen Y kids are telling them about it.

Some other big believers in gengen say much the same thing.

The Millennial Muddle

Eric Hoover offers this story (subtitled “How stereotyping students became a thriving industry and a bundle of contradictions”) in the October 11, 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s a lighthearted article, noting the number of Experts who “sell maps” to the maze that is the minds of college students.

Ask them to explain today’s teenagers and twentysomethings. Invite them to your campus to describe this generation’s traits. Just make sure that they don’t all show up at the same time. They would argue, contradict one another, and leave you more baffled than ever.

Figuring out young people has always been a chore, but today it’s also an industry. Colleges and corporations pay experts big bucks to help them understand the fresh-faced hordes that pack the nation’s dorms and office buildings. As in any business, there’s variety as well as competition. One speaker will describe youngsters as the brightest bunch of do-gooders in modern history. Another will call them self-involved knuckleheads. Depending on the prediction, this generation either will save the planet, one soup kitchen at a time, or crash-land on a lonely moon where nobody ever reads.

Hoover “just for fun” stereotypes the Generation Gurus as “smart, successful, and full of unshakeable opinions”—and given to describing each others’ work as “wrong,” “unempirical” and “wildly mistaken.” But they’re all entrepreneurs engaged in feeding “a world with a bottomless craving for labels.”

It’s useful to point out that one of the early Great Studies, Howe and Strauss’s Millennials Rising, is based mostly on anecdata—and on studying high-school seniors in the wealthiest county in the nation, which could just possibly be faulted in terms of generalizability. (That book apparently coined the damnable Millennials term.) The authors aren’t social scientists—but they had already established their ability to generalize generations, with the book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 and the concept that each “generation” represents a sharp break with the previous one. What’s sad is that people have taken them seriously, leading to much of the gengen.

Strauss died; Howe has built a gengen industry, publishing Millennial books and getting fat consulting and speaking fees. He’s quick with a stereotype and influential—even though, the more you actually look at the gengen, the worse it looks. Here’s how one director of admissions now sees it:

To accept generational thinking, one must find a way to swallow two large assumptions. That tens of millions of people, born over about 20 years, are fundamentally different from people of other age groups—and that those tens of millions of people are similar to each other in meaningful ways. This idea is the underpinning of Mr. Howe’s conclusion that each generation turns a historical corner, breaking sharply with the previous generation’s traits and values.

Real research, not limited to a highly unrepresentative group, shows the opposite—that change happens gradually, not abruptly, and that people are wildly varied within any “generation.”

I’m noting the first part of a long article (7,400 words). Clearly, Howe’s not likely to change his stripes—he’s making big bucks through gengen, and he’s already labeled the next generation, the “Homeland Generation” (born 2005-2025), Americans who will fit “an artist archetype.” Right. He seems to believe he must be right because he’s in such demand. It couldn’t be that he’s in demand because stereotyping your students and customers is a lot easier than dealing with their endless, individual complexity?

Technologically conservative young scholars—you’re surprised, really?

In this February 7, 2010 post at Christina’s LIS Rant, Christina Pikas notes a speaker being surprised by a finding “that young scholars were unwilling or unlikely to experiment with new scholarly communication (tools/practices/channels)”—and an audience question indicating that the questioner didn’t believe the finding.

No matter how many times this myth is debunked, it remains firmly entrenched. Here are some variations on it:

When generation {x,y, millennial, etc} gets in {university, grad school, the workplace}, {collaboration, communication, search technologies} will all be different because they’ll already know how to use all of that stuff and they’ll be expert at it

All we need for {open access, open science, electronic journals, online communities, social computing technologies} to catch on, is for the next generation to grow up and join the workforce

No need to teach how to search to young folks today, they already know how to work Google

No need to teach younger workers how to collaborate effectively or use workplace collaboration technologies, they use Facebook.

Pikas finds this frustrating, for good reason. As she says, moving to new methods of scholarly communication almost certainly isn’t just a matter of time—it requires changes in the culture that are not age-related. Innovations need to be compatible with the way the field currently does business or be so much better that people will make a disruptive change; “the young’uns get it” is not meaningful.

Pikas quotes one earlier version of this myth (after all, the “Nintendo generation” should handle all this new stuff just fine, right?), based on a study of doctoral students in 1995. The writer offers a version of the myth that assumes “electronic communication technologies will transform university research practices chiefly by the mechanism of doctoral students (presumably people of the younger generation) entering the profession who are more comfortable and skilled with technology than their advisors” and bases that on five subclaims: Students are more comfortable with and skilled in electronic communications; they have more incentive to transform work practices; they have more time to experiment with new ideas; they’re less conditioned by working in established ways; and their move into faculty positions will transform disciplines as a result.

It didn’t work out that way. Doctoral students were “still beholden to the existing values of what constituted a disciplinary contribution that did not change as quickly as new technologies became available.” In practice, new researchers will be conservative in their practices until they get tenure—for good reason. Thus, there’s some reason to believe that older scholars (who have freedom to experiment) may be the ones who bring about change.

From the mouths of babes…

There was a video in late February or early March 2010 of a 3-year-old talking about what she wants from her library. Bobbi Newman had a quick comment on this in a March 2, 2010 post at Librarian by Day: “The Only Thing This Video Proves is 3 Year Olds Can Be Coached.” Maybe that’s all that needs to be said.

I saw [the video] when it first started making the rounds and thought cute, but clearly that child has been coached and so dismissed it. She isn’t telling us what she wants, she telling us what the person behind the camera told her to say. She is three, she has no idea what she is saying.

What’s the harm? None, until:

But then it started to be retweeted, and librarians started holding it up as proof of something. Of proof we need to adapt and change for digital natives. Then I started beating my head against my desk. Because please, anyone can see this child is coached and this, THIS is your proof? If you showed this to me as proof of your stance in an argument I would mock you. And you would deserve it.

Newman believes change is needed. She’s strong on transliteracy (which I don’t fully understand). There are issues that need to be discussed—and citing a 3-year-old “digital native” as proof of anything gets in the way of that discussion.

The comments are interesting. The first person says she “can’t imagine anyone actually pointing to this as proof, and haven’t heard that done”—but then says she used the video in a presentation attempting to help older librarians and volunteers “understand why migrating to dynamically-driven web-based content is so critical, and why it will become even more critical in order to stay relevant to younger patrons.” She says she pointed out that the video was clearly fabricated—but she used the video. And she says it got her audience thinking. Thinking about what? That three-year-olds can be coached? How could the video serve any useful purpose in demonstrating a need? (Newman responded that “the same points could have been made in another way that was not fabricated.”)

The next commenter is “in favor of this video just because I ‘see’ it as a marketing product…” which seems sad, and comes back later to defend the phony video. Finally, someone agreed with Newman (and noted that her thoughts included cursing and rants about child abuse). (Newman responds to the second defense of the video appropriately: “It makes me cringe to see us holding up something that can so easily be dismissed as fabricated. Which would allow the issues to then be dismissed as well.”)

That same day, “Andy” at Agnostic, Maybe belittled a number of librarians for being humorless—including those who objected to the coached 3-year-old’s video.

As for those who are appalled by this (dare I say it?) cute video, if you are really taking this video that seriously, you might be due for a little nonsense right about now. Because if you are considering this video as a real issue, then you are ignoring the hell out of actual serious issues such as reaching out to the community served, advocacy on issues of support and funding, and education as to the mission and materials of the library. And, quite honestly, articles and posts regarding what it means to be a serious librarian (or, apparently more importantly, what is not part of one) creates discussion that resembles a circular firing squad; it is to the benefit of no one.

The reason Bobbi Newman wrote her post is that other librarians were citing this video as being meaningful—”something we need to think about.” It would be hard to find those cites now; they’ve pretty much disappeared. Without them, the video would have been a harmless little piece of fluff (originally used at VALA, apparently), to be treated as silliness. With them, it became something else—not about seriousness, but about what’s reasonable to cite as evidence of generational differences and what’s not.

The net generation, unplugged

From the March 4, 2010 Economist, a nice little article taking aim at Born Digital and other “tomes about digital natives” and claims that this “generation” is so different—and the calls based on, mostly, anecdata for total transformation of education and employment.

But does it really make sense to generalise about a whole generation in this way? Not everyone thinks it does. “This is essentially a wrong-headed argument that assumes that our kids have some special path to the witchcraft of ‘digital awareness’ and that they understand something that we, teachers, don’t—and we have to catch up with them,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, who teaches media studies at University of Virginia.

Anyone who’s read C&I long enough will know I’m not automatically in love with everything Siva Vaidhyanathan says, but I think “wrong-headed” is exactly right here.

Michael Wesch, who pioneered the use of new media in his cultural anthropology classes at Kansas State University, is also sceptical, saying that many of his incoming students have only a superficial familiarity with the digital tools that they use regularly, especially when it comes to the tools’ social and political potential. Only a small fraction of students may count as true digital natives, in other words. The rest are no better or worse at using technology than the rest of the population.

Michael Wesch doesn’t buy the “digital native” stereotype? That’s compelling. The article also cites studies suggesting what’s far more likely—that variations within a so-called generation are likely to be at least as large as between that and other generations. And, of course, generalizations are harmful because they generalize: they “fail to recognise cognitive differences in young people of different ages, and variation within age group.” One comment, by “CA-Oxonian,” is eloquent in its forthrightness:

With every new pervasive technology comes talk of a mysterious new generation that somehow “gets” it and will magically be different from all preceding human generations. Such nonsense is generally spouted by people older than the generation being described who largely fail to comprehend the actual details of the technology in question. And then, after all the tedious and predictable (but highly profitable) hype comes the boring reality: humans are humans. They use new technologies to accomplish old tasks. Fifty thousand years ago people drew lewd stick figures in the sand; today they download porn from a free website. Fifty thousand years ago they huddled in the shade of a tree and spun improbable yarns to impress each other; now they post on each other’s Facebook Wall. In short, while technologies come and go people remain pretty much the same. And people will always have a propensity for hyping the next great technology that will ensure that our younger generation will be mysteriously (but indefinably) different from all that have gone before. Plus ca change...

Don Tapscott also commented, saying his views have now been proven by a $4 million study showing that Millennials’ brains really are different. He made another best-seller out of that. So I’m clearly wrong; the issue has officially been settled…in 2009. If you believe Tapscott.

George Williams did a followup post on March 9, 2010 at ProfHacker: “Digital Natives? Naïve!” He cites one danger of educators buying into “digital natives”: that educators will “assume levels of expertise and experience–among all of their students–that simply don’t exist in such an evenly distributed way” and may lose opportunities to teach critical skills. Williams suggests asking students two questions as a simple experiment:

·         How does the Google search engine work?

·         Who owns the exclusive rights to the pictures you’ve uploaded to Facebook?

Williams guesses “a statistically insignificant percentage of your students will know the right answer[s].”

Maura Smale commented on the Economist article (and an article in Sociological Inquiry describing differences in internet skills among college students) in a March 14, 2010 post at ACRLog, “Not So Native?”

I have to admit that I’ve never been a fan of many of the generalizations about millennials and their technology skills. I’m fairly tech savvy despite being nowhere near college age, and many of my colleagues are, too. I also know many folks my age and younger who are reluctant (and less savvy) technology users. In my experience interest is a far more accurate predictor of technology adoption than age. Our students are familiar with the tech tools they use every day–cellphones, text messaging, social networking, etc.–in the same way anyone can grow comfortable with repeated use of common technologies.

Smale’s not surprised to see reports that college students aren’t as technology-savvy as “digital natives” should be. “I’m sure this is familiar to many of us from our interactions with students, whether at the reference desk, in instruction sessions or elsewhere in the library.” She also makes an interesting point, one I don’t see often enough from academic librarians. Yes, academic libraries should be (and are) adopting new technologies to improve services.

But I’d also caution that we can’t let the new sweep away the old quite yet. They may be old-fashioned, but there’s still a place in our libraries for posters and handouts alongside those newcomers Twitter and blogs.


Sharp distinctions between generations—and even labels for specific generations—are mostly nonsense, and damaging nonsense at that. Sure, growing up with tools makes them less apparent as new tools—but it doesn’t mean you understand them, just that you’ve used them. (And, with a few exceptions, it means you’ve used them if you’re from a middle-class or wealthier family in a developed nation.) Gengen is stereotyping; stereotyping always saves time by allowing us to avoid dealing with people as individuals—and that’s pretty much never a positive thing.

On the other hand…things do change, if not in bizarre generational leaps and gulfs, and those in power need to be aware of change and supportive of younger (or older but more aware) people trying to make sense of that change. Things don’t stay the same: That’s not new.

I find it improbable that we’ll see less gengen, less stereotyping. It’s too profitable an activity for the Gurus of Gengen, and it’s too easy for others to say “Oh, here’s what X is all about, now I can stop thinking about it.”

A substantial percentage of people in the generation before mine—the so-called Greatest Generation—were self-interested slackers who cared about nothing more than getting ahead and avoiding things like war and worldwide causes. A substantial percentage of those self-absorbed Boomers have worked to make a difference in the world, showing the kind of enlightened self-interest that’s also called altruism and effective charity. How could it be otherwise?

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 10, Number 6, Whole Issue 129, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford.

This issue sponsored by the Library Society of the World (LSW).

This issue incorporates The Australasian Journal of Library and Information Science (formerly The Australasian Journal of Library Science), v. 4 no. 1. Some subscribers have noted that all articles in Volume 2 of The Australasian Journal of Library Science also appeared as Volume 2 of The Australasian Journal of Knowledge Management, without notification of the repetitive publication. We apologize for any confusion; we assumed that the journals had entirely different readerships, and felt that quietly republishing identical refereed articles would maximize our earnings potential.

Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2010 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

All original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons. org/licenses/by-nc/1.0 or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.