I recently spent a stimulating Sunday evening with a multi-generational group of friends in a spirited discussion of generational differences. As you might expect, liberally sprinkled throughout the conversation were the terms baby boomers, Gen X and Gen Y. Simply using one of those descriptors was supposed to allow each of us to magically construct a mental profile of a person’s aspirations, motivation, and attitudes — both positive and negative. Cataloguing is a characteristic human trait that allows us to provide structure and order amid the apparent chaos of daily human activity. Over the past few decades, as businesses have successively sought to understand and predict the behaviour of consumers, it has usually been sufficient to apply a simple, age-related generational model. The post-war period brought us the baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1960), followed by their offspring, Generation X (1961 to 1981), and then Generation Y (1982 to 2000). However, such a simplistic approach is no longer proving adequate to describe and characterise the consumer base — something more insightful is needed.
Technology has become an integral, as well as increasingly invisible part of modern society and plays an expanding role in shaping the behaviour and activities of people, enterprises, industries and governments. Easy access to powerful technology, combined with affordable and pervasive global communications, has broken the previous geographical constraints to human communication and interaction. An increasing willingness to interact and collaborate with others in a virtual environment, has enabled the growth of global communities with unprecedented reach and influence, often without easily identifiable leaders. Driving this growth is the emergence of a new class of users — Generation V (the virtual generation).
Unlike the baby boomers, Gen X or Gen Y, Generation V is not defined by age, gender, social demographic or geography. It is based on demonstrated achievement and accomplishments (ie merit) and characterised by an increasing preference for the use of digital media channels to discover information, build knowledge and share insights.
Generation V is defined around three key behavioural attributes:
- A familiarity with technology and a willingness to use it as a day-to-day tool to facilitate communication that is not bounded by location or geography. Although this is a characteristic of a so-called “digital native”, it is becoming common for digital natives to teach their grandparents (typically baby boomers) who find themselves with the time to take advantage of technology.
- Building on their communication capabilities, Generation V demonstrates an overwhelming desire to participate, via active involvement in global communities enabled by their self-created online personas. Technology has delivered the means to produce content in a rich variety of media formats and the internet enables its global distribution. This can be done at a minimal cost, thus eliminating the stranglehold previously held by the broadcast media, the authorities, along with those with power and/or money. A key to this is the desire of Generation V to participate with the absolute conviction that two-way participation — active involvement rather than passive consumption — is both necessary and valuable. Generation V expects a conversation rather than a communication.
- Finally, the value set of Generation V is subtly different. It has an overwhelming belief in a meritocratic environment, the value of collaboration, that “we“ is more powerful than “me”, and that sharing increases the value of something rather than diminishes or erodes it.
In our globalised, internet-enabled world, technology has become the invisible enabler — the catalyst for interaction and commerce, and the conduit for information. Generation V is now making it the platform for a collective consciousness that is literally reshaping the balance of power among technology, enterprises and individuals.
Although the rise of Generation V may threaten established business models and power structures, it is not driven by a need for destruction. Generation V demonstrates a passion and desire for creativity, collaboration, belonging and self-determination. I think that many of us would much rather be known as a member of Generation V than be catalogued by our year of birth as a self-absorbed workaholic baby boomer, a whinging Gen X or an arrogant and entitled Gen Y.
Mary Ann Maxwell is group vice president, executive programmes, Gartner.
© Fairfax Business Media
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