Students become teachers in the wired world

Many believe youth is wasted on the young. Others cannot remember their youth – were you part of the sixties? – but still maintain that they were more respectful, responsible, diligent and better cricket players than the youth of today.

While cross-generation comparisons are fraught with emotion rather than real data, we must come to terms with the gap between the world of today’s youth and our own.

In the fifties, the generation gap was considered to be twenty-five years, the average number of years between birth and child-bearing.

Now it is almost nonsensical to refer to a generation gap at all – the world of a five year old and that of a ten year old will be more different than the same.

As a research project last year demonstrated, youth of all nations share more cultural norms with each other than they do with older generations from their national culture.

Camera crews were sent to simultaneously film the bedrooms of

middle-class fourteen year olds in cities around the world.

The films showed the same pop music and sports posters on the walls, the same clothes on the floor, the same CDs and tapes, the same junk food wrappers (on the floor) and the same technology – a PC with modem, video games, walkman, and a cordless phone.

Their world is wired – and global.

Jeffrey R Harrow, a techno trend watcher with Compaq Computer Corp, provides “a lesson” in his latest weekly journal, RCFoC (Rapidly Changing Face of Computers) which drives home the differences.

Harrow took his mini RCFoC seminar to his local high school’s Technology Day. He is accustomed to the full range of adult reactions from ‘shock-horror’ to ‘fine, but how can we possibly keep up?’

Harrow says the high school kids had a different reaction. They were polite, and subtly attentive to details, but not at all surprised by the expected speed of upcoming computers.

They were not surprised to hear that:

• NEC has packed 1.4 megabytes into a holographic sugar cube

• UCLA is developing chemical self-assemblers that will create heaps of things for little cost

• research labs are working on Smart Dust motes that will observe and act on the world around them.

Youth, says Harrow, EXPECT these things. This is normal. This is the only world they have known.

These young people are about to graduate into your business world. They are not concerned about things being obsolete before they get into the marketplace. According to Harrow, they are not going to “work for companies that block and slow down their ideas.”

These youth are not going to wait for you to change. They will start up their own businesses which will not need to pay any attention to yours.

Look at what Encarta has done to Encyclopedia Britannica – now given away free on the net – and what online trading houses have done to the financial establishment.

Survival means you have no choice but to get your business up to netspeed.

This is where your true mettle – or heavy metal depending on your era – will be tested. For who can teach us better than anyone how to live in the wired world? Youth.

However, who are we conditioned to belittle, disempower, criticise, discount or at best, ignore? Youth.

Oh dear. I only hope they are gentle as they hurtle by us on their way to lead us into our future. Youth definitely ain’t what it used to be.

• Ann Macbeth is a futurist and principal of Annimac Consultants.

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