The 21st Century Workplace: Life Among the Digital Natives

Their nearly organic relationship with digital technology makes them less subject to the constrictions of time and geography that affect their parents. They are both achievement driven and highly competitive.

I currently serve as volunteer co-chair of my local school district’s Industry Advisory Board. It is an organization founded on the principle that businesspeople need to work with educators to provide students with relevant, career-related opportunities that complement their academic achievements. When I joined nearly 20 years ago, I saw it as an opportunity to take what I had learned during my (then) 25-years in business and use it to help young people work toward their own careers in what we used to call the “real world”.

Today I see things differently – at least in one important regard. We, as professionals, have as much to learn from the students as they have from us. And as much as we still need to prepare them for the workplace, we also need to prepare the workplace for the impact they will have on it.

If you have not encountered the term “digital natives” yet, you soon will. In marketing and advertising we spend a good deal of time identifying population segments and trends. In the last few years these digital natives have emerged as a significant new population segment. Born during the last quarter century, these individuals have never experienced a world without digital technology. As a group, they differ from earlier generations across a wide range of attitudes and behaviors. They are markedly different in the choices they make regarding such things as entertainment, privacy, networking, and personal space. Their nearly organic relationship with digital technology makes them less subject to the constrictions of time and geography that affect their parents. They are both achievement driven and highly competitive.

As much as we need to help prepare these young people for the workplace, we also need to prepare the workplace for the impact they will have upon it. In terms of basic skills, the digital natives are already better prepared than any preceding generation to exist and succeed in the workplace that will evolve over the next five to ten years. They have no problem multitasking on mobile devices (which may indeed become the workplace in the near future). They are adept at solving problems through the use of social networks and virtual, online relationships. They have a visceral understanding of how digital technology is changing the nature of communication… which will ultimately affect the ways in which we do business.

What will it take to motivate and train these digital natives? What kind of working conditions will be needed to maximize their productivity? What kind of work schedules will mesh with their time-independent, 24/7 lifestyles? And remember, as they become more of the workforce, they also become more and more of the marketplace, and will influence how goods and services are sold. How do we, as employers and professionals, learn and grow as this new workforce… and the new workplace… emerge?

My answer? Go back to school.

Become involved with the local IAB, either in the community where you live or near your place of business. Do all you can to help it to grow and expand. Work with the kids. Get to know what motivates them and the things they find important. Learn and understand how they live and thrive in their mobile, smart-phone world. Trust me, there’s no better way to avoid feeling that you’re a dinosaur by the time you’re in your 50s. Get to know these kids and you’ll find that your faith in the future has been reinvigorated. And remember this: when it comes to the digital workplace and the emerging digital world of tomorrow, they will be the natives and we the aliens.

About SMM’s Bob Mattson: Bob Mattson is SMM Advertising’s Executive Vice President and a founding partner of the Agency. Bob is a resident of Smithtown, and his children have all graduated from Smithtown schools. He has been involved in the Smithtown Industry Advisory Board for approximately 18 years, and the Smithtown school district has said it greatly appreciates his time and dedication to this organization and the students of Smithtown Schools.

About the Smithtown IAB: All businesspeople, alumni, parents, students, and teachers are invited to join the Advisory Board.  Visit their website at www.smithtowniab.com to learn more. From Smithtown IAB: “There are no membership fees, no requirements to fulfill…just a willingness to assist in enhancing the education of the youth of Smithtown. Please feel free to bring a colleague along with you to one of our upcoming meetings.”