Sunday, April 6, 2014

Generation Y is the new Generation X

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine shared this video on her Facebook page - Kevin Bacon explaining the 80s to Millennials:

Of course, I had to watch the video. Because like all almost-40 women I know, I love Kevin Bacon. That is because like all almost-40 women I know, I grew up in the 80s. Ahhh Footloose. What girl didn't want to dance with Ren McCormack? Am I right, ladies?

Being a child of the 80s makes me more than just a Kevin Bacon fan. It makes me a member of Generation X. Which is why this video was particularly amusing. Not only did I rock the parachute pants (watch the video), but I often feel like an out-of-date Gen-Xer who appears irrelevant to the new crew of bold, tech-savvy, short-attention-spanned Generation Y. I mean, I only just figured out Twitter in the past six months!

At no time did I feel the difference between our generations so acutely as I did last weekend, when I returned to my alma mater - the University of Ottawa - as a guest judge for a 4th-year Public Administration case competition. My job was to play the role of a Minister being briefed on a matter requiring an urgent decision, while group after group of students disguised as public servants led me through a just-the-facts briefing. A policy geek's dream weekend!

Now as an alumnus of the U of O, I return to campus often enough. But every single time that I do, I am struck by the same thought: "Wow, these kids are just getting younger and younger every year."

Of course, they aren't getting younger. I am getting older. A fact which became all to clear when I introduced myself to this particular cohort as a proud alumnus of the University who started 20 years ago, prompting one girl to yell out, "Wow! I was only 1!"


Let me tell you. A whole lot has changed since she was 1 and I was... um... older than that. First of all, this was my computer:

Photo credit:

It took up an awful lot of room on my desk, it crashed all the time, and it took forever to process a simple command like "save". And it wasn't even connected to the Internet. That's because the Internet was still so new in the early 90s as to render it relatively useless for anything other than email. And if I wanted to use it to check my email account, I had to go to the computer lab, an occurrence so infrequent because no one was really using email back then. We talked to each other over the phone. And by phone, I mean a land line. Or we just hung around the campus bar waiting for each other to inevitably skip class and show up.

Because the Internet was still in its pre-Google and pre-Wikipedia days, we used the library for research. I spent hour after hour combing through microfiche and journal articles. I threw my back out every two weeks from stuffing 20 hardcover history books into my backpack so that I could write my research papers. Information was never at my fingertips. It was at least a five-minute walk away.

And this is what passed for classroom technology:

Photo credit: Wikipedia

That's right. A transparency projector. The professor would photocopy lecture notes onto a transparency and project them onto the wall at the front of the class for us to copy down - with a paper and pen in a notebook - during the lecture. My more "technologically savvy" calculus professor (part of my very short-lived attempt to secure a math minor) would bring clear transparencies, and write on them in "real-time" with coloured markers during the lectures. Pretty big step up from the chalkboards of high school!

Compare that to what I saw last Saturday when I walked into an undergrad classroom for the first time in almost two decades:

  • There was not one note-book, not one pen, not one paper. Save the pieces of paper that I was using to take notes so that I could evaluate the presentations.
  • Every single student had a laptop or a tablet with a keyboard. So did the professor.
  • Students used their laptops to build PowerPoint or Prezi presentations. They then hooked up their laptops to the class projector in under 30 seconds, without the help of a tech guy. 
  • There was a class projector. And it is always in the classroom. It's not special ordered from AV services for a once-in-a-while special need. It's the tool of choice for lectures.
  • During breaks, students were projecting their favourite YouTube videos, most of which seemed to be Lady Gaga videos.
  • Between presentations, when students weren't using the projector to present, they were using it to scroll through live tweets of the event, for which they created their own hashtag. And it wasn't even distracting for them to read through the tweets and listen to the feedback they were getting from the judges. Cause they are damn good at multi-tasking, those Millennials!
It all kind of blew me away. And made me feel old all over again.

It also made me think a lot about these Millennials, and the impact that they are having on public policy and public dialogue. They are often accused of being lazy, spoiled, self-serving, uncommitted, and apathetic. They don't vote. They don't trust their institutions of government. They question everything. And they don't contribute to public dialogue.

But I don't think that's true, especially now that I've spent a day with 50-or-so aspiring policy wonks. I think they are trying to find better ways to contribute to public dialogue than the traditional channels to which government clings. I think they are trying to raise legitimate questions, not because they dislike authority, but because they want to affect change. I think they are making use of social networks and forging more connections than any generation before them so that they can advance their aspirations and beliefs. And I think that they have found their identity in being able to use today's technologies and networks to solve complex social problems, and can't really understand why the rest of us aren't jumping on board.

I left that classroom feeling rather inspired. Public policy is alive and well among this younger generation. They just talk about it in different ways and on different channels. They want to find solutions to complex social problems, but they want to do it using different skills and tools than those we know and understand. And they want to forge new partnerships and new connections to help them make the world a better place.

I'm feeling pretty hopeful about the future of the public service. I hope they invite me back next year so that I can keep learning from this impressive group of Millennials.