Reaching Younger Workers Who Think Differently
[Cover story of
the January 1998 issue of The Conference Boardís magazine, Across the
Twitch Speed vs. Conventional Speed
Parallel Processing vs. Linear Processing
III. Random Access vs. Linear Thinking
Graphics First vs. Text First
Connected vs. Stand-alone
Active vs. Passive
Play vs. Work
Payoff vs. Patience
Fantasy vs. Reality
Technology as Friend vs. Technology as Foe
Every parent, educator,
and manager knows that "Nintendo children"--those born after
1970 and raised on video and computer games, Walkmans, the Internet, etc.--are
different. Unfortunately, the Gen-X discussion has focused mainly on the
youths' supposedly short attention spans and attention-deficit disorders,
ignoring or underemphasizing what is perhaps the most crucial factor--that
this under-30 generation thinks, and sees the world, in ways entirely
different from their parents.
An example: This generation grew up on video games ("twitch speed"),
MTV (more than 100 images a minute), and the ultra-fast speed of action
films. Their developing minds learned to adapt to speed and thrive on
it. Yet when they join our companies, we typically begin by putting them
in corporate classrooms, bringing in poor speakers to lecture at them,
and making them sit through an endless series of corporate videos.
Speedwise, we effectively give them depressants. And then we wonder why
I don't mean to suggest that Sega and Sony have created new intellectual
faculties in under-30s but, rather, that technology has emphasized and
reinforced certain cognitive aspects and de-emphasized others. Most of
these changes in cognitive style are positive. But however one feels,
it's important that managers (as well as educators and parents) recognize
that these changes exist so that we can deal with the younger generation
Below are 10 of the main cognitive style changes, which raise a number
of important and difficult challenges. We have already begun to see the
development of new business structures, ideas, and products that take
into account under-30 employees' cognitive changes and preferences. It
is likely that the full impact of these changes will not be felt until
the younger generation fully comes to power, just as the movies were impacted
by the coming-of-age of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. That time is
not far off.
Speed vs. Conventional Speed
generation has had far more experience at processing information quickly
than its predecessors, and is therefore better at it. Humans have always
been capable of operating at faster-than-"normal" speeds (as
airplane pilots, race-car drivers, and speed-reading guru Evelyn Wood
can attest). The difference is that this ability has now moved into a
generation at large, and at an early age. One problem this generation
faces is that, after MTV and video games, they essentially hit a brick
wall--short of piloting a jet, little in real life moves that fast. This
generation's "need for speed" manifests itself in the workplace
in a number of ways, including a demand for a faster pace of development,
less "time-in-grade," and shorter lead times to success.
An important challenge for today's managers is how to reassess and speed
up their assumptions around time, while still keeping sight of other key
objectives, such as quality and customer relationships. They also need
to create experiences that maintain the pace and exploit the facility
of "twitch speed" while adding content that is important and
useful. Several possible approaches include speeding things up via technology
(such as by providing workers with the kinds of real-time data that financial
traders use), installing faster infrastructures with fiber-optic cable
and T-1 telephone lines, and creating new, MTV-style corporate videos.
Re-engineering systems and activities so that things simply move faster
Processing vs. Linear Processing
of the under-30 generation grew up doing homework while watching TV and
doing almost everything while wearing a Walkman. Many of them feel much
more comfortable than their predecessors doing more than one thing at
once. While some argue that this limits attention to any one thing, this
is not necessarily the case. The mind can actually process many tracks
at once and often has quite a bit of "idle time" from its primary
task that can be used to handle other things. Today you see young computer
artists creating wonderful graphics while listening to music and chatting
with co-workers, and young bankers having multiple conversations on the
phone while reading their computer screens and e-mail.
This growth of parallel-processing ability appears to be acknowledged
by Bloomberg TV News, in which the anchor person takes up only one-quarter
of the TV screen, the remainder being filled with sports statistics, weather
information, stock quotes, and headlines, all presented simultaneously.
It is quite possible, and even fun, for a viewer to take in all of this
information and receive much more "news" in the same amount
Rather than admonishing their young workers to concentrate on only one
thing at a time, managers should be thinking of additional ways to enhance
parallel processing and take advantage of this increased human capability.
This might take, for example, the form of multiple types of information
hitting employees' computer screens at once--the objective of so-called
"push" technology and Microsoft's new vision for the corporate
desktop. With all the information needed to do the job--numbers, video
feeds, links, simultaneous meetings, and the ability to move seamlessly
between them--it's the Nintendo worker's nirvana.
This generation's enhanced parallel-processing ability may also help them
slide easily into the new "boundaryless organizations," in which
each worker is expected to wear multiple hats and be part of many constituencies.
I remember when the requirement that consultants at firms such as BCG
and McKinsey serve simultaneously on multiple-project teams was considered
unusual and highly suspect. With the arrival of the new generation, such
parallelism is being demanded.
Access vs. Linear Thinking
generation is the first to experience hypertext and "clicking around,"
in children's computer applications, in CD-ROMs, and on the Web. This
new information structure has increased their awareness and ability to
make connections, has freed them from the constraint of a single path
of thought, and is generally an extremely positive development. At the
same time, it can be argued--with some justification--that unbridled hyperlinking
may make it more difficult for these workers to follow a linear train
of thought and to do some types of deep or logical thinking. "Why
should I read something from beginning to end, or follow someone else's
logic, when I can just 'explore the links' and create my own?" While
following one's own path often leads to interesting results, understanding
someone else's logic is also very important. A difficult challenge is
how to create experiences that allow people to link anywhere and experience
things in any order yet still communicate sequential ideas and logical
One approach is to set up new information-delivery systems, such as corporate
intranets, that let workers break out of the traditional boxes in which
corporate information has been stored, and then to create tools to link
this information to systems that provide logical and decision-making structure.
The U.S. intelligence and military communities recently created Intelink,
an intranet-based system in which information becomes universally available
as quickly as it gets created, allowing users at all levels the freedom
to create and explore random paths that lead to new ideas. The linking
and browsing structures of the Internet and intranets have many positive
benefits, and managers of Nintendo-generation employees should encourage,
rather than discourage, their creation and use. Managers should also be
exploring nonlinear electronic alternatives to today's reports, manuals,
lectures, and lengthy narrational videos.
First vs. Text First
generations, graphics were generally illustrations, accompanying the text
and providing some kind of elucidation. For today's young people, the
relationship is almost completely reversed: The role of text is to elucidate
something that was first experienced as an image. Since childhood, the
younger generation has been continuously exposed to television, videos,
and computer games that put high-quality, highly expressive graphics in
front of them with little or no accompanying text.
The result of this experience has been to considerably sharpen their visual
sensitivity. They find it much more natural than their predecessors to
begin with visuals, and to mix text and graphics in a richly meaningful
way. An excellent example of this is Wired, whose intensive use of graphics
makes it highly appealing to younger readers but difficult for many older
folks to read--"Why can't they just give us the plain text?"
is the complaint I hear from colleagues. This shift toward graphic primacy
in the younger generation raises some extremely thorny issues, particularly
with regard to textual literacy and depth of information.
The managerial challenge is to design ways to use this shift to enhance
comprehension, while still maintaining the same or even greater richness
of information in the new context. In the training area, creative groups
such as Corporate Gameware, my unit of Bankers Trust, are presenting important
but not especially "sexy" or exciting material in ways that
conform with the preferences of younger employees by using the highly
graphic style of video games. Another promising development is data visualization,
in which large arrays of information are presented as colorful, ever-changing
graphic images that visually accent different characteristics of the data.
These tools are beginning to make serious headway in data-intensive business
fields such as finance and marketing. However, they should be considered
by managers in all industries as an approach that fits the new generational
Connected vs. Stand-alone
the previous generation was linked by the telephone, that system is synchronous
(i.e., both people have to be there). The under-30 generation has been
raised with, and become accustomed to, the asynchronous worldwide communication
of e-mail, broadcast messages, bulletin boards, usegroups, chat, and Internet
searches. As a result of this "connected" experience, young
people tend to think differently about how to get information and solve
problems. For example, if I need a question answered I'll typically call
the three or four people I think might know. It might take me time to
get to them, and take them a while to get back to me. When my 22-year-old
programmer wants to know something, he immediately posts his question
to a bulletin board, where three or four thousand people might see it,
and he'll probably have a much richer answer more quickly.
The challenge for managers is to invent ways of taking advantage of this
connected mode in their interactions with the younger generation, as the
younger people do among themselves. The more we help connect these employees
to each other and to customers, the quicker they will invent positive
ways to take advantage of it. The "connectedness" of the generation
has also made young workers much less constrained by their physical location
and more willing to work in the so-called "virtual teams" that
are becoming more useful in a variety of businesses and industries.
Workers who have grown up online tend to be much more comfortable with
seeking out and working with the best, most knowledgeable people, wherever
they may be. Such virtual teams often recruit each other via messages
on the Internet, operate smoothly from widely scattered parts of the world,
and many never physically meet their clients or each other. As they finish
their day, software developers around the globe often electronically forward
their work to a colleague in another country who is just waking up. Managers
must become more adept at managing these connected capabilities and directing
the acquisition, enhancement, and appropriate deployment of intellectual
capital around the world.
the most striking cross-generational differences can be observed when
people are given new software to learn. Older folks almost invariably
want to read the manual first, afraid they won't understand how the software
works or that they'll break something. Nintendo-generation workers rarely
even think of reading a manual. "RTFM" ("read the [expletive]
manual") is a term of derision. They'll just play with the software,
hitting every key if necessary, until they figure it out. If they can't,
they assume the problem is with the software, not with them. This attitude
is almost certainly a direct result of growing up with Sega, Nintendo,
and other video games where each level and monster had to be figured out
by trial and error, and each trial click might lead to a hidden surprise
or "Easter egg."
We now see much less tolerance in the workplace for passive situations
such as lectures, corporate classrooms, and even traditional meetings.
As the younger generation progresses up the managerial ranks, it is likely
that such old-fashioned managerial standbys will be replaced by more active
experiences such as chat, posting, surfing for information, and interactive
learning. The process of "designing for doing," i.e., designing
systems and experiences that employees can actively use, rather than things
they need to listen to or be afraid of doing wrong, may become the new
generational equivalent of the industrial "designing for manufacture."
Nike's "Just do it" slogan hits this generational change squarely
on the head. It also explains why Bob Dole's saying to Gen-Xers, "Just
donít do it" placed him so squarely in the past.
often derided in the press as intellectual slackers, in reality the under-30s
are very much an intellectual problem-solving generation. Many types of
logic, challenging puzzles, spatial relationships, and other complex thinking
tasks are built into the computer and video games they enjoy. Their spending
on such electronic games has surpassed spending on movies; PCs are now
used more for running entertainment software than for any other application,
including word processing. While some have argued that play and games
are simply preparation for work, I think that, for today's younger generation,
play is work, and work is increasingly seen in terms of games and game
play. The fact that the real-life games are very serious does not make
the player's approach any different than the way she approaches software.
Achievement, winning, and beating competitors are all very much part of
the ethic and process.
As the post-1970 generation enters the workforce, its preference for the
computer as the medium of play is already beginning to have a profound
impact on how work gets done. Game interfaces are appearing in the workplace.
Financial companies are inventing gamelike trading interfaces in which
winning the game means making an actual profit. New associates at Bankers
Trust learn about the bank's policies by playing a nonviolent, customer-focused
One of older managers' most difficult challenges is to be willing to let
the younger generation's play attitude enter the "real" world
of business as quickly and smoothly as possible. Instead of resisting
play by removing or banning all games in the workplace, for example, they
could be supporting and funding the development of new game interfaces
that help the younger generation work and learn in their own cognitive
style. The preference for play is also influencing business in the form
of pressure for a less formal workplace. Older managers should reconsider
their resistance to such changes carefully.
A potential opportunity for managers to relate to the play attitude of
the new generation might be to supplement traditional sports-oriented
competitions such as softball with inter- and intra-company tournaments
in video and other games. Doing so would engage the minds, as well as
the bodies, of employees in healthy competition and perhaps foster additional
company spirit. Finally, the younger generation's play preference has
implications for employee recruiting, as companies that go on campus with
business simulations and other challenging games for potential recruits
tend to be very well-received.
the biggest lessons the under-30 generation learned from growing up with
video games is that if you put in the hours and master the game, you will
be rewarded: with the next level, with a win, with a place on the high
scorers' list. What you do determines what you get, and what you get is
worth the effort you put in. Computers excel at giving feedback, and the
payoff for any action is typically extremely clear. A key outcome of this
is a huge intolerance on the part of the younger generation for things
that don't pay off at the level expected. Why, they ask, should I finish
school when elementary school kids can design professional Web sites,
20-year-olds can start billion-dollar companies, and Bill Gates, who left
school for something with more payoff, is the world's richest man?
Young people make these payoff-vs.-patience decisions every minute, and
sometimes in ways that are counterintuitive. For example, it was at first
strange to me that the same people who prefer "twitch" games
often have great patience with slow Internet connection speeds and the
sometimes long waiting times in a game like Myst. I suspect it is because
they have decided, or realized, that the payoff is worth the wait. The
challenge for older managers is to understand just how important these
payoff-vs.-patience tradeoffs are to younger people, and to find ways
to offer them meaningful rewards now, rather than advice about how things
will pay off "in the long run."
One clear business manifestation of this requirement for payoff is the
increasing demand for a clearer link between what employees do and the
rewards they get, leading to the growing trend toward pay-for-performance.
Another result is the increasing use of equity as a component of compensation,
along with the replication of equity-like compensation structures to reward
workers with a "piece of the action" for their own initiatives
and efforts. The growing realization that this generation wants its payoff
now has also led to an increased willingness on the part of many businesses
to provide seed capital and to "spin-off" internal start-ups,
allowing workers to potentially cash in more quickly and allowing the
firm to benefit long-term through an equity position.
one of the most striking aspects of the under-30 generation is the degree
to which fantasy elements, both from the past (medieval, Dungeons &
Dragons imagery), and the future (Star Wars, Star Trek, and other science-fiction
imagery) pervade their lives. While young people have always indulged
in fantasy play, the computer has by its nature made this easier and more
realistic, in many ways bringing it to life. Sociologists might say that
some or all of this is due to a desire to escape the realities of today's
life: fewer good jobs, more alienation, and a degrading environment. Whatever
its cause, the fantasy phenomenon has certainly been encouraged by technology.
Network technology allows people not only to create their new fantasy
identities but to express them to others and join in fantasy communities.
The huge interest in chat rooms and in individual home pages is, at least
in part, another manifestation of this.
Rather than admonish younger workers to "grow up and get real"
and abandon their rich fantasy worlds, managers should look for new ways
to combine fantasy and reality to everyone's benefit. One place it may
be possible to do this is in the design of work spaces: Spaces designed
by the younger generation are very different from those of their predecessors
and from those designed for them by the older generation. Companies already
run by Nintendo-generation individuals generally have much more informal
furniture and settings, and often have special rooms for games, etc. Microsoft's
"campus" is full of indoor and outdoor play opportunities.
The younger generation's fantasy preferences can also seen in the growth
of new "off-the-wall" job titles, such as Yahoo's "Chief
Yahoo" or Gateway 2000's "chief imagination officer." Young
workers may be willing to go a lot further with their imaginations--Gateway
decorates its shipping boxes as cows. We are also seeing an increasing
debureaucratization of systems and procedures in many organizations. Perhaps
it is not too far off when some companies will sport their own "Klingon,"
"Borg," or "Wookiee" divisions doing serious business
while decked out appropriately.
as Friend vs. Technology as Foe
growing up with computers has engendered an overall attitude toward technology
in the minds of the younger generation that is very different from that
of their predecessors. To the older generation, technology is generally
something to be feared, tolerated, or at best harnessed to one's purposes.
No matter how easy we make it, this generation doesn't want to program
its VCRs or even, for the most part, surf the Net (though there are, of
course exceptions, such as the Internet's becoming a useful way for the
retired generation to stay connected and productively use their leisure
Yet even if the older generation comes to technology willingly, or is
forced by a changing culture to learn and embrace technology, it will
never be as entirely comfortable and trusting of it as are their children.
To the younger generation, the computer is a friend. It's where under-30s
have always turned for relaxation and fun. For many in the generation,
owning or having access to a computer feels almost like a birthright.
Being connected is a necessity. The huge generational reversal in technical
skill, where parents must turn to their children for help in using their
expensive equipment, is now legendary. "What technology will I have?"
is often the key factor in a young worker's decision about what job to
How can an older generation of managers relate to and help employees who
see computers and related technology in this way? One way is to empower
them to create new business elements--computer applications, structures,
models, relationships, Web pages--that make sense for their generation.
Another possible approach is to continually seek ways to communicate,
transfer needed information, and build desired skills via the media the
younger generation willingly engage in, such as computers and games.
Rather than forcing the younger generation to use the methods of the past,
managers should be offering them the resources to create their own approaches
that will work in their new cognitive environment.
Marc Prensky is an internationally acclaimed
thought leader, speaker, writer, consultant, and game designer in the
critical areas of education and learning. He is the author of Digital
Game-Based Learning (McGraw-Hill, 2001), founder and CEO of Games2train,
a game-based learning company, and founder of The Digital Multiplier,
an organization dedicated to eliminating the digital divide in learning
worldwide. He is also the creator of the sites www.socialimpactgames.com,
. Marc holds an MBA from Harvard and a
Masters in Teaching from Yale. More of his writings can be found at
www.marcprensky.com/writing/default.asp . Contact Marc at firstname.lastname@example.org.