Anyone who was older than 25 in 2012 had little in common with the Internet Pioneers and Internet Natives born post-1991. While the world these post-Internet generations are inheriting is bewildering and may seem to some to be on a self-destructive downward spiral, my understanding of this new generation has given me a renewed and even optimistic outlook on the future.
But no matter how well we may understand the Internet Pioneers and Internet Natives, and no matter how much research we might do to learn more about them, we can only uncover and try to relate to the earliest stages of their evolution and future effects and influences.
Internet Pioneers are a transformative generation––bridging the gap between the “me” generations of the past several decades that have polarized almost all aspects of society and the “well balanced” generations that are emerging from the Internet culture. Internet Pioneers are, in that context, somewhat schizophrenic.
- They struggle with an awareness of the conflicts that have defined their youth, yet have an elevated consciousness and awareness of the need for a more balanced construct across all layers of human existence.
- They are focused on their day-to-day realities and challenges, yet also operate on a higher plane of social engagement.
- They are materialistic, yet not into material rewards.
- They are hard-working and hard-playing.
- They are conflicted about their roles, their wants, their needs and their goals. Yet they intuitively believe they are destined to achieve success and make a meaningful contribution to society.
- They believe in tolerance and acceptance, and that extends to a tolerance for those with whom they disagree. They expect equal tolerance of their lifestyles and opinions in return. Yet they are reluctant to become activists in support of their beliefs.
- They are funny and embrace humor, even politically incorrect humor that many may find offensive. But they are sensitive enough to understand when and where such humor is inappropriate.
- They are comfortable expressing their opinions and have little fear of authority, yet they are socially uncomfortable when put into roles outside their comfort zones.
- They are eager for assistance, support and guidance from those with more experience, but are convinced they have as much to offer as mentors as they do as mentees.
In my 1998 book Reconnecting with Customers: Building Brands and Profits in The Relationship Age, I wrote about the “Net-Generation,” for whom I coined the term “N-Gen,” calling them the “Engine” of the 21st century. I wrote then, and continue to believe, that “this generation is the most important generation in history––the most technologically savvy, educated, and economically powerful. This is a culturally diverse group to whom tolerance is not only important, it is natural. For the past several years, the number of immigrants entering the United States each year has surpassed the number of births, and this will continue for the next several years. Multiculturalism is far more apparent on MTV and Nickelodeon than it is on CBS.”
I continued, “The N-Generation has far more influence over purchase decisions than preceding generations. It is the first generation that believes that its members are in control of technology, rather than technology controlling them. They do not sit passively in front of their television set. They interact. The percentage of kids who say it’s ‘in’ to be online has jumped to 88 percent [in 1997]. The long sought-after ‘killer app’ is turning out to be the powerful N-Gen who perceive technology with a completely new set of perceptions, expectations, needs and issues. The killer app is the application of technology by a new generation defined by the Internet and computers to make connections and build relationships.”
Looking back at my 1998 book in the context of writing this book, the two are a continuum, with a single core message: All the Internet-inspired inventions to date have been a precursor to the coming advances the Internet is inspiring and the extraordinary impact these advances will have on all aspects of culture and society.
The first wave of the "N-Gen"––the Internet Pioneers––are at the earliest stages of making their influence felt. They are an impressive group, and they will be up to the task of fulfilling their destiny to be the single most important generation of the past or next hundred years, even though they are the smallest––only 21.2 million.
When I began researching this group, I was concerned about whom I would discover. Would they prove to be a generation born into a society that elevates and honors false gods like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton; that has a shortened attention span brought on by a non-stop explosion of information, entertainment and constant social intrusion; a generation that seems to have little regard for traditional hierarchies or cultural mores? Would this generation have the chops to lead, inspire and guide society, or would they prove to be just a purposeless cohort group in the passing parade of humanity?
Of course, not all Internet Pioneers can be generalized with broad descriptions. They have more diversity than any generation of college-age youth that has preceded them––a larger percentage of them are Hispanic, Black and Asian. There are more Muslims among them. There are more openly gay 17- to 21-year-olds than ever before. They are at the front edge of a wave of diversity descending on America. 59 percent of college students in 2012 are female, and that disproportionate share will increase for at least the next decade, with the percent of graduate students even more weighted toward females. The effect of greater diversity in the general population and the population moving into their adult years will be game-changing––altering the culture and the strategic foundations of corporations, politics, education, the arts, media, advertising and almost every career category.
When asked: “What’s the Future?” Internet Pioneers are likely to respond “I Don’t Know.” But then they will explain to you how concerned they are about political dissension and social upheaval. Interventionist military politics are anathema to most, but they understand the nuances of international engagement. Economic collapse has been the norm throughout their lives, and the appeal of Wall Street is leveraged with a concern about income equality. The debates over global climate change, abortion, gay marriage and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” health care, gun control, education, unions and taxes are depressing. They want to move on from the partisan debates that polarize society. They want solutions, not controversies.
Internet Pioneers are the most aware generation ever, and they are committed to moving their lives forward, becoming productive adults and contributing in meaningful ways to society and to their communities––whether those communities be in their neighborhoods or online and global. But they remain weighted down with the baggage of generations before them who have led the nation to the brink of economic, political and social bankruptcy. Their first task will be to shed that baggage and refocus their energy on more positive and productive pursuits.
They are focused on their futures and welcome the prospect (eventual) of marriage and families. But they are unschooled in the basic foundations of one-to-one human relationships and have become overly dependent on technology to manage relationships in ways older generations truly cannot fathom.
We have no way of knowing how this new reality will be manifested and how relationships will evolve. From corporate human resource managers to educators to therapists to dating site executives, the relationship implications for Internet Natives need to be studied, interpreted and understood. But even then, the ability of those who grew up as part of pre-Internet generations will be of limited value in relating to and addressing the needs of Internet Natives and the problems and issues they are facing. It will be a mistake to try to anticipate the future problems of Internet Pioneers and Internet Natives or the solutions to these problems. Our traditional approaches, perceptions, beliefs and experiences are very different from theirs.
Pre-Internet generations––X-Gens and Y-Gens––will remain the most visible and powerful influences in society for at least the next two decades. But, inevitably and sadly, there will also be more disclosures about illegal, immoral and unethical actions of these generations, as well as conflicts, controversy and polarization that will further disconnect them from Internet Pioneers.
From Henry Kissinger’s secret trip on Air Force One to China in 1970 to the election of Barack Obama, the world has been on a roller coaster ride of change and disruption. Internet Pioneers are at the forefront of a movement that will set a new stabilizing course for humanity, but it will take decades before their true influence and importance will be fully recognized and understood.
My goal with this book has been to share insights on the transformational effect on society resulting from the development of the Internet and the period of literally and virtually mind-altering advances that interconnectivity will lead to over the next few decades.
My study of Internet Pioneers––the small generation of today’s college students born between 1991 and 1995––provides a unique perspective on these coming advances and shifts in society, culture and all aspects of human interaction.
I hope I have shared a positive perspective, ultimately one of hope and even excitement that we will, indeed, be in good hands. Internet Pioneers are a generation I’m prepared to depend on to lead us into a period when reasonable minds and attitudes will prevail; when polarized segments of society will begin an inexorable move toward mutual understanding and acceptance; when human rights and human empowerment will prevail; when economic disparity will be rebalanced; when religious, ethnic and humanistic diversity will be embraced; and when the Internet will prove to have been one of the greatest and most positive transformational innovations and advances in history.
To provide some focused perspective to how Internet Pioneers may influence society, culture and relationships, here are a few personal perspectives and predictions for the future.
The emphasis on “hookups” during their college days assures a generation that is sexually liberal and liberated but that ultimately values relationships and marriage. They will come late to marriage and families, but divorce rates will decline. Internet Pioneers are open to gay marriage and will be active advocates for assuring full gay rights in society and the workplace. The hookup culture will extend across many aspects of their lives, as Internet Pioneers resist long-term commitments and entanglements, from their jobs to brand preferences. But once committed, they are fully engaged and actively involved, and willing to use the social tools available to them to communicate their support.
- Women’s Rights
Almost 60 percent of college graduates among Internet Pioneers will be women, and a larger percentage of graduate degrees will be granted to women. They are career-oriented and will be marrying and starting families later than previous generations. They are also more likely to stay in their jobs after having children and will find ways to achieve balance in their lives. As they begin their careers, they will connect with accomplished women mentors. A process of mutual upward and downward mentoring will assure that younger women will be better prepared to achieve success. Already successful women will have young coaches to help them adapt to, relate to, and embrace Internet Pioneers and the new approaches they will bring to all aspects of work and culture. While male Internet Pioneers are also open to similar relationships, their older colleagues are less evolved in their receptivity to younger men as mentors to them, and are less able to serve as effective mentors. Women will gain more power, responsibility, authority and dominance in a broad cross-section of corporations, institutions, government bodies and non-profit organizations.
Internet Pioneers are at the front edge of a wave of ethnic, cultural and gender diversity in America. They are a global generation that views diversity and equality as the norm, not an ideal to be fought for (and against) as it has been by previous generations. They bring to their relationships, the workplace and their communities a set of fundamental beliefs about equal rights. They accept and embrace diversity and are far more color blind than earlier generations. To them, fair pay is common sense and the importance of work/life balance is understood. While it may take decades for these beliefs and attitudes to become the norm in American society, Internet Pioneers will be at the forefront of advancing and furthering the cause of diversity in all aspects of life.
Tolerance is a priority among Internet Pioneers. Religious dogma that is founded on intolerance will be less accepted or embraced as this group begins building their families and searching for religious affiliation. Offshoot congregations that embrace a more inclusive approach will evolve out of doctrinaire religions. Spirituality and a focus on the relevance and meaning of an afterlife in our present lives will gain importance. Internet congregations will become more prominent, as religious leaders emerge from websites, YouTube videos, and mobile apps.
Internet Pioneers have grown up in a dysfunctional educational system. They fundamentally value school and had many qualified teachers. Yet, except for a few exceptions, their schools and education remain embedded in 19th-century models with little relevance to the basic needs most Internet Pioneers will require as they graduate from college. This first generation of Internet Natives will become activists in restructuring education to embrace technology, connectivity and collaboration. Many of them will work as professionals and volunteers in educational systems to re-introduce a focus on the arts, physical activity, languages, interpersonal skills, and preparatory training for the jobs of the future, especially related to technology.
Internet Pioneers are most likely to support candidates for political office who advocate individual rights including abortion, gay marriage, medical marijuana, limited gun control; clearly defined economic policies that do not overly advantage the already wealthy; smaller government; a strong but controlled military with a non-interventionist agenda; and a reduction of the dominance of the military-industrial complex. They are likely to emerge as a powerful voting bloc, with a large percentage planning to vote in both presidential and general elections. They instinctively embrace multiculturalism and will be more likely than preceding generation to vote without consideration of gender, ethnic or sexual inclinations of the candidates. Morality and ethics, however, will be important concerns.
- Television and Media
Internet Pioneers will embrace interactivity and naturally incorporate two-screen activities into their television viewing patterns. They will be less engaged with television overall, and will gravitate toward programs that embrace a tolerant and inclusive perspective on society. Entertainment and variety programs will appeal to Internet Natives, as will soap-opera style content across multiple platforms. They are not only Internet Natives, but YouTube natives, and will naturally be comfortable with short-form content, amateur videos, commenting and sharing. “TV” programs will be most successful when they evolve as brands that extend across multiple platforms, incorporate gaming, commerce and social applications, attract a large fan base and appeal to a loyal core audience. Gaming will be an embedded part of the media culture.
The music industry will evolve further and further away from the “album” construct and toward one-hit wonders. Talent and the music industry will measure each new release based on its stand-alone hit potential, as packaging multiple songs around one or two hits becomes more and more challenging. Touring will be the most important financial opportunity, although prices will need to be kept low and venues comparatively small, except for the very few groups that can fill Madison Square Garden. Since most of those performers established their careers in the 60s and 70s, the current dependence of the music industry on scalable tours will erode. The music industry’s continued focus on large corporate studios will be all but gone within another decade, and the new powers will be the leading digital distributors: Vevo. Pandora, Spotify, Clear Channel, Radio.com and others that will evolve.
- Community, Culture and Commerce
There have been several articles and blogs comparing the development of the Internet to the invention of the automobile. While the car was a great invention with huge value, its greatest contributions were the changes in society it enabled. People became mobile and moved around the country, fundamentally shifting the nation’s economic foundation. The car enabled people to move from the city––near their work and families––to the suburbs where they could afford a home and land. The car was at the foundation of empowering and enabling these societal and economic shifts. We did not know at the time how the suburbs would ultimately evolve and could not have envisioned thousands of malls and millions of strip centers, the expansion of highways and local roads, or the resulting years of urban blight. And we can only try to envision how the Internet and Internet Pioneers will alter community, commuting, commerce and connectivity as we know them today. The Internet, like the automobile, is spawning a plethora of innovations that will unlock potential as unimaginable to many of us as the advances spurred by the combustion engine and car were to their first users.
Amazon was launched in 1994, the same year that FedEx became the first to offer online package tracking. Netflix, Google, and PayPal all were launched in 1997 and 1998. Napster, the very first peer-to-peer file-sharing program, was first released in 1999. The Internet has jumped from computers to mobile devices, televisions, airplanes, cars, and medical implants. It has led to dramatic changes in the way people share information, communicate with each other, do business, and generally live their lives. It has diffused itself through almost every device and electronic product in use today. All this took less than twenty years. The Internet is spawning a plethora of business innovations that will unlock potential of undreamed-of proportions. The Internet and computing have revolutionized transportation, not of material goods, but of information, social connectivity and entertainment. Internet Pioneers and online/mobile connectivity will be important forces behind a refocusing of corporate priorities that will place more emphasis on social and cultural responsibility. While profit will always be the motivating focus of business, Internet Pioneers will bring to business a new sense of ethics, morality, equality and economic fairness.
With the introduction of the Internet browser in 1993 and the subsequent years of innovation, the global pace of life and the inter-connectedness of individuals, groups, countries and corporations have been completely changed forever. The first generation of online natives is guiding us across the chasm from the Pre- to the Post-Internet Age. As the Internet becomes an increasingly embedded part of our lives, every one of us becomes an Internet Pioneer, struggling to adapt to a new world.