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Generational Differences: What Should We Be Scanning For?

One of the most interesting pieces of environmental scanning that I come across regularly is information on generational differences. There's a bit of discussion about whether these differences actually exist, or whether they are a figment of a marketer's imagination but, as any parent of a 14 year old will tell you, generational differences do exist. Right now, there is a lot of hype about Generation Y, the millennials, the generation. These are the people who have grown up with the internet and mobile phones and who are now of college age. Check out Educause, a US website, for examples of how colleges and universities are adapting to the Y generation. It seems to be mainly technology driven - these kids know how to use technology, so what technology can we give them?

When folks I talk to speak of Generation Y, I ask them about Generation Z, or the Ferals (check out the website of Annimac Consultants for more info about the Ferals), who have truly grown up with the internet and mobile phones and whose communication methods are first, electronic, and second, face-to-face (using the 14 year old child as an example here). These kids will not leave it up to us who work in universities now to decide what technology we should provide them with; if we don't adapt our delivery styles to their delivery preferences, they - like all students, past, present and future - will vote with their feet.

Generation Y students are with us, they are mainstream, we can only adapt to them. We should be focusing our environmental scanning on Generation Z and the generation that will follow them, those kids being born now, so that we can be proactive. How will they learn? Will they be able to sit still for long enough to endure a one hour lecture or tutorial? Probably not. Yet, we cling on to these delivery modes as though they were sacrosanct and not able to be challenged. Yes, we have online delivery in a variety of modes, but Ferals use a lot more than the internet. Check out social networking sites like MySpace, Twitter and Facebook for examples of how young people communicate today.

Our scanning needs to include sources of interest to the Ferals and, progressively, of interest to the next generation (if anyone knows the name that has been allocated to this next generation, please let me know). This means listening to their music, reading their books, spending time where they spend time, both virtually and physically. Peter Schwartz in The Art of the Long View, gives a good list of scanning options to broaden out our worldview about the future.

The good news is we have some years to adapt before we will be confronted with the impact of the Ferals, but we need to start planning now.