Posted in book reviews

10-Point Reflection on Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital

Grown Up digital: How the Net Generation is Changing The World was published in October 2008, a portrait of the young generation with broad implication for managers, marketers and politicians.

Inspired by a $4 million private research study, the book is based on solid qualitative research. Instead of being spoiled “screenagers”, who are dumb, unable to think, and losing social skills, the author discovered the remarkable characteristics of the Net Generation, which represent a new way of thinking, behaving and working.

As a result, it is not only a nice book for Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers to learn their children and young employees, but also a guideline for companies to understand the market and perhaps the future.

Through this post, you will learn

  • key concepts and insights of this book
  • thoughts from a typical Net Gen reader

About the Author

Don Tapscott, a Canadian business executive, author and consultant born in 1947. Specialized in business strategy and the role of technology in business and society, Don has authored and co-authored 15 books including The Digital Economy and Wikinomics.


Followed are the 10-points reflection and thinking on the book.

  1. Categorize the generations

According to the author, the four categories of generation are

  • Baby Boomer (born in 1946-64)
  • Gen-Xer/Baby Bust (1965-76)
  • Net Generation/Gen-Y/Millennial (1977-97) and
  • Generation Next (1998 to present).

It can be seen that the Net Generation lasts pretty long, for the reason that a number of baby-boom women have put off having children until their thirties and forties.

It’s interesting that the Net Geners are considered the echo of Boomers, as Net Gen kids growing up looked at computers in the same way boomers looked at TV. Much further, print media, broadcast and TV network are hierarchical organizations that reflect the value of owners. On the other hand, the Internet featured by interactivity, initiative on the user, sharing, crowdsourcing just name a few, represents a distinctive bottom-up organizational structure. No wonder there exists huge difference among generations from behavior to value.

Generally, grown up digital is a summary of the external growth environment of Net Gen, but what cultivates or shapes their uniqueness is the internal patterns and values behind the way they react to the digital world. The impact of technology is always fascinating exploration, connected with how humans adopt, use and reinvent. The following chapters of the book elaborate on the use and impact of digital tools in varied dimensions.


  1. The Net Gen are treating technology differently

Chapter 2 analyzed the way Net Geners treat technology that differs from their boomer parents. Traditional media are no longer effective in reaching the young, while TV serves as the background music when they play with tablets or smartphones. To watch dramas or read news, they prefer on-demand access and real-time interaction. Instead of using computer as a basic working machine, they seek entertainment and solve problems with it in an innovative manner.

These descriptions are applied to my personal experience to a large extent, as a typical net gener. Particularly for relying on Internet to solve problems, I always follow the tutorials on the net, either in text or through the video. I learn to play guitar via forums without going to a music school, and learn to install a virtue drive on laptop on YouTube. But for my mom, she loves to ask me to search and then teach her, never search by herself.

Another point is that, I do agree with the importance of on-demand access of content, but whether the traditional media is truly to lose the young audience need to be reconsidered. The authority and reliability of traditional media can hardly be substituted by new ones, which may well have the chance to survive in the data smog. So what’s in trouble is the old media forms, not traditional media themselves, provided that they can embrace new technology as what the NYT and Washington Post has done.

  1. Characteristics and norms of Net Gen

As mentioned, there are 8 norms for this generation including

  1. freedom, from choice to expression
  2. customization, making things their own and represent themselves
  3. scrutinization, checking everything because of the transparency of information and ability to distinguish between fact and fiction
  4. integrity, but care less about copyright
  5. collaboration, enjoying conversation and teamwork
  6. fun, even at work or at school
  7. speed, hoping for instant feedback
  8. innovation

These summaries are far-sighted. Almost all the norms are going into depth as time elapse. However, some points remain to be discussed.

For scrutinization, does the Net Geners really have the ability to tell from genuine to fake, from good content to grandstanding jokes?

For integrity, does Internet cultivate them to be honest instead of offering multiple ways to cheat and plagiarize?

For the dark side of seeking innovation, it is the vanity of showing off latest digital gadgets among fellows. As constantly reported, even the primary school students are asking to buy the best smartphones. It is not to blame the pursuit of innovation, but a phenomenon that should arouse public concern.


  1. The Net Generation brain are developed functionally different

Net Geners process information and behave differently, for instance they are able to process fast-moving images more quickly and to better handle multitasking. The author suggests there are two critical periods of brain development during which our brains get wired and developed. One is from birth to 3 years old, while the other is during the adolescent and teenage years. For Net Gen, some of them constantly play with action video games, which speeds up their processing of visual information. Being flooded with information has trained them to be scanners, learning to develop the filters to sort out what’s important.

Other findings indicate that a tea break for boomers is like surfing Facebook for net Geners, which is pretty interesting. What’s more, the “distributed cognition”, meaning intelligence is heightened through collaboration with other people and with machines, also representing the unique process of absorbing knowledge. All of these are inspiring to understand young people’s behavior from a neurological perspective.

  1. Rethinking education

The model of education that still prevails today was designed for the Industrial Age. It revolves around the teacher who delivers a one-size-fits-all, one-way lecture, which has been good for the mass production economy but no longer suit for kids nowadays. To fit the characteristics of the Net Gen, teachers are suggested to use technology actively along with a fundamental shift of pedagogy. That is to say, they should cut back on lecturing, empower students to collaboration, and teach students for lifelong learning, rather than exam-oriented teaching.

The suggestions sound good, and have been successfully adopted in several foreign cases. Whereas being aware of digital divide, basic educational resources such as teachers and textbooks, not to mention digital tools are unevenly distributed throughout the world. Even though for the institutions in first and second tier cities, the revolution of pedagogy is largely based on funding and other objective conditions. Just take China as an example. Having long been convinced that good scores could represent for better future, it is in nature much harder to convince parents to “permit” schools to switch to new teaching methods in elementary education. It’s never simple to conduct such a revolution.


  1. Change in workforce

A research about Net Gen’s average work length for a company is worth thinking.

In the Canadian study of 18- to 34-year-olds, the average 27-year-old had already held five full-time (non-summer) jobs. The number is surprisingly high, and the reason is perhaps the young get bored of either the organizational structure or the job itself. The Net Geners desire for collaboration, for quick feedback, and have the ability to make full use of new technology, rather than simply typing on Microsoft Word.

As a fact, the society tend to show high demand for young talents, and particularly for science and engineering realms, since one out of four of today’s science and engineering workers are over 50 years old. It is positively perceived that managing talent today is about creating new opportunities, enhancing competitiveness, reducing costs, and increasing profits and success. However, there remains a gap between ideal and reality. To across that gap, it’s not only the senior managers’ job to try to understand young people more, but the Net Gen need to make efforts to know what occupation or lifestyle they are pursuing for, and what truly accommodates to their ability and interest.

  1. Prosumers, and the redefinition of brand

Since the Net Geners are more adept at filtering, fast-forwarding, and blocking unsolicited advertising than previous generations were, marketers need to be a “friend” rather than a broadcaster to influence them. Consequently, the traditional 4Ps, standing for Product, Price, Place and Promotion would be better replaced by ABCDE, representing Anyplace, Brand, Communication, Discovery (of price), and Experience.

Meanwhile, a new concept of “N-fluence” is raised to illustrate the communication pattern of Web 2.0 era. It contains the effect of “key influencers”, which applies the Pareto principle or better known as 80-20 rules, and Word of Mouth (WOM), say the reviews from best brands. N-fluence networks encourage brands to do marketing smartly, approach consumers in a friendly manner, try to generate conversations and establish healthy relationships.

Gradually, as the author had predicted, brilliant brands are shifting focus from Products to Experience, like Nike segmenting its Facebook fans into different sports types, and Apple opening so many offline flagship stores for experiencing. Price is no longer one-way set by companies or retailers (except the giant companies who monopoly the market, like Apple), they are negotiable because consumers can compare via the net. Brands are also expanding the physical and virtue shelves to sell their products, and have been realized the great potential of social media marketing and WOM. All these mentioned have constituted the new understanding of brand.


  1. A new relationship within family

Towards the family issue, 3 fascinating norms are introduced.

First is the “freedom flips”, indicating that Boomer youth found freedom outside, whereas the Net Geners find freedom at home. This makes sense. It’s becoming more and more common that young people are seeking entertainment at home instead of hanging out. Digital devices, ranging from smart TV, tablets, to game boxes are providing diversified ways of entertaining. And with the development of Virtual Reality, the trend of domestic recreation is sure to go deeper. On the other hand, how about the cybercafés, or Internet bars? It seems like something in the middle of home and computer. Someone has told me that playing online games with “brothers” face-to-face at a bar is more emotional than practical. Although there is no need for them to meet at the same place, they value the experience of cultivating relationship and share feelings touchably with brothers. Will this memory be gone forever as the Net Geners are growing up?

The second norm is “generation lap” instead of a gap, saying that kids are outpacing and overtaking adults on the technology track, “lapping” them in many areas of daily life. Favorably, this has created a more engaged dynamic within families, for members have begun to respect each other and reshaping the hierarchy of authorities. It can also create a proper environment for parents and kids talking about sensitive issues such as pornography, which can never be proposed to talk openly decades ago.

The third is the “helicopter parent”, the parent who hovers over her or his kids and intervenes with teachers and employers even when the Net Geners are supposedly grown up. It’s a wide phenomenon as I have experienced. Is it partly because parents are scared about the severe social environment and they fear their children being “bullied”? Online news is scaring and exaggerated in some cases to draw attention, while parents may believe them as they believe in traditional media, and get worried.


  1. Citizen engagement

Criticism towards Net Generation has blamed their indifference to politics and ignore of citizenship. As Professor Bauerlein has summarized, young people “never have recognized their responsibility to the past, they have opened a fissure in our civic foundations, and it shows in their halting passage into adulthood and citizenship.”

Broadly, there has been “slacktivism” to describe the “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause that have little physical or practical effect, countering to “activism”. Slacktivism is considered as the Net Geners’ attitude and behavior to civic engagement, and always used as a pejorative term. Signing Internet petitions or retweeting social media posts are all typical cases.

On this issue, I partly agree with the criticism of effortless actions on social media, many of which are very shallow. However, I’d like to argue that Net Geners are not indifferent to politic issues and have tried to make a difference by playing their strength, such as the hacktivist group Anonymous and many others. The public gets to know Anonymous after Paris attack. But the power of Anonymous comes from thousands of volunteers (or geeks) around the world, who are passionate for Internet skills. Rather than parades or blessings, it is the Net Geners that do something practical on their won. They hold different values on which things they really concern, and take action in a way that they feel accustomed.

  1. In defense of the future

The ending chapter of this book has repeated and reconsidered the evaluations on Net Generation, and raised sincere advices, containing

  1. go to college
  2. be patient at work
  3. buy good products (continue scrutinizing companies)
  4. have dinner with family
  5. value experience
  6. aspire to live prosperously (get engaged politically)
  7. never give up.

In general, the author holds positive attitude towards how the technology has impacted the Net Gen, and how the Net Gen is changing the society in all aspects. The only thing he disagrees is their neglect of privacy. As far as I’m concerned, young people are taking use of digital tools to storage memory, much of which are welcomed for fellows to read and comment. Compared with elder generations, the concept of privacy has changed. Now privacy is to what extent, and to which person I’m willing to show these information and memories to. And actually I do consider the Boomers and Gen-Xers are more likely to suffer privacy issues, because they relatively lack the skill and awareness to tell from phishing websites or malwares.

Ultimately, after eight years of Grown Up Digital being published, the Net Gen has grown up. It is much more interesting to learn the Generation Next who was born in 1998 to present. This generation is grown up in a further advanced digital world. My five-year-old cousin is born with iPad. Children in secondary school can take a picture of Math questions, and immediately get the answer from an App. Schools that are strict with smartphones find it more difficult to ban teens’ use. Even primary school kids would like to “show off” the latest technology gadgets. How will the authority of teachers be challenged? Stepping into a paperless world, how will the changes of reading habits trouble the eyesight of next generation? Furthermore, how will the digital divide and digital pollution affect the flattened world and future generations?



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