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The Always-On Generation Isn't So Bad

21/07/2014 14:56 BST | Updated 20/09/2014 10:59 BST

We are all hearing it. We should be worried about this generation, the next generation... they are too social, too narcissistic, too connected - always-on cannot be good we cry - our future generations will be over-stimulated and untethered from 'the real world'.

Society is shifting, as it always has done and will continue to do so indefinitely. Connectedness, as the merging and integration of technology, people, global communities, is 'the real world' today. Evolution and incremental steps are all around us - wearable technology, driverless cars, personalised internet, the ability to educate previously unreachable pockets of the world on an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) mobile device. Change often feels uncomfortable when you're in the middle of it, but what does it mean for us as humans, our sense of agency, our sense of self?

I hazard we might not all worry so much. Yes, there are certain trends which are likely to need addressing - In Japan, it is commented that the 20 and 30-somethings aren't concerned with marriage, partnership or sexual relationships, rather choosing to live their interactions and relationships out online, through avatars. What will that mean for the population growth of Japan? I don't know...

"Millions aren't even dating, and increasing numbers can't be bothered with sex. For their government, "celibacy syndrome" is part of a looming national catastrophe. Japan already has one of the world's lowest birth rates."

Yes, I have argued to many of my friends and colleagues that I am concerned by the extreme amount of curation over creation, and I do think that for some - always-on environments are dangerous - self reliance, belief and strength becomes more important, social judgement is needed younger, opinions are cemented earlier and over-stimulation is a double-edged sword. As Emerson said in his essay titled 'Self Reliance'

"Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession."
But I have many friends who are much younger than I am - early 20s. The women, in particular, are bolder than I was at 21 - they write blogs of detailed, complex opinions and arguments, they are YouTube channels with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, they study, they travel and they have a sense of self which is eloquent, articulate and self assured. They may not want conventional office jobs as their careers, but I don't think anyone would argue many industries aren't evolving the workplace to offer and accommodate different working structures and relationships with employees.

I am not sure this societal change is different from generations previous just because it could be more complex to decipher the causes in our increasingly integrated world. Previously, people conversely spent vast amounts of time alone, secluded and private. Just as that was considered the norm, today 'smart' everything is the norm. So long as one can manage it alongside other life priorities, this incremental period of change need not be so alarming.

So, what appears to be happening in behavioral terms...

  1. 2/5 digital diet: take two days off - pop your devices on aeroplane mode, turn off twitter, leave your phone at home, don't pick up that computer - people are starting to take the conscious step to turn off and re-balance.
  2. Off social platform creation: online - yes, on social? Not always. Perhaps this will articulate the difference between curators and creators - owned channels and blog sites are popping up as a space online for people to picture, pontificate and articulate in a medium that is strongly marked with their own identity.
  3. Online/Offline mix: deciding what you are and are not willing to engage in and share as online and offline persona's merge. Stronger decision making about your privacy and how you are perceived as one medium increasingly affects the other will be important. It's currently lacking in most considerations when someone adds to their online profile.
  4. Mindfulness and meditation: one of the world's oldest forms of spirituality and relaxation is more present in the West than ever as part of a balanced daily routine to being observant without criticising - being compassionate with yourself.

Some will struggle, people of all ages will find it difficult to discover their identify when surrounded by every competing attention for their values and their actions. But what young generation hasn't had their own paradigm shift to content with over the years - the sexual revolution, post-war modernism, woman's rights, gay rights, the structure of the workplace, informality, the changing structure of the family unit... the list is endless and varying in the degree of the impacts left of the society in which we live today.

Futurist John Smart, recalled an insight of economist Simon Kuznets about evolution of technology effects known as the Kuznets curve:

"First-generation tech usually causes 'net negative' social effects; second-generation 'net neutral' effects; by the third generation of tech - once the tech is smart enough, and we've got the interface right, and it begins to reinforce the best behaviors - we finally get to 'net positive' effects," he noted. "We'll be early into conversational interface and agent technologies by 2020, so kids will begin to be seriously intelligently augmented by the internet. The biggest problem from a personal-development perspective will be motivating people to work to be more self-actualized, productive, and civic than their parents were."

Maybe this will be the 'lost generation' in between first generation tech and third, maybe the third generation iterations will never be realised (although I highly doubt it) - but from what I have seen working with young entrepreneurs, university students and recent graduates, this generation is as connected to their own core as well as the tech core than any others, even if they are noisier with it. As a final thought, it is worth remembering this is still squarely a 'first world problem' - less developed societies and younger generations within them are still very much reaping the rewards from what increased connectivity can bring to education, health, transport and other fundamental efficiencies within the development of nations.