Thank you, Iliza.
The comedian Iliza Shlesinger coined a phrase for a subset of Millennials that has been in need of their own—excuse me—our own moniker for awhile. Her newest comedy special on Netflix is titled ‘Elder Millennial’ and in it, she highlights differences between those of us born before 1990 and the rest of the Millennial generation that followed (while still firmly claiming her Millennial membership). Iliza is not wrong: we have the digital fluency that defines the entire Millennial generation. We’re young enough to be digital natives that started computer literacy in elementary school and questioned our teachers about how to cite a page from world wide web in a bibliography (while they were still figuring out what that was), but we’re also old enough to remember the time before everyone was glued to their screens; times and locations for meeting up had to be decided in advance because no one had phones in their pockets, and families made trips to Blockbuster to pick out a VHS to watch for the evening’s entertainment. Our babysitters’ generation (X) came of age too late to have the intuitive understanding of technology that we have, and our younger Millennial siblings were born too recently to comprehend that life before the Web didn’t suck. This gives those of us born in the mid-80s a perspective on technical literacy that we can and should use to help guide those on EITHER SIDE of our generation; we can put ourselves in our parents’ shoes because we are familiar with the technology paradigms they grew up with, and we can steer younger millennials and our kids’ generation (Gen Z, aka 'The Distracted Generation') away from the brink of digital nihilism because we know what society stands to lose if we forget how to have face-to-face conversations and quality time away from technology.
I’m too young to appreciate the microwave oven.
To better understand how quickly a piece of technology can go from novelty to ubiquity, think for a second about the microwave oven. Although it was invented in the 1940s**, less than 1% of American households had one in 1971; by 1986, one in four were nuking their food; a decade later, the microwave was a standard kitchen appliance in over 90% of homes in the US. I cannot remember how we reheated leftovers without a microwave. Ours was broken for a short time when I was in high school and I almost starved (Hot Pocket instructions: you can cook it for 3 minutes in the microwave, or 3 hours in the conventional oven). I grew up assuming the microwave oven had always been a standard kitchen appliance and that frozen tv dinners were as American as pie. But that’s not true—had I arrived in this world a decade earlier, I would’ve witnessed the rise of the microwave and marveled at its magical time-saving abilities: it would’ve been a novelty instead of just one more thing you had to remember to adjust the clock for daylight savings time twice a year (speaking of which, that’s also something that hardly registers for people now, since clocks started adjusting themselves). My point is that I can’t imagine life without a microwave in the same way that kids born into the Web-ified world can’t imagine life without the internet—without access to the world’s knowledge in their pocket and without the ability to connect to anyone they’ve ever met at any time, day or night.
[spider web of connections pulling someone back while they try to move forward illustration]
Now while it’s certainly true that every generation grows up with a different set of standards and expectations than the previous generation or the one that follows, there are those rare events that represent major paradigm shifts that go beyond incremental innovations in technology and society: 1492, the steam engine, the automobile, the World Wars, 9/11… These events wound up defining one generation and influencing all that followed. It’s no secret that the World Wide Web, and subsequently social media and smartphones, brought about a paradigm shift of epic proportions. The confluence of these three technologies has (and still is) defined most Millennials, and it will undoubtedly influence every generation to follow... but the 'Elder Millennial’ set has one foot out of this definition. We did not create the Web, nor did we ‘assume’ the Web [Jeff Bezos or Tim Burners-Lee?]. We witnessed this seismic event at an age where we were already learning about how the world worked, yet still had the neuro-plasticity to adapt to the dramatic changes to the way things worked after the quake.
What is our responsibility being in this unique position?
There are two main ways we can and should leverage our position straddling the pre-/post-connected world.
Some of the newest innovations are most useful to the oldest among us.
There are a lot of emerging technologies that can greatly augment life for the generations older than us, but not if they are too difficult for these individuals to use successfully. I do not mean they need to be “simple, elegant, and intuitive.” Every parent knows that what is intuitive to their child is all but intuitive to them (setting the clock in your parents’ car for them). ‘Simple' and ‘elegant’ are similarly subjective terms that do not work here. Instead products need to be designed empathetically from the perspective of older users. This means understanding the technology paradigms they are comfortable with and then applying that understanding to the design process. Remember, just because your parents have trouble distinguishing between a tap, touch, and press on their iPhone, doesn’t mean they aren’t ‘good’ at technology; typewriters and early computers were mechanical nightmares and yet they could use them just fine. The point is that these older generations have technical fluency, it’s just obsolete for today’s technological paradigm, just like today’s technical fluency will be obsolete one day. Therefore, let us try to understand the way they understand technology to work and then make things that fit, or more precisely appear to fit, their mental model—and no one is positioned to do that better than elder millennials. We understand their obsolete mental model of technology because we were raised by them and were exposed to some of the older analog devices that supported this type of technical fluency that’s not supported by modern technology.