Three Generations, Two Long Weeks and One Tech Chasm: Why Only Millennials Can Bridge the Widest of Digital Divides

Grandparents aren’t keen on how much time their grandchildren spend on phones. That’s my observation from the two week holiday hiatus.

What counts as acceptable screen time between Boomers and Gen Z’ers is vastly different. This Christmas, I got to see that first hand and, more importantly, start to really understand why it matters.

You see it did more than annoy both parties, it caused serious misunderstandings and miscommunication.

My family holidays are much like yours I imagine – too much food, booze and forced time together in too small a space means we all get a little, ummmm, crabby.

While I wouldn’t change it for the world, the Christmas claustrophobia got me thinking; although device time was the main bone of contention, it wasn’t really about the technology at all…

The Stereotypical Clan

We were lucky to have three family generations together for Christmas this year. The youngest of our clan is six, the eldest 69 and a morass of tweens, teens, thirty and forty-somethings lie in between.

If we indulge ourselves with the desire to shoehorn generation upon generation of millions of children into archetypes, we had the following cooped up in Wales for the holidays:

  • 5 x Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)
  • 2 x Gen X’ers (born 1965 – 1979)
  • 2 x Millennials or Gen Y’ers (born 1980-1995)
  • 3 x Gen Z ‘ers or Centennials (born after 1996)
  • 1 x Gen yet to be defined

These loose generational stereotypes are, of course, largely driven (or made-up) by big-brand marketing so that we can be categorized into consumer groups to be better sold to. Regardless, there’s no denying that a 16 year old today inhabits a very different world to my 90’s version, which is different again from an 80’s teen, and a world away from the baby boomers childhood experience. And that is what we found out this Christmas.

The Millennial Inbetweener

I’m one of the two Millennials.

We’re the generation everyone loves to hate. We’re brash, privileged and lazy. Apparently (never mind the rising cost of education, student loans, rent and loss of work-life balance – but that’s for another blog).

While I don’t self-identify into the Millennial category, I am guilty by association. What is true about my generation however, what sets us apart from those that came before, is our use of technology.

According to Goldman Sachs we “came of age during a time of technological change, globalization and economic disruption.”

That gives me a very different set of expectations from my parents, and even those of my older siblings. But while we Millennials entered adolescence as digital natives, Gen Z’ers were born digital. And that’s entirely different.

Gen Z’ers are like Millennials on Acid

Except they are far less likely to ever take acid.

Now, I admit I am on my phone a lot. I’m pretty sure I have a pavlovian response to the snap notification sound. But that is nothing in comparison to my nieces and nephews.

They are not addicted to their smartphones in the same way my generation is, they simply don’t see it that way, it’s just how they operate; they know nothing else.

The real difference is how often we consume the information. Gen Z’ers simply do more. Studies suggest that we millennials can bounce between 3 screens at a time, while Generation Z  juggle 5. Such stats are all well and good, but let me put it into live action from this Christmas for you.

They can really multi-task; my nieces can have 30 photo-based snap conversations going on at once, while watching a celeb youtube tutorial, sending grandma the photo’s taken at last night’s dinner via the family whatsapp group, and checking their public and spam Instagram accounts for likes. Within the space of 5 minutes.

I’ve designed, analyzed and written about multi-national surveys on the subject of teens digital habits for the past decade. But I’d never seen it play out live before. It’s impressive.

My Gen Y’ers tech habits certainly didn’t bother me. It only fascinated me. A millennial trait perhaps – we’re constant learners when it comes to technology, we’ve had to be.

It bothered the Boomers though. And through no real fault of their own.

That’s an element all of these surveys focused on teen tech habits seem to miss; yes we should consider how they will change the workplace of the future, yes it’s great that they are cautious and safe online, yes it’s interesting how they react to public brands and influencers, but what of the rift and the angst it can cause between the wider generations?

Minding the Generational Gap

Neither side really got why the other couldn’t understand. Social norms that are acceptable to one are completely foreign to the other.

Faced with hours on end with the youngest and eldest of these generational groups, it dawned on me that I had an important part to play as the token Millennial. That of the missing link animal; the transitional fossil.

I have known a time in which we all had dinner without technology interruptions, in which we communicated mostly face to face, and we sat around and watched TV together. My nieces and nephews, the Gen Z’ers, have not.

Similarly, I am constantly plugged into social media, consume my news online, and communicate almost entirely through technology. My parents, the Boomers, do not.

I’m the hybrid.

I got eye-rolls from both parties. I heard “put down that phone”, with the “but why? we’re not doing anything else” response, hourly. The under-the-breath (but still very audible) mutterings of frustration were aimed my way because I understood. I watched both miscommunicate, misunderstand and sometimes even get a little upset.

I could see both sides. And I could see that it wasn’t about technology at all, it was about time.

It was clear to me that both Boomers and Gen Y’ers have pre-conceived judgements of the way ‘it should be done’. About how to spend your time, how to communicate.

For the Boomers I wanted to explain that while the kids are on their phones, texting friends 3000 miles away, they’re physically there tucked up on your couch, with their small socked feet resting on your lap and the hot mug of tea you lovingly made them clutched tight to their chest. For the Gen Y’ers, that’s being there. Together. That time counts.

And for Gen Y’ers, I wanted them to see that the 1 hour we sat down for dinner together every night, where we talked and laughed, debated, played games, had side conversations, was when we all shared a single common experience without distraction. For the Boomers, that’s being present. Together. That time counts.

Neither is wholly right or wrong, it’s simply an expectation gap. I just didn’t realize until last week quite how big the distance was between the two or that we ought to bridge it.

We’re a pretty dispersed family these days. Four of us live in two different locations on the other side of the Atlantic, which means we get together – all together – at best twice a year.

That time is precious. The older you get, the more you realize this. It’s why the Boomers find the screen time difficult, and it’s why the Gen Y’ers don’t… yet.

One thing we all started to realize this holiday though, is that quality time doesn’t come in one simple cohesive package. We would all do well to cull the pre-conceived generational notions of how best to spend time together as a family. We certainly fall foul of trying to squeeze activities into every minute we’re together. While this is indeed important, I’m now of the mindset that we don’t have to “do” all the time, perhaps we can just “be”.

In their own way,  that’s something the grandkids kinda have down. The small acts of just being together count. Sometimes it’s being present together round the table for an hour, sometimes it’s out on a trip and making memories, but often it’s just making another round of tea,  someone reading, texting, daydreaming, playing guitar, while all in the same room with the latest Coronation Street episode on in the background. That’s time well spent. Regardless of generation.