Mike Fromowitz
Feb 8, 2013

Digital Natives — the dominant demographic

The world is changing. The way we learn today is changing. The young talents finding their way into advertising jobs today are different. They are wired differently. They are information saturated,...

Digital Natives — the dominant demographic

The world is changing. The way we learn today is changing. The young talents finding their way into advertising jobs today are different. They are wired differently. They are information saturated, far more intuitive, instantaneous, and heavy users of technology. They process information differently than their predecessors. They are non-linear, visual, collaborative. They want to be engaged. 97% of them use cell phones to text message—their favourite way to communicate on a daily basis. 63% read blogs everyday. You’ll find 92% of them on Facebook or MySpace.


They are “Digital Natives”. And everyone that came before them are “Digital Immigrants”. The "Digital Native," a term coined by U.S. author Marc Prensky in 2001, has emerged as the dominant demographic, whilst the "Digital Immigrant," as some believe, has become a relic of the past.

The term “Digital Native” is based upon the assumption that people born in 1990 (or later) are purely digital, have been born with "digital DNA", and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, they have a greater understanding of its concepts. Being purely digital means that they never have to unlearn obsolete technologies. Their’s is a sort of freedom of thinking that comes from never having to unlearn legacy systems.


In the digital age we’ve never been smarter, and given the huge amount of information made available to us on the web, we’ve never felt stupider. In the digital age we’ve never felt less creative, but we’ve actually never been more creative than we are right now.

Prensky says that at no time in history has technology moved so fast. With the proliferation of new social media outlets including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Skype, there has been a meteoric rise of high-tech devices —many can be passé even before they hit store shelves.


From now on, everyone will always be behind

There is an obvious divide between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants, especially in the advertising industry. Both generations, at times, find themselves forced to work side by side in somewhat conflicting ideologies. The everyday regime of “work” is becoming more technologically advanced with technology moving so fast it is hard for most Digital Immigrants to keep up.

Of course, nobody is "born digital"; as with any cultural technology, such as reading and writing, it is matter of access to education and experience. Fact is, however, no matter whether you are a Digital Immigrant or a Digital Native, innovation is speeding up the digital age. And from now on, everyone will always be behind. Those wild and weird devices we see in sci-fi movies are becoming reality and may offer the most accurate insight into our futuristic society.


As a Digital Immigrant, I needed (and wanted) to learn some of the new tools. Early on, I recognized the change happening. I could see it happening thanks in a big part to my high-tech agency partner who eats, breathes and thinks all things tech and digital.

For the most part, many Digital Immigrants realise technology is a part of today's world and they try to engage with it, but it feels alien and unintuitive. They are not too savvy when it comes to using Google, Facebook, Twitter or Skype. They are more or less cautious and have a tentative attitude towards digital technology rather than have an eager willingness to use these technologies.


On the other hand, some Digital Immigrants such as myself, are enthusiastic adopters. We have the potential to keep up with Digital Natives, to some degree, because of our ease, capacity, and interest in using technology.


My partner at Mantra Partners is an even better example. He is a high-tech executive and entrepreneur who embraced technology and immersed himself in the Internet culture from the time he took his first job. He’s one of those Digital Immigrants who has always seen the value of technology and does his best to make use of it. He’s not only knowledgeable in hardware and software, coding, programming and the like, but has created considerable Intellectual Property and unique technology platforms for some of our technology based clients.


It’s the real world

I can feel the change in real time, but for the younger Digital Natives, it’s not change, to them, the Internet is the real world. Young people have grown up with computers and the internet and are naturally proficient with new digital technologies and spaces, while older people will always be a step or two behind. What’s more, the young Digital Natives’ immersion in digital technologies creates in them a radically different approach to learning, one which is concerned with speed of access, instant gratification, impatience with linear thinking and the ability to multi-task.


Ad agency “legacy” training systems

Now ad agencies and digital studios are looking to hire “Digital Natives” rather than the older Digital Immigrants, and it’s opened much debate these days about the decline of brand-savvy, senior agency talents. I know this for certain as I recently had a conversation with a high-ranking ad agency friend of mine who told me that his agency was going through a major reconstruction to ensure that their creative leaders were Digital Natives. He also noted that this was not going to be easy, but a goal that they had set for themselves.


For certain, the young talents coming into the business have changed radically. They are no longer the people our advertising training system was designed to teach.

Today’s young agency talents have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, or styles, as has happened between past generations. Digital technology has changed things dramatically. These young talents represent the first generations to grow up with this new technology. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, video games, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.

Research proves the point: The average Digital Native has spent less than 5,000 hours of his or her life reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games, and 20,000 hours watching TV. Computer games, email, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging are integral parts of their lives.

Little wonder then that these young new agency talents think and process information differently from their predecessors.


Where does this leave instructors of advertising courses and senior advertising executives in charge of agency training? Seems to me that they are now facing a big problem, because, unlike them,  the people sitting in their classes have grown up on video games and MTV, downloaded music, phones in their pockets and instant messaging. Author Marc Prensky notes that “They’ve been networked most or all of their lives. They have little patience for lectures, step-by-step logic, and “tell-test” instruction.”

Are the Digital Immigrant instructors speaking an outdated language borne of the pre-digital age? Are we struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language?


Digital Immigrants: the inventors of digital technology

What I believe is overlooked by the term “Digital Immigrant” is the fact that those born before the digital age were the inventors, the designers, the developers, and of course, the first users of digital technology. In this sense, perhaps they should be regarded as the original 'Natives'.

To take this a little further, the prolific and arguably superficial use of digital technology by adolescents should not be viewed as them having a much deeper knowledge and understanding of things digital than the older generation of “Natives” who are more holistic, knowledgeable, and experienced about digital technologies and their potential place in society.

computer_brainI had a coffee the other day with a young student of advertising who is trying to find a part time job in an ad agency while she attends her last year of college. She admits to having difficulty at times understanding what her instructors are taking about. “They’re all in their 50’s or 60’s” she told me. This means she is being taught by Digital Immigrants, all speaking a different language than she speaks. Will any of this change when she finds that job in an ad agency? Most likely not. She may find herself in an environment with the same issues.


Agency training systems must change

It is obvious that ad agency training systems must change and catch up to modern times. It’s time for ad agencies to adapt to the learning style of Digital Natives and tap into the online information and technologies that are second nature to them. That also means being more participatory and less passive. The knowledge of how to use digital technology is easily available. It is time for more Digital Immigrants to change, adapt and utilize modern technologies to engage our Digital Natives in this creative adventure.

The fact that young people are often much more tech savvy than older ones and are faster (intuitive) learners gives them more power, in some ways, than their employers. This can create tension in some ad agencies that continue their traditional hierarchy. For example, the "8 hour workday" is viewed by many natives as outdated. Most Natives prefer to work intermittently, in places like cafés or at home at anytime throughout the day and week.


The young person’s non-traditional view of power in the workplace can also lead to misunderstanding, tension and conflict. Supervisors and management may wonder why a young worker seems irreverently casual, and young workers may wonder why their supervisors and management believe distance is necessary for respect. Again, the explanation lies in the cultures in which these two groups grew up.

Besides, Digital Natives do not value loyalty to a company the way the older Immigrants do. While there was pride among Digital Immigrants in working for the same company for 40 years, natives are often happier working fluidly as independent contractors rather than employees. They prefer to tele-commute rather than work in the traditional cubicle, and to do work that interests them. Stability is less important than stimulation and satisfaction, which are often derived from being part of a participatory culture.


This leaves Digital Immigrant management in the position of being in charge of keeping the agency thriving, but unable to do so without the assistance of Digital Natives. Clearly, this is a setup that can, and is, shaking up the traditional ad agency structure.

In order to stay competitive and successful, ad agencies are having to adapt to both modern technology and to the changing dynamics in the workforce. Realizing that native workers thrive in a participatory culture can help managers harness the creativity, knowledge and capacities of native workers in such environments.


The longer Digital Immigrants take to understand the Natives they teach and manage, the bigger the digital divide will get. Eventually, when Immigrants grow older, retire and die off and only Digital Natives are left, this will not be an issue —yet new issues undoubtedly will emerge. But until then, it is time to do some cultural adjustment. Our businesses will be the better for it.

Mike Fromowitz



Related Articles

Just Published

4 hours ago

Creative Minds: Why Ng Mei Mei’s perfect day is a ...

Get to know the creative group head at Iris Singapore who started a cookie business during the pandemic that forced her to go without sleep for 50 hours.

21 hours ago

Agency of the Year 2022

See the full list of winners for markets including APAC, Southeast Asia, ANZ, South Asia, and Japan/Korea.