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Digital natives are (nearly) dead and buried. Long live Generation Z!

The idea of ‘digital natives’ emerged at the turn of the century, was popularized by Marc Prensky (2001), and rapidly caught the public imagination, especially the imagination of technology marketers. Its popularity has dwindled a little since then, but is still widely used. Alternative terms include ‘Generation Y’, ‘Millennials’ and the ‘Net Generation’, definitions of which vary slightly from writer to writer. Two examples of the continued currency of the term ‘digital native’ are a 2019 article on the Pearson Global Scale of English website entitled ‘Teaching digital natives to become more human’ and an article in The Pie News(a trade magazine for ‘professionals in international education’), extolling the virtues of online learning for digital natives in times of Covid-19.

Key to understanding ‘digital natives’, according to users of the term, is their fundamental differences from previous generations. They have grown up immersed in technology, have shorter attention spans, and are adept at multitasking. They ‘are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach’ (Prensky, 2001), so educational systems must change in order to accommodate their needs.

The problem is that ‘digital natives’ are a myth. Prensky’s ideas were not based on any meaningful research: his observations and conclusions, seductive though they might be, were no more than opinions. Kirschner and De Bruyckere (2017) state the research consensus:

There is no such thing as a digital native who is information-skilled simply because (s)he has never known a world that was not digital. […] One of the alleged abilities of students in this generation, the ability to multitask, does not exist and that designing education that assumes the presence of this ability hinders rather than helps learning.

This is neither new (see Bennett et al., 2008) nor contentious. Almost ten years ago, Thomas (2011:3) reported that ‘some researchers have been asked to remove all trace of the term from academic papers submitted to conferences in order to be seriously considered for inclusion’. There are reasons, he added, to consider some uses of the term nothing more than technoevangelism (Thomas, 2011:4). Perhaps someone should tell Pearson and the Pie News? Then, again, perhaps, they wouldn’t care.

The attribution of particular characteristics to ‘digital natives’ / ‘Generation Y’ / ‘Millennials’ is an application of Generation Theory. This can be traced back to a 1928 paper by Karl Mannheim, called ‘Das Problem der Generationen’ which grew in popularity after being translated into English in the 1950s. According to Jauregui et al (2019), the theory was extensively debated in the 1960s and 1970s, but then disappeared from academic study. The theory was not supported by empirical research, was considered to be overly schematised and too culturally-bound, and led inexorably to essentialised and reductive stereotypes.

But Generation Theory gained a new lease of life in the 1990s, following the publication of ‘Generations’ by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book was so successful that it spawned a slew of other titles leading up to ‘Millennials Rising’ (Howe & Strauss, 2000). This popularity has continued to the present, with fans including Steve Bannon (Kaiser, 2016) who made an ‘apocalyptical and polemical’ documentary film about the 2007 – 2008 financial crisis entitled ‘Generation Zero’. The work of Strauss and Howe has been dismissed as ‘more popular culture than social science’ (Jauregui et al., 2019: 63) and in much harsher terms in two fascinating articles in Jacobin (Hart, 2018) and Aeon (Onion, 2015). The sub-heading of the latter is ‘generational labels are lazy, useless and just plain wrong’. Although dismissed by scholars as pseudo-science, the popularity of such Generation Theory helps explain why Prensky’s paper about ‘digital natives’ fell on such fertile ground. The saying, often falsely attributed to Mark Twain, that we should ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ comes to mind.

But by the end of the first decade of this century, ‘digital natives’ had become problematic in two ways: not only did the term not stand up to close analysis, but it also no longer referred to the generational cohort that pundits and marketers wanted to talk about.

Around January 2018, use of the term ‘Generation Z’ began to soar, and is currently at its highest point ever in the Google Trends graph. As with ‘digital natives’, the precise birth dates of Generation Z vary from writer to writer. After 2001, according to the Cambridge dictionary; slightly earlier according to other sources. The cut-off point is somewhere between the mid and late 2010s. Other terms for this cohort have been proposed, but ‘Generation Z’ is the most popular.

William Strauss died in 2007 and Neil Howe was in his late 60s when ‘Generation Z’ became a thing, so there was space for others to take up the baton. The most successful have probably been Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace, who, since 2016, have been churning out a book a year devoted to ‘Generation Z’. In the first of these (Seemiller & Grace, 2016), they were clearly keen to avoid some of the criticisms that had been levelled at Strauss and Howe, and they carried out research. This consisted of 1143 responses to a self-reporting questionnaire by students at US institutions of higher education. The survey also collected information about Kolb’s learning styles and multiple intelligences. With refreshing candour, they admit that the sample is not entirely representative of higher education in the US. And, since it only looked at students in higher education, it told us nothing at all about those who weren’t.

In August 2018, Pearson joined the party, bringing out a report entitled ‘Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners’. Conducted by the Harris Poll, the survey looked at 2,587 US respondents, aged between 14 and 40. The results were weighted for age, gender, race/ethnicity, marital status, household income, and education, so were rather more representative than the Seemiller & Grace research.

In ELT and educational references to ‘Generation Z’, research, of even the very limited kind mentioned above, is rarely cited. When it is, Seemiller and Grace feature prominently (e.g. Mohr & Mohr, 2017). Alternatively, even less reliable sources are used. In an ELT webinar entitled ‘Engaging Generation Z’, for example, information about the characteristics of ‘Generation Z’ learners is taken from an infographic produced by an American office furniture company.

But putting aside quibbles about the reliability of the information, and the fact that it most commonly[1] refers to Americans (who are not, perhaps, the most representative group in global terms), what do the polls tell us?

Despite claims that Generation Z are significantly different from their Millennial predecessors, the general picture that emerges suggests that differences are more a question of degree than substance. These include:

  • A preference for visual / video information over text
  • A variety of bite-sized, entertaining educational experiences
  • Short attention spans and zero tolerance for delay

All of these were identified in 2008 (Williams et al., 2008) as characteristics of the ‘Google Generation’ (a label which usually seems to span Millennials and Generation Z). There is nothing fundamentally different from Prensky’s description of ‘digital natives’. The Pearson report claimed that ‘Generation Z expects experiences both inside and outside the classroom that are more rewarding, more engaging and less time consuming. Technology is no longer a transformative phenomena for this generation, but rather a normal, integral part of life’. However, there is no clear disjuncture or discontinuity between Generation Z and Millennials, any more than there was between ‘digital natives’ and previous generations (Selwyn, 2009: 375). What has really changed is that the technology has moved on (e.g. YouTube was founded in 2005 and the first iPhone was released in 2007).

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