A Letter to “Gen-X” and “Baby Boomers” – Hacker Noon

The digital world is not only for Millennials. Other generations have a crucial role to play too.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a “Letter to Millennials” in which I explained what I look for when making hiring decisions. The main message was “Millennials should be Millennial.” They need to leverage their tech literacy, remain authentic, and stay adventurous.

But over the last few weeks, I get the feeling that “other” generations also need to understand what the 4th Industrial Revolution is really about. They too should embrace the new possibilities created by recent technological developments, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, sensors, and blockchain.

It is time for a letter to my generation and my parent’s generation.

The headline thought is that with longer life expectancies and a flatter, more decentralized and open economy, culture, and society, everybody can stay entrepreneurial longer. Life today offers more opportunities, and they shouldn’t be wasted. Everybody has a role to play in designing our digital future.

So, here is my letter for Gen-Xers (like me) and Baby Boomers (like my parents).

Denial is Not the Answer

Denying the importance of the “new” by older generations has been around since the beginning of time. A reluctance to acknowledge change is probably hardwired into all of us. But, it continues to surprise me to come across such denial on an almost daily basis regarding the impact of digital technologies.

We have always had to deal with innovation, but too many people that belong to the Gen-X and Baby Boomer generations seem to believe that the digital revolution won’t disrupt their lives or work anytime soon.

This view is fuelled by reports in the traditional media that explain why artificial intelligence isn’t really intelligent or why blockchain technology is currently overrated. In one sense, these reports are correct. Many of these emerging digital technologies are still in the experimental phase. But, it goes way too far to dismiss them as hype.

I have mentioned several times before that these technologies should not be looked at in isolation. They are amplifying and accelerating each other, and I agree with many commentators in the “digital space” that the time to prepare yourself for the impact of these new technologies is now.

Living in denial may be comfortable, but it cannot be the answer. And this is true for everyone, especially those like me and my parents who didn’t grow up as “digital natives.”

But Nor is “Retrofitting”

A second common attitude amongst Gen-X and Baby Boomers that I increasingly come across is that new technologies should be used to improve “old” models, systems, and ways of doing things.

This view is popular at many of the conferences that I attend. There is an acceptance that something important is happening and that everyone needs to engage with tech. But this engagement is about utilizing technology to make the old world better.

There is something to this idea, and it appears to make a lot of sense. It respects the old, whilst acknowledging the new, and is thus far less threatening. It is not surprising that such “retrofitting” is becoming widely accepted and common, especially amongst those who have a stake in the way things currently operate.

Moreover, such retrofitting is often used as a PR or window dressing exercise: “Look! We are working with new technologies.”

Recognize & Embrace the “New”

But we should realize that the new technologies are not about making the old world “better.” Instead, they are disrupting the past and creating a flatter, more dynamic and community-based reality.

I see this evidence of the new everywhere. Let me give you a recent example.

My wife and I were in Kuala Lumpur last week, and we opted to use Grab (the Asian equivalent of Uber) rather than traditional taxis. What was surprising to us was that even the hotel staff recommended the ride-sharing app (“it is more reliable and efficient”).

But what interests me most was what happened when our Grab car stopped showing up on the tracking app. We didn’t give up and take one of the many available “old world” taxis that were literally parked around us. Instead, we preferred to wait for a message from the original driver that something was wrong with his car and that a replacement driver was on his way.

We preferred to wait the extra eight more minutes for a complete stranger driving his own car rather than take any of the available taxis. Why?

Clarity about the price, the route, and the time makes us commit to new electronic systems rather than old world taxi companies. But I think there is something more going on, and it isn’t entirely rational.

What seems very clear to me is that the values and structures of the “old world taxis” — a slightly shady world of government permits, rules and regulations, as well as hierarchical, “proceduralized” organizations — does not appeal to me. As long as there is a digital solution, I don’t even consider the taxis as a possibility anymore. At least, a taxi would be a measure of last resort.

And this is the critical point. Technological change (in this case, networks, smartphones, and “apps”) have opened up new choices that didn’t exist before (in this case, Grab). And, just as importantly, they kill off, or at least disrupt, old ways of doing things (in this case, the taxi companies).

Of course, technological advances have always been like this. After all, who used a horse and carriage after the car went mainstream. “Retrofitting” was never an option.

What is different now is the speed and complexity surrounding technological change. We can’t always identify where we are headed, and the resulting uncertainties can make denial or retrofitting seem very attractive.

But there are certain recurring themes, trends and values that define a digital age. It is a flatter and more inclusive world. It is a world where open organizations and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are replacing stagnant and insular organizations with prescribed processes and procedures. It is a world where ability trumps formal qualifications or experience. And it is a world where everyone is willing to trade a little privacy for the conveniences and possibilities of new technology.

Everyone is Relevant

And this is the thing. What I learned over the last year or so is that the older generations still matter in this emerging new world. In particular, the creative tension that exists between old and new generations is vitally important in providing a coherent direction to our ongoing experiments with digital technologies.

We need the widest possible diversity of views, experiences, and skills to be gathered together and integrated. It is precisely the “tensions” between such diverse views that will maximize opportunities for creativity and innovation.

The resulting dialogue between generations is, therefore, essential.

Participation and community-building are the core issues for ensuring that our digital futures are and remain productive.

We can see examples of this already occurring in the banking industry today, for instance. Many established and traditional banks are being disrupted by FinTech (new financial technology companies) and TechFin (tech companies that expand into the financial services industry) companies. As a response, more and more traditional banks are setting up “remote” and “independently managed” subsidiaries. These subsidiaries have the task to disrupt the parent companies (while making use of the bank license of the parent).

This is a clear example of how stoking the tension between the “younger generation” and the “older generation” can be leveraged in the creation of a better world.

Everyone needs to embrace the new as being genuinely new and accept that they have a contribution to make in designing a new world order.

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