Information generations; the end of the Millennials?

The idea of a ‘generation’ is a widely understood one, and we often take it for granted that people of a certain age will have similar experiences, expectations, and values. Terms like ‘Baby Boomers’, ‘Gen X’, and ‘Millennials’ are in common use, and it seems to be generally accepted that they have some value as a category of people with much in common.

Differences between generations are not, in the opinion of most writers, ‘just an age thing’; they are a supposed unique life style, based on a common environment (social, cultural, economic, technical) during formative early years, and experiencing different formative world events. Growing up in a different social and cultural environment, and with different technologies, changes skills sets and expectations. To take an obvious example. The web arrived when boomers were typically around 40. Although many have enthusiastically adopted it, their approach is different to Gen X, who encountered it in young adulthood, Millennials, many of whom first experienced it at school, and the Google generation, for whom it as always been an integral part of life.

In the library/information sciences also, the idea of generations has had some acceptance; the assumption that those of one generation will deal differently with information, and will prefer certain kinds of information systems and services to those of others. This is something I have been interested in for some time, and have even presented about it, in meetings in Prague and in Vilnius.

Of course, we all know that, like many such groupings, this idea of the information generation should not be pushed too far. The generations overlap by 7 or 8 years, and their dates are somewhat arbitrary; it seems that every report has slightly different years for each generation. There are always exceptional individuals, who act ‘out of their generation’, many people identify with two generations, and some commentators treat generations together, e.g. X and Y together as ‘Me-Gen’ or ‘Next Gen’, or Y and Google as ‘Digital Natives’

In information terms also, people are individuals, and the individual differences in information behaviour should not be forgotten. We cannot assume that people of a certain age will behave in similar ways with respect to information, any more than we would assume identical behaviour in other respects. In particular, the idea that younger people can be helpfully characterised as ‘digital natives’, has been severely criticised. Although Millennials may take the lead, older generations can also be keen technology adopters.

This has not, however, prevented the idea of generations being applied in planning and management of library/information services. Recent examples include information literacy tutorials for millennials and mentoring across generations in law librarianship.

Now a new report from the Pew Research Centre has declared the end of the Millenials. Anyone born from 1997 onwards will be part of a new generation, yet to be given a name. Given that, as the report notes, they have grown up in an ‘always on’ technical environment, perhaps they will be the Always-Ons, or perhaps, in a nod to Luciano Floridi, the ‘Infosphere Generation’. They will, no doubt develop their own information behaviours, and make their own demands on information systems and services. But we would do well to remember that they are, first and foremost, individuals.

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