6 Interesting Points on How “Digital Natives” Think and Work

The San Francisco-based company DocuSign serves some 250,000 business clients worldwide by offering the most sophisticated suite of e-signature and digital transaction management platforms available. The company is a leader in the digital data revolution that is changing how people everywhere work on projects and lead their everyday lives.

That’s one of the reasons DocuSign fits in so well with the workplace culture of today’s rising generation of young professionals: it allows for fast and easy collaboration, in a virtual space that lends itself well to intuitive navigation.

Many experts use the term “digital native” to describe these young adults now entering the workplace. The term often overlaps with “millennial” in describing people born between 1980 and 2000, also the first generation to spend their formative years in a thoroughly wired environment. By 2050, digital natives will make up more than half the entire adult population of the world.

Here are a few notes about this increasingly influential age cohort, based on the growing number of articles and books appearing in the popular press today:

1. “Natives” vs. “immigrants”

Most authorities credit educational consultant Marc Prensky with coining the term “digital natives” to describe today’s generation of young adults, who have grown up immersed in the Internet, digital media, mobile communications devices, and video games. Prensky’s 2001 paper on the topic, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” contrasted this group with older “digital immigrants,” who are trying to adapt to this new world, in a way analogous to learning a second language.

Prensky’s often-controversial conclusions: there may be significant differences in the way the two generations’ brains are wired, due to vastly different kinds of early learning experiences. These differences, he wrote, carry over into the realm of higher education and, later, the workplace, where differing communication and information-gathering styles can create misunderstandings and conflicts.

2. Wired from birth

One multinational 2011 study reported that digital natives consider themselves very much like their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, although their interactions with technology, and the greater frequency with which they engage with it, present striking differences.

The study said that the typical digital native is online anywhere from two to four hours daily, and a quarter of the group spends a full four to six hours on the Internet. The authors speculate that this has led to their expertise in dealing with the flood of information they are continually exposed to.

3. At home with multitasking

A number of writers describe digital natives as being thoroughly and inherently conversant with all forms of computer-related technology. They are used to a fast-paced lifestyle. They are eager to multi-task, and are particularly adept at doing so.

4. Constantly connected

Digital natives use the Internet to connect to friends and family through social media, and to the world of information through online news feeds. Their greater connectedness through digital media enables them to move quickly and effortlessly from their private to their public worlds.

They also take advantage of the world of blogs, online forums, and social networking platforms to share insights and life experiences with their peers all over the world.

Previous generations relied on peer groups they knew personally and were in close physical proximity to. The growth of connectedness among digital natives worldwide has fostered more interactions with similarly minded peers, regardless of location.

5. A disruptive force on the economy

This generation feels more empowered by information than previous ones. Access to the Internet’s wealth of information and opinion has even influenced their behavior as consumers, giving them a critical perspective on any potential purchase.

In 2016, a CNBC report showed that millennials’ consumer savvy may be a significant factor in driving inflation to levels some economists say are too low to allow for healthy growth. One financial representative told the media outlet that digital natives’ greater facility with online consumer-related information allows them to compare prices instantly, creating a downward pricing pressure on companies hoping to stay competitive.

6. Transforming the workplace

Digital natives are helping to create a new business culture, with their technological skills and attitudes possibly making workplaces more efficient and productive. They look for employers that offer the types of platforms DocuSign excels in creating: cloud-based systems that support seamless digital collaboration and real-time sharing.

They need and expect comprehensive integration of technologies such as video conferencing, Wi-Fi, and social networks into collegial work communities. They are also comfortable bringing their own devices — laptops, smartphones, and more — to work. This, in turn, helps them remain interconnected with their work groups.

But not everyone agrees with these findings. One recent report, by the Nielsen Norman Group, a user experience consulting firm, found the whole concept of “digital natives” problematic.

It found that, while millennials maintain a strong belief in their own technological competence, they can be very much prone to error.

The study also claimed to debunk a number of myths about millennials, asserting, for instance, that the demographic actually prefers face-to-face interaction with a real person both socially and when trying to obtain needed information. The study went on to add that they are not necessarily more efficient multitaskers and do not demonstrate the innate and seemingly mysterious ability to understand computer technology, as commentators such as Marc Prensky have suggested.

Other tech writers reject sweeping generalizations that assign broad traits to an entire group on the basis of age. They cite studies showing that not every millennial is a digital native, because wealth and social class still play a large role in determining who in this generation has extensive access to technology and who does not.

Regardless of which side of the “digital native” debate you take, most of us can agree that developments in digital technologies are changing the way people of all ages think and work.