Tag Archives: Gen Y

Dear Valpy: social media isn't killing democracy, it's making it stronger

So I’m really worried I’m becoming the one man rant show about the Globe, but as long as their columnists keep writing stuff that completely misunderstand the intersection between technology and politics, I feel bound to say something.

First it was Martin Lawrence, who was worried about the future of the country since his profile of young people was (as my friend put it) limited to “an unthinking, entitled drain on the country I call home and pillage without contribution…”

Now Michael Valpy is worried. He’s actually worried about a lot of things (which don’t all seem to hang together, but the part that has him most worried is that Canadians are becoming segmented into smaller groups and that this threatens the fabric of our democracy and country.

The premise goes something like this: the decline of main stream media and the rise of social media means Canadians are suffering from a social cohesion deficit. Increasingly we will have less in common with one another and engage in narrower and smaller conversations. As a result, there will no longer be a “political agenda” we all agree we should be talking about. It is all summed with a quote from a Carleton University Professor:

“The thing about newspapers is that you always find things you didn’t know you were looking for. You come across views that you don’t agree with or don’t like,” says Christopher Waddell, director of Carleton University’s school of journalism. “When you’re searching for things on the Internet, I think it’s much less likely that you’re searching for things that challenge you. You’re much more likely to be searching for positive reinforcement.”

and it goes on…

“Society is always better when someone is trying to undermine your views. And particularly, social cohesion is better, because being challenged forces you to think through why you believe what you believe. It’s the stimulus for debate and discussion and a recognition of multiple others.”

What’s so frustrating is that Waddell and Valpy arrive to the debate both 3 years late and with the wrong conclusion. As Steven B Johnson, who wrote one of many fantastic pieces on “serendipity,” might ask: “Does Michael Valpy even use the internet?” But of course a main stream media columnist and a professor who trains them would naturally see a diminishing role for main stream media as a threat to democracy and the very fabric of the country. This argument has been tried, and frankly, it doesn’t have legs. Democracy and Canada will survive the decline of mainstream media – just as it survived before it existed.

Indeed, the decline of mainstream media may actually be healthy for our democracy. Here are two thoughts for Valpy to stew on:

First, comes from Missing the Link, a piece Taylor and I wrote ages ago which keeps proving to be handy:

The “necessary for democracy” argument also assumes that readers are less civically engaged if they digest their news online. How absurd. Gen Y is likely far more knowledgeable about their world than Boomers were. The problem is that Boomers appeared more knowledgeable to one another because they all knew the same things. The limited array of media meant people were generally civically minded about the same things and evaluated one another based on how much of the same media they’d seen. The diversity available in today’s media—facilitated greatly by the internet—means it is hard to evaluate someone’s civic mindedness because they may be deeply knowledgeable and engaged in a set of issues you are completely unfamiliar with. Diversity of content and access to it, made possible by the internet, has strengthened our civic engagement.

This strikes at the core of how Valpy and I disagree. To be harsh, but I believe fair, he is essentially arguing that we may be better off not only if we are dumber, but if we are collectively so. The country is better, stabler and safer if we all talk about the same thing (which really means… what does Toronto/Ottawa/Ontario insert favourite centralist scape goat here, want). Hogwash I say! Diversity is what makes Canada great, and it is, paradoxically, the thing that binds us. Certainly for my tribe the value of Canada is that you can come here and can be what you want. There is a common value set, but it is minimalist. The central value – now protected by the charter – is that you can be who you want to be. And that is something many of us cherish. Indeed, don’t underestimate the fact that that is pretty strong glue, especially in a world where there are many countries in which such a right does not exist.

Second, I think there is compelling case to be made that it is main stream media that is killing democracy. Virtually every political analyst agrees that ever since Trudeau the power of the Prime Minister’s office has been steadily increasing, more recently to a degree that arguably threatens the role and function of parliament. Do Committees matter any more? Not really. Oh, and name a regional MP who has real weight – someone on par to John Crosbie in his hey day. Pretty hard. What about Ministers? There authority (and accountability) is not even a slice of what it used to. And cabinet? Even it toes the line of the mighty all powerful PM.

What parallels this rise in the PMs absolute power? The increased used of modern technologies. TV and polls. With TVs the Prime Minister can speak directly to Canadians everywhere – without having to be mediated by pesky local MPs or representatives. And with polls, the prime minister doesn’t even need local MPs to give him or her the “sense on the ground.”  But imagine a world where the two very things that Valpy fears are in decline – polling and mainstream media – actually do disappear? With a citizenry fractured along hundreds of conversations there are all sorts of information niches for MPs to fill and play important roles within. More importantly, without effective polling MPs local knowledge and local community connections (enhanced by social media) suddenly becomes relevant again.

If anything polling and mainstream media (especially TV) were killing our democracy. Social media may be the reason we get it back.

who is going to cover city hall? we will…

More follow up on the future of democracy and the media. In the comments one reader – Karen – commented:

So….which of you brilliant Gen Y bloggers is going to sit at local park board meetings to find out how they are spending your tax money? Just wondering.

I don’t care whether newspapers live or die. It’s just a medium. (Yes, the singular of “media.”) It may well be it’s an outdated medium. It’s certainly a wasteful, expensive and environmentally harmful medium.

However, when newspapers die (so what? good riddance) the services that newspapers have traditionally supplied – such as serving as watchdogs for even the smallest municipalities, taxing bodies and so on – remain necessary to a functioning democracy. What happens when governments make decisions with no one watching?

And it’s tedious, people. Maybe some of you are experienced with this. Sitting through three-hour meeting of county commissioners, poring through stacks of facts and figures, following up to ask questions, finding alternate points of view – this is time consuming and not a whole lot of fun. When there are no reporters at these meetings, who will do this? Do you think it is no longer necessary? Will citizen journalists spend hours – unpaid – going line by line over the police board’s budget?

Well, according to Frances Bula, one of Vancouver’s finest journalist’s focused on local politics (she used to work at the Vancouver Sun, and now freelances for several publications, including the Globe and Mail) it is us who are covering this “small” stories. In a recent post entitled “When did civic politics get so interesting?” she states:

It’s hard to remember, but in those days, no one cared about city hall. It used to be me and a couple of Chinese-language-media reporters who would hang out in the pews at city council chambers on Tuesdays. When I went to the committee meetings on Thursday, I was usually the only reporter there. People coming to speak to council issues sometimes thought I was the recording secretary. And it was like that for quite a long time. Years and years, really, although Allen Garr started writing for the Courier after a while so then there was, thankfully, one more person.

This week in Vancouver, when city hall was stuffed like a turkey with news — the budget, cracking down on crummy SROs, whether to allow mixed martial arts events, police budgets being wrecked by gang investigations, Councillor Suzanne Anton grilling the mayor like he was a naughty boy about campaign financing — there were as many reporters and outlets covering the events as at any session of the provincial legislature…

…So, even though I now can’t get a seat at the media table these days if I come late to council, and it feels sometimes like everyone is falling over each other to get the latest little tidbit from the city, it’s okay — and even kind of fun — that it’s crowded.

But then this is what Shirly predicted would happen once the we understood the size of the cognitive surplus that is out there…

How not to do generational analysis

I read – and laughed – at Maclean’s latest in a series of Gen Y bashing pieces. This time it was Lianne George, with the bat, in the employment office, in her piece “Dude Where’s My Job?”

The piece said a lot more about Lianne George than it did about Gen Yers (or the Net Gen or, if you prefer, anyone under 30) tinged, as it was, with the bitter happiness of someone celebrating another’s (perceived) comeuppance. If only the analysis had been as edgy, or as fun, the piece’s tone.

The saddest element of the article was its reduction of Gen Yers to a coddled, materialistic and self-aggrandizing cohort who are finally about to taste a dose of reality. This despite the fact that – according to George – 44% of Yers still live at home (many, would likely prefer to live independently) and have large student debts (an average of $5,631 per year in according to her). Hardly the stats of an entitled generation.

She laughs that:  “This is a generation, after all, in which seven out of 10 rank themselves “above average” in academic ability.” The intent is to show Gen Yers are delusional self-aggrandizers. However, Gen Yers ARE above average in academic ability when compared to the population as a whole. The number of people attending university and college has been steadily (and aggressively) increasing. Even compared to 18 years ago, a growing % of the labour force has post-secondary education. This is to say nothing of the huge increase in the number of graduate students. For many Gen Yers maybe one parent, and almost none of their grandparents went to college or university. As such Gen Yers are more academically inclined compared to the labour force. Does this give them confidence? Maybe. But I wouldn’t confuse it with a belief they are inherently smarter or better than everyone else.

It is also problematic to talk about generations. I could easily sit here and psychoanalyze how Lianne George is almost certainly a Gen Xer who graduated at a time when there were no jobs and had to claw herself into a career she enjoyed. As such her article is just an expression of the frustration she (and by extension of course, all Gen Xers) feel towards Gen Y who (after making millions in silicon valley) they hope are finally getting their due and will have to behave more like her generation:  forced by a declining economy to abandon their dreams and hopes and become the prototypical slackers of Reality Bites, mocking life as they resign themselves to dead end job after dead end job. What a wonderful thing to wish on a generation.

The problem is – I don’t think most Gen Xers think that way. Moreover, this type of generational thinking blinds us to bigger and more important problems. Gen Xers were never all slackers and Gen Y is not a single cohort. I forsee something much more problematic and unstable emerging than a bunch of Gen Yers feeling let down by the universe. Recently I read that there has been no decline in the number of job recruiters at UBC this year. I fear that we are seeing the wedging of our economy – a separation between an growing wealthy and opportunity rich creative class, a struggling white collar class and a destitute blue collar class. While already true, I fear the main determinant of who’s asking “Dude, where’s my job” won’t be age, but class. Worse, those who end up asking the question risk becoming part of a structural unemployment problem: insufficiently skilled to enter the workforce, and lacking the capital to change their circumstances. This is the analysis we need from Maclean’s, not cheap snipping at a whole generation.

But then, maybe the cheap shots sell more magazines.

The Financial collapse and the unsaid thoughts of public servants

Fascinating week in Ottawa. Been having a great time, enjoying brown bag lunches and meeting with friends old and new.

I’m here to talk about public service sector renewal and as the the issue comes up on many occasions people ask me if I think the financial crises and the poor economy will make the government a more attractive choice for gen Yers.

I think the generation lens is the wrong one, because the public service needs not only good gen yers, but also good gen xers. That said, I think the answer, broadly, is no. The crisis will not have a big impact on applications. Richard Florida hit on the reason why on Monday in his Globe and Mail piece about the asymmetrical distribution of unemployment the recession will visit upon the work force.

Critically, government needs to recognize that, these days, it is hiring creative class workers and that this group, by and large, will be significantly less hurt by the economic collapse than service sector and blue collar workers:

Unemployment rates among the working class have been more than triple the rate of those in the creative class and about double the rate of those in the service class over the past decade. Service-class unemployment has been about double the creative-class rate and has not diverged from it in the past 20 years.

And look at the last recession in Canada. Unemployment rates among the working class rose to nearly 16 per cent in 1991, while the creative class and service class experienced much more modest increases.

So will there be an uptick in people interested in working for government? Mostly likely. But expect it to be modest. But also remember. those who decide to apply may be motivated by safety and security, not a sense of public duty.

Oh, and one other thing. I’ve had several friends tell me that people who’ve applied for jobs that have had to wait 6, 9 or even 14 months before getting an offer. For those who are really made to wait, by the time they find out they have a job, the recession could be over…

Comfort with ambiguity

Finally polished off “Emergence” by Stephen Johnson (another post on it here) – the last 30 pages have been lingering for about 2 weeks.

Johnson’s ideas continue to touch on themes I’ve been explaining to others for two years now. More recently, on why boomers continue to misunderstand their Gen Y cousins. Take for example, Johnson’s conclusions about what video games are doing to all of us (but Yers in particular):

The conventional wisdom about these kids (gen Yers) is that they’re more nimble at puzzle solving and more manually dexterous than the TV generation, and while there’s certainly some truth to that, I think we lose something important in stressing how talented this generation is with their joysticks. I think they have developed another skill, one that almost looks like patience: they are more tolerant of being out of control, more tolerant of that exploratory phase where rules don’t all make sense, and where few goals have been clearly defined. In other words, they are uniquely equipped the more oblique control system of emergence software (and, I might add, emergent systems more generally).

While the boomer vs. gen Y comparison is generally apt, l think even more than being generational this is class based. Emerging creative classers are not only comfortable with this exploratory phase, they actively need it. This is why the large bureaucracies (but not necessarily large organizations) struggle to attract and retain both the demographic and the class. They often force upon their workers too much structure, to much rigidity on the front end, evaporating the creative opportunities where we might imagine something better, bigger or more effective.

A note of caution too for those who think the financial collapse augers a new era of safety in large bureaucracies. Don’t fool yourself. It was the large bureaucracies of the banks and government regulators, working in tandem, that got us into this mess. While some creative classers may attempt to retreat to the safety of a large government or private sector institutions I suspect that many will do just the opposite. As bureaucracies become still more risk averse and controling their capacity to foster to new ideas and approaches will be that much more constrained. The “outside thinkers” will be in still greater demand.

Young, left and voting

As we all know young people don’t vote. That’s why these charts shouldn’t surprise anyone… right?

(These charts are stolen from the New Politics Institute).

But don’t worry, You may soon be able to retreat to the old stereotype of the apathetic young voter since Hillary Clinton is doing everything she can to turn this new generation of democrats off of politics all together.

Public Service Sector Renewal and Gen Y: Don’t be efficient

Perhaps the biggest problem for Public Sector Renewal is the enourmous expectation problem created by the internet.

Many of today’s Gen Yers have access to a dizzying array of free online tools. Tools this online generations has grown up and used to organize and make more efficient their personal lives.

logos

These range from the banal, such as Facebook (connect and find people), Evite and Socialzr (organize and send invites to parties), or Google Docs (manage version control and share essays across platforms) to the more sophisticated, such as Basecamp (manage school projects), del.icio.us (share research with friends), WordPress (share your thoughts) or TikiWiki (enable collaboration).

It isn’t hard to imagine how these tools can be used professionally. I’ve talked about the potential for a facebook-like application, but software similar to Evite and socialzr can help set up meetings, google docs and wiki’s can facilitate collaborative policy development, and basecamp is as effective at managing professional projects as it is school projects. A work blog can keep your colleagues up to date on your research and thinking as effectively as your personal blog keeps your friends up to date on your comings and goings.

And remember – these tools are not only free but people like using them.

However, as generation Y enters the work force – and, in particular the public service – it is confronted with a nasty reality. Their managers, Director Generals, ADMs and DMs aren’t familiar with these software programs and don’t grasp the full potential of the internet. More importantly, in the public service’s risk averse culture doing something new and different is frequently perceived as dangerous. And so, our intrepid new hires are literally being told – don’t be efficient.

This is remarkable. For perhaps the first time in the history of work a generation is finding that the tools they use to organize life at home allows them to be more productive than the tools they can use to organize life at work.

Take for example my friend who wanted to use survey monkey to send out a questionnaire asking 10 public servants across their department about potential dates and times when they would be free to meet.  The survey took 5 seconds to complete and would quickly identify the optimal date for such a meeting. However, her manager let her know very quickly that this was unacceptable. It was more important that each person be emailed – or better, called – individually, a process that gobbled up hours if not days. Time after time I hear stories of young people who, after doing what they do at home, quickly feel the full weight of the department descending on their cubicle. I won’t even mention an acquaintance who related a story of trying to set up a wiki (not even on accessible to the public!).

The larger point here is that it’s going to be hard to retain people when they feel like they have to work with two hands tied behind their back (because of the nature of the job public servants already work with one hand behind their back). Today’s best and brightest want the freedom to work quickly and efficiently – and why not? – this is what ambitious go getters do. Those that notice that their work lags too far behind what they can do on their own will find greener pastures to accomplish their aims.

Don’t believe me? Forget all the applications I mentioned above. Think about something as simple as Google. This simple application has created the expectation among Gen Yers (and even Xers and boomers) that information should be accessible and easily found. When was the last time you could easily find what you were looking for on a government webpage?

Public Service Sector Renewal’s biggest challenge is fighting the freedom that the internet is giving people. The freedom to accomplish tasks faster, to work more quickly and to be more effective – the only rub, is no one can control what anyone is doing because you can’t keep track of it all. There is simply too much going on. So, in short, in order to meet the expectations created by the internet the public service may have to learn to trust its employees.

Can it do this?

I don’t know.