Has the Web explosion created a new Lost Generation?

The first Lost Generation is widely considered to be those who were wandering through a post-WWI world trying to come to terms with a new global reality unlike any seen before. It was the generation that includes infamous authors like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In more modern times, Lost Generation has been used to describe groups of younger people heavily impacted by an economic shock — the lost ones are those folks unable to jump right back into the ranks of the gainfully employed when the economy starts to turn around.

I’ve been thinking of another type of lost generation lately though — the students who graduated college in the early 2000s, a time period when the Internet was seen as the future but no one had a clue about how large a role it would play. I was having a discussion about this last night with my wife, Jessi, and two colleagues from work: Becky Johns and Angela Minicuci. Jessi could be considered part of this new lost generation to which I’m referring. A graduate of Ferris State University in 2003, she had classes on Web design and was certainly interested in the promise of a future that would involve the Internet in some way. Since then, she took her degree and her college experiences and built a solid career in public and media relations. Now, because of term limits in Michigan, she’s looking for the next step in her career as the senator she works for will be unceremoniously booted from office at the end of the year.

One of the frustrations she’s commented to me about is having to compete with students coming out of college who seem to have so many Web skills and who have probably had 10 times the opportunities she had in regard to Web design and interaction with the Internet.

Becky and Angela are good examples of this next generation of recent graduates. Just check out Angela’s online profile. She has six different ways for people to connect with her — six ways that didn’t exist when Jessi graduated from Ferris just a handful of years ago. Becky has a large personal and professional network for someone her age, and I’d attribute a lot of that to online activities via Twitter and LinkedIn.

Certainly things change over time and what we learn in college is never going to stay static. And to Jessi’s credit, she hasn’t been one to just sit and whine about the changes that have occurred. She’s involved in many of the same online services that Angela is. She has her face buried in a computer screen because of social media almost as much as I do. But as the Web-based world has grown exponentially, she’s been working to pay the bills and using her free time to try to keep up. In the meantime, young professionals like Angela and Becky have been growing up alongside the Internet. Now, it seems many potential employers see them as Internet natives whereas Jessi has to prove that, while not a native, she’s certainly a full citizen of the online nation.

What do you think? There’s no question I’m biased about this because of my relationship with Jessi. But has there ever been a time when a technology has affected a generation of relatively recent grads the way the Internet and social media are impacting the university classes of 2003?

(Jessi’s photo courtesy of Capital Gains.)

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15 comments on “Has the Web explosion created a new Lost Generation?

  1. Good post, Ari. I think you really showed a big issue from our conversation. Yes, I grew up with the internet as a huge part of my life. Social networking and new media seem very intuitive to me and I haven’t had trouble keeping up with all the new things happening online because they have simply become ingrained in my life.

    Employers do view my generation as “online natives” but that’s not always a good thing. Many have an expectation that we can be a one-stop-shop employee, able to just jump online and go. And this is not always the case.

    There is a difference between knowing how to navigate the technology and knowing how to use it for business. Smart companies know this, and will find people in my generation that know that difference. Companies that are throwing interns at their social media presence because they assume they know how to do it are not making a smart or strategic move. Yes, many of us are web-savvy and can play a major role in the development and execution of online business elements. But, what people like Jessi can bring to the table is a combination of a few more years’ experience on the business end of things coupled with online skills.

    I have a larger network of friends and business contacts at age 22 than I ever thought I would. I’ve embraced social media and it has led me to some amazing opportunities. though it many ways it comes naturally, it does take work and it does take strategy. It isn’t simply enough to be out there, I’ve had to work at building relationships, making connections and participating in online communities. Many millennials are going to be students of the web forever; always studying it and learning how to use it in new ways.

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  2. Thanks for writing this post, Ari. I think it addresses an issue that is noticed by many, but talked about by few. Becky also brings up a great point. Years from now, there will still be students of the web, always studying it and molding it into something new. It makes me wonder how relevant what I know is going to be.

    I began following you and Jessi early in my involvement with social media. I think it’s interesting that both this ‘Lost Generation’ as well as recent graduates and college students like me, have been using social media for about the same amount of time. The difference is in the skills that we are taught when we are using it. There are now classes in college such as Michigan State University’s New Media Drivers License (http://newmediadl.com) that are geared specifically at teaching new media that were not around when Jessi graduated. I’ve held internships where I’ve written creative briefs and media plans geared specifically at using social media. The difference then lies in how I can put that on my resume compared to Jessi. I can say I’ve been ‘taught’ how to use it while Jessi has had to learn it herself.

    There is only a small difference between when Jessi graduated and Becky and myself. It will be interesting to see in just a few short years how Becky and I will fare compared to new grads. In the meantime, I think a part of the difference with social media skills is how we are able to say how we know what we know, not the degree to which we know it.

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  3. It’s interesting that you bring this up. I would argue that it’s the “lost generation” that has made it so hard for PR students to break the barrier and get in entry level positions. The recession has caused a lot of young PR pros to take jobs equal to or below their current positions, so even though entry level positions are meant for current interns to take the jump, people with three or four years experience are taking those positions. Sure, my generation might have Twitter and LinkedIn, but for those of us who aren’t in entry level positions, that doesn’t mean a whole lot.

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    • You make a really good point, Nick. Our generation has the huge obstacle of not only facing a tough economy, but facing an industry norm of now needing several internships to even have a shot at an entry-level professional position upon graduation. Many of us are forced to do internships post-graduation and many of those don’t even turn into full-time jobs.

      It’s so key for us to be actively using the web to our advantage for networking and learning because if we didn’t, we would be left in the dust. By the time I got my first professional position, I’d done 5 internships and volunteered in a communications capacity beyond that. I think many PR students are adopting habits of networking via online means not just because they like to be online, but because they have to be.

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  5. Great post. I have mixed reviews though. I am graduating from college in May. Very involved in school and social media. As for Jessi, get on board. I taught myself everything I know about networking and social media. Her profession in PR and media is always changing, she has to keep up with the latest trends. There aren’t text books written on social media yet, were not learning it school, my professors are still trying to grasp it.

    I am studying PR and marketing, when I graduate its up to me to know what the latest treds are. Many of the new grads had to teach themselves. I was very encouraged to get involved in social media, not taught.

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  6. Nick, I think your problem is with the recession, not with Ari’s Lost Generation. It’s not the older PR pros’ fault that they’re forced into jobs for which they’re over-qualified. The current job market has left employers with the luxury of being able to hire experienced people at entry-level prices. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely sympathize with your plight. When I was between jobs a couple of years ago, I was literally competing with Ph.D.s for jobs. It wasn’t a good feeling.

    Having said that, I think what puts the Lost Generation at the most disadvantage is the continuing acceleration of Internet technologies coupled with an unrealistic expectation that PR pros should also be Web experts. No. That’s what Web experts are for. PR pros should be competent in Web technologies and should be able to understand the medium enough to participate in strategy planning and the like, but if you want a Website built, hire a Web designer and/or developer. Most of today’s Web applications require much more than HTML or even CSS to run, requiring serious code jockeys. I can do Web design and I’m competent in social media, but I wouldn’t hire myself out as a Web designer, and I’m certainly not a back-end developer. Expecting PR pros to be experts in all aspects of everything communications-related just doesn’t make sense.

    Recent graduates are going to face the same challenges keeping up with the technology as the training phase of their lives fades and the day-to-day job phase kicks in. Their experience as the generation who grew up with the Internet will perhaps give them an advantage over older pros, but eventually they, too, may be left behind if they don’t work hard to stay on top of it.

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  7. Great post Ari. My takeaway from this is that learning never stops. No matter when a person attended college, lifelong learning means never resting. As a 40-something PR pro, I taught myself everything I know about HTML, Web sites and social media because the job market demanded it. Small nonprofits often will welcome someone willing to practice new skills. PRSA, particularly the Central Michigan chapter, has outstanding experts always willing to share their knowledge (including you). At times I feel rather ancient among the social media rockstars and techno-geeks in PR, but being committed to lifelong learning helps me stay current.

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  8. I think the Internet has made us expect simplicity and fast responses. If we want an answer, we just Google it. If we want in-depth information, we don’t go to the encyclopedia. We check wikipedia. If we want to know what our friends are doing, we text them.

    The CEO of the company I work for mentioned that he noticed I do things differently than even the other staff member who is just a few years older than me. He said he doesn’t think it’s a bad thing, but it is interesting.

    I think the people who will be lost in the end are those who do not try to keep up…like the recent grads who don’t think they need to know how to use Twitter or have Web skills beyond Facebook-stalking. Those are the ones who will be lost.

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  9. OK, after being busy all day and just getting around to reading all the comments, I’ll throw my .02 in.

    It’s an interesting job-market out there, and as Ryan said, companies who are trying to save money are looking for employees who can do everything – be that communications, web development, fund raising, video production, etc. Finding a candidate with all of these skills is unrealistic, and places undue frustration on those of us looking. All of the things I just mentioned are separate things, and people go to school to learn them separately, not as one discipline.

    As far as social media and the Web is concerned, I’ve stayed on top of it – I have FB, LI, Twitter, blog accounts and was probably toward the forefront of being involved on them. I’ve been to SM conferences, I connect with people online and have more networking contacts than I ever thought possible. I know what I’m doing, why and how. I have self-taught myself a lot of things because I had to. It’s been a fun process along the way, as I like learning new things and bettering myself, not only for me, but for how I can help my employer.

    However, going back to the original point, college students are learning at least some of this information in school – maybe not all – and are being expected to utilize it in the classroom and in internships, with the ability to put it on a resume when they graduate. My peers and I, on the other hand, have to try hard to a) keep up, b) teach ourselves and c) try and convince our employers why we should be utilizing these new methods. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, and while I feel I have done a great job of it, I also work for an employer who isn’t quite into social media as I am, and therefore you won’t see any Flip video or podcasts from me in a professional capacity. I know how to do them, but it’s a self-taught, at-home venture.

    For those of you still in college, or just getting out, in a couple years, you’ll understand what we mean a little better. Each generation is constantly being bested by the next, and we are all playing catch up in one capacity or another. Right now just seems to be an extra-tough time because of the rapidly changing nature of things, and the importance everyone is placing on social media and the Web and what that means for PR and Communications pros.

    Lifelong, real-world, # of years experience should always come first over what was learned in school, but that doesn’t mean that it always does. We are constantly learning and should always be learning and I am looking forward to new challenges that allow me to expand on my traditional media relations training and experience.

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  10. Ari, this is a great post. Nick (and others) make valid points regarding the obstacle of the recession. I could see how it would be tough to break in when those of us who graduated in the early 2000s are holding fast to our positions. However, I do agree with Jessi, there are two sets of expectations that employers juggle when looking at those of us in or approaching the middle ranks. 1) Do you have the years of tactical and strategic experience we’re looking for? 2) Do you have the Web savvy we need (or, in some cases) know we’ll need? For professionals like Jessi (and I would include myself in this batch) that have worked in conservative industries like the legislature, financial industry, healthcare, etc, the burden of Web education and experience has been 100 percent on us. The networks weren’t there when we were in college and firewalls and corporate policies have blocked us from accessing them as professionals. We had to truthfully work around the clock (spending loads of personal, “off-the-clock” time) to stay connected, educated and relevant. And, for the motivated (like Jessi), this is an investment that is worth the time. However, even with our commitment to staying connected, educated and relevant, we are still in limbo. We are technically Gen Y, but not really Gen Y. We have experience with the Web, but not usually work- or (in a student or intern’s case) internship-related. So it’s a really odd place to be. Basically, we’re educated on the subject matter, connected in ways that are important and truthfully know what we’re doing, but we haven’t had the conventional opportunities to prove it. But, like Jessi said, it’s a challenge that keeps motivated to stay sharp and stay on top of things. Again, great post, Ari!

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  11. Thanks to all of you who posted comments. This is obviously an issue that several generations are dealing with in their own way because of their own troubles with the economy, a rapidly changing job landscape and the unprecedented speed at which technology is affecting both.

    Perspective obviously plays an important role in all of these discussions, and I applaud each of you for thoughtfully sharing your insights.

    Speaking of perspectives, I thought you might appreciate a quote that’s been attributed to both President Harry S. Truman and President Ronald Reagan. It goes, “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job, a depression is when you lose yours.”

    ~ Ari

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  12. Interesting take, Ari, and some fantastic views in the comments as well. It’s interesting to see the cultural changes that are happening in the communications landscape. I’m 41, and come from a traditional marketing background. Yet I’ve always been a web geek, so I guess to me I haven’t felt “left out” (for want of a better word).

    However, the fact that there’s now a whole generation around that’s growing up having never known a time before the Internet… it definitely leads to some interesting choices and challenges for both employees and employers.

    Great blog – subscribing as I type. 🙂

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  13. Great points in the post and comments. I graduated from college in 2000, and I recall remarking, even a number of years ago, that I’d hate for some of the students I’d encountered during my career to be my competition for a job … not because of their talents, but because they were learning some skills — particularly related to self-promotion — through classes and programs that didn’t exist when I was in college.

    Fortunately, I’ve tended to be an “early adopter” of technologies and haven’t had to spend a lot of time playing catch-up.

    However, what I do find is that executives/managers assume that younger folks have a better handle on the technologies because they’re digital natives. The point that these higher-ups are missing — and what I try to remind them of — is that knowing how to use the tools for personal purposes is NOT the same as knowing how to strategize with and use the tools for business purposes. It’s baffling to me how this oversight occurs so often, but it does.

    BTW, I spent almost a year looking for a new job after mine was eliminated, so I’ve seen these things happen repeatedly. I even know for a fact that someone who’d just graduated from college four months earlier beat me and at least one other very experienced candidate out for a job that involved Web-based communications.

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