We finally bought a home computer for the Beard family this Christmas, and it's been most instructive seeing our children—ages 6, 8 and 10—take to the new technology. With my own level of computer literacy being of modest proportions, I figured I'd nonetheless be the expert for a while since the kids were coming from the rather limited experience they get in school, and my wife Sue had hardly touched a keyboard in years.
As it turned out, about all I had to show the kids was where the on-button was. They quickly discovered all sorts of functions on their own that I didn't even know were there. It took my 10-year-old daughter Allie all of 20 minutes to begin exploring Winnie the Pooh sites on the Web. We won't even discuss their prowess at the games.
A really classic moment happened early on when I came home to find Sue in an application that was buried three menus deep. When I asked how she'd found it, she said, "Oh, T.J. (our 6-year-old) showed me."
When it comes to computers, these kids, and their whole generation, have no fear. And in another decade, when this group comes into the workplace, they will bring a mass level of computer literacy with them unlike anything we've ever experienced before.
Still, while these future workers may be whizzes with all things electronic, they may also be light on some fundamentals that the lack of technology forced upon my generation. They will not have had the experience of slogging through a high school math class without a calculator; of typing a book report without an automatic spell checker; of researching a paper without an electronic encyclopedia and the Internet at their fingertips.
The point here is not to argue which education is better, but simply to say that a whole generation of workers is coming with a very different set of skills and inclinations, good and bad, than that to which most of us are accustomed. And with this group, many of our assumptions about what young workers can and can't do—particularly in their ability to deal with change and to cope with new technology—will no longer be valid. Just like my kids did to me, the new generation's aptitudes will humble their "wiser" elders at times. But they'll still have a lot to learn.
Some of these creatures are already in the workforce today. Smart companies are beginning to think about how to make the most of their extraordinary potential.