Managing Digital Natives – Opportunity or Challenge? Tell me when you were born and I’ll tell you who you are.

By Karsten Jonsen, Rafael Martin and Stephanie Weg

Who are these Digital Natives and what makes them different? How can business use shifts in behavior and mindset to operate successfully?

Digital Natives, termed by some as Generation Me,1 are now entering or preparing to enter the labor market. This generation’s personal habits and behaviors, shaped by growing up in a digital world, will have implications for the future of business and the interactions between employers and employees.

“Today’s young people think only of themselves.” This statement has been used to describe many generations, but this time around, it may be true. Research in the United States has measured narcissism – a grandiose view of one’s own self, lack of empathy and a need for admiration and self-enhancing experiences – which has led to the worrisome conclusion that youngsters are increasingly focused on the maximization of moi.2 This can cause issues on many levels for organizations. For example, people with entitlement beliefs have been found to activate fault-lines and create disharmony in their workgroups.3

Research in the US has measured narcissism, and found that youngsters are increasingly focused on the maximization of moi. This can cause issues on many levels for organizations.

So what exactly are we facing today when we deal with younger generations? An opportunity, a threat or both? And how can business use these shifts in behavior and mindset to operate successfully? In this article, we will discuss the most prominent characteristics and behaviors of Generation Me and outline some recommendations on how to manage them effectively.


Characteristics and behaviors of digital natives

Who are these Digital Natives and what makes them different? In the following paragraphs, we have highlighted some of their key characteristics and behaviors and the challenges and opportunities each present:


Playful: Generation Me has grown up in fat times. The availability of resources and the security they experienced during childhood and adolescence have created a mindset that is focused less on fulfilling duties and more on having fun. This is one reason why Generation Me employees view the workplace as a place to have fun with their workmates, whom they consider friends. They like to set their own rules, enjoy freedom and tend to avoid unpleasant tasks as much as possible. This focus on “having fun” can make younger people hard to manage because they get distracted easily and are not as process-oriented as their managers might wish.

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On the bright side, this new generation brings a different kind of energy to the workplace. Work is more than just duty to them. They might not like routine work, but they definitely enjoy challenges and are happy to dive in at the deep end. They are daring and prepared to take risks, and they will see even challenging tasks through to completion if they know that they will get visibility for doing them.


Entitled: Having grown up on “positive tolerance” (“Whatever you think, say or do, that’s okay.” “Don’t worry about how the other kids play.”)4, members of Generation Me assume that they are entitled to certain things, that the world owes them something. In Scandinavia, this generation is sometimes called “curling kids”5 because their parents constantly sweep in front of them, helping them achieve maximum results with minimum effort.

Along with a general rise in the number of disorders (it’s okay to feel bipolar…), the sense of entitlement has created a generation that comes to work with a feeling that “they are the project.” One implication of this is that these younger employees are increasingly focused on maximizing their own wellbeing, often without consideration for others.

At the same time, they independently build their careers. They are masters of creating their own brand through learning, relationships, lifestyle flexibility and the readiness to add value in different ways. They want “custom deals” and they care about the benefits beyond the money, which is viewed as just a threshold issue. They are motivated by flexibility and the chance to acquire skills for their future career. They are willing to take new career directions and build personal, versatile skill sets to enhance the one brand they are loyal to – “Me.”


Instantaneous: In one of the Black Eyed Peas’ popular songs –“Now Generation” – the lyrics, “Cause time can’t wait, and I sure can’t wait, I ain’t got no patience, no, I sure can’t wait, not today,” reinforce the notion that this generation is used to having information available at their fingertips, anytime, anywhere. Raised with the computer, they have developed hypertext minds and prefer fast and random access. As Mark Prensky observes6, “It’s as though their cognitive structures were parallel, not sequential.” Information literally has gone from heads to webs; memorizing is the past; googling is the future and multitasking is the operating standard.

When it comes to the workplace, Generation Me can get bored very easily and needs to be kept engaged with instant gratification and constant interaction.

When it comes to the workplace, Generation Me can get bored very easily and needs to be kept engaged with instant gratification and constant interaction. While it is often bemoaned that attention spans are getting shorter and ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is at an all-time high, often it is not that Generation Me cannot pay attention. Instead, they choose not to pay attention because the content does not trigger their interest. The attention spans and memory they display while playing their favorite computer games proves that, when engaged, Generation Me can spend hours focused on one thing.

Once the challenge of getting their attention is mastered, this generation can react and pick things up very quickly; they adapt to change easily and are better than older generations at managing and assimilating the often overwhelming amount of information one has to deal with in today’s world. They can connect topics easier and tend to think less in silos and hierarchies.


Digitally dependant: Generation Me consists of Digital Natives who speak the digital language. They have grown up in a world where technology, digital devices and connectivity are ubiquitous. They consider “being offline” as a serious constraint to their ability to operate.

At work, they have severe difficulty managing the constant interruptions caused by their various devices. They tend to get lost in virtual worlds, spending incalculable amounts of time surfing the vast amount of information available online. This can result in lower productivity and decreased efficiency.

In contrast, no workforce has ever been more flexible, more connected and easier to reach than today’s 20 to 30 year olds. Generation Me is comfortable with technology, used to interacting remotely and happy to check emails last thing at night and first thing in the morning.


Participatory: Digital Natives have opinions and lots of ideas. They are used to generating and sharing information instead of just reactively and passively consuming it. Providing information is a way of self-expression for them. They tend to be open and honest about their feelings.

When it comes to the workplace, this attitude brings some challenges. Generation Me wants to make their opinion heard and demands power, sometimes beyond their actual skill set. At times, when younger employees are required to just get a job done, they have a tendency to discuss and share their opinions much more than older generations. This can be a real management challenge. Digital Natives can over-share and thus violate privacy boundaries, or mix work and private life in unfortunate combinations.

In contrast, this generation is collaborative and comfortable working in teams. They are very open and social and used to drawing on their networks for ideas, feedback or help. This, in turn, gives the company access to resources that normally would be out of reach. External networks are increasingly important for innovation and nobody masters them better than Digital Natives do.


So how do we deal with this?

Generation Me has arrived in force and it is expected to make up to 50% of the working population in developed countries by 2018. Managers – a lot of whom are from older generations – have to deal with the behaviors and expectations of this new generation, minimizing the gap the different mindsets create while maximizing productivity and mutual satisfaction.

Human Resources Magazine shows that the single biggest issue in the struggle to retain Digital Native employees is attrition caused by the failure to meet expectations.7 There is a clear disconnect between the vision a Generation Me employee has when starting a job and the ideas of his or her manager. Needless to say, this issue is not caused solely by one side or the other, but as a manager, there are four tips that will make your life easier if you want to retain the demanding, playful and opinionated Digital Natives as employees.


1. Give them freedom

The most connected and busiest generation ever is not going to give up its activities or way of communication just because of a job. Strict and rigid schedules are a sure way to lose your Generation Me employees. Forbid the use of social networking sites on the internet, and they will use their iPhone instead. Force them to be at work during specific hours and they will be there, but the output might not be what you expect. It is difficult to force Digital Natives into a traditional face-to-face, 9-to-5 work scheme, both physically and mentally.

Instead, be as flexible as possible when it comes to schedules and locations. Rethink which elements of the work schedule and environment are required and which ones can be adjusted to resonate with Generation Me members in order to make working flexible and fun for them. Implement ROWE (Results Only Working Environment), which in practice means that everyone has the freedom to do whatever they want, wherever they want, as long as the work gets done. This way, you compensate based on performance instead of traditional indicators such as working hours. And most importantly, let your younger employees have a say in the targets and goals that are used to measure their performance.

When it comes to setting objectives, the best thing to do is to ask your Generation Me employees to create their own goals, and then check their goals against your plans to make sure everyone is aligned.8 Or as the old saying goes, it’s easiest to ride a horse in the direction it’s going. Letting them help decide where their efforts are best put to use is a winning formula for keeping talented Digital Natives motivated. You will be surprised by how much of a motivating factor non-monetary benefits and flexibility are to your younger employees.


2. Create sense of ownership

“This generation has grown up with parents who were role models, and provided structure and supervision. They expect to find leaders with honesty and integrity. It’s not that they don’t want to be leaders themselves, they’d just like some great role models first.”9

Great role models give them clear boundaries and responsibilities to create a sense of ownership. Generation Me employees like the flexibility of a loose schedule, space for creativity and the freedom to assume responsibilities. Micro managing them is one of the worst things you can do. Specify clear objectives and set limits explicitly so they know the rules and the expected result, but leave it up to them as to how they get there. This gives them space to unfold their creativity and truly feel ownership for a task. Rather than over-managing them, create trust-based relationships in which both parties act honestly and transparently, and give them the benefit of the doubt. This way you create a challenge and the feeling that their person and work are appreciated. This will motivate your Generation Me employees to use all their resources, including their extended network, to deal with everyday challenges and deliver a great result their way.

To close the circle, give them visibility and personal credit for results achieved rather than letting them do the groundwork and presenting the results as your own, which will almost guarantee they won’t try as hard next time.


3. Coach them – and let them coach you

Generation Me is concerned about building their personal brand, maximizing their own advantage and doing things that make sense to them. Knowing this, don’t expect them to sit in awe when you share your own knowledge with them, taking in everything you have to say. Hierarchy isn’t meaningful to them in this context. Instead, show them how you can be of value to them by helping them build their career and enhance their skill set with relevant information, discussions and training.

Mentoring and coaching are the magic words here, although informal coaching and mentoring programs may be more effective. “Things change so fast, not only in process and technology but also in the competitive landscapes in which we travel, that a constant flow of professional learning is critical (and not just for young people). Give your Generation Me employees mentors who can help them understand corporate culture, business decision-making, and the rest of the often difficult world we inhabit.”10 Help them prioritize!

Next, it is important to empower your Generation Me employees and let them teach the rest of your team as well. They want to work with people with whom they can connect. They like being friends with coworkers and they like to share. Ask a Digital Native what they know and listen to them. They can be your best informers on the latest trends in areas such as the internet, social media and technology. Increase their confidence and visibility while fostering intergenerational relationships between workers by making them mentors to the rest of your staff on those topics they know best. Remember, they are closer to the latest developments than you might be, so try to be open to their often disruptive and somewhat disturbing views of the future. They can help you anticipate shifts in consumer behavior and the expectations of your business.


4. Reward them every day

Generation Me wants things and they want them now. Promising them a great job in the distant future does not do much for their motivation. They are used to ordering something on the internet today and receiving it tomorrow. So aim to show them short-term benefits while maintaining a vision of the big picture to show them how things fit together. Digital Natives like challenges linked to rewards (like levels in a computer game). Create step-by-step plans for them that will help them answer the question on their mind every day: Why should I try hard?

Digital Natives like challenges linked to rewards. Create step-by-step plans for them that will help them answer the question on their mind every day: Why should I try hard?

To keep your best and brightest, create a challenging environment. “Give the superstars the most time and attention.”11 Shine a bright light on everyone’s performance so there are immediate rewards (and penalties) for the output of an employee. Create transparency around responsibilities and compensation and make it clear that it is “a privilege and honor to work here!”12 And make sure that not everyone gets to work for your business. This way, Generation Me’s general need for fairness and transparency will be satisfied and the equation is simple: I underperform – I will be noticed and there will be implications. I try hard and deliver good results – I get rewarded.



Generation gaps have always existed and “being different” is a fundamental part of growing up and building one’s identity. But just like nostalgia, it isn’t what it used to be, and this time around, it is different. Mainly due to technology, societies are changing rapidly into new age cultures of unrestricted communication and instant gratification. New democracies are being shaped under these rules and new ways of working, living, socializing and doing business are emerging as a result of time compression. Many of us are fully aware of the changes taking place, but Digital Natives have never lived in a world without technology. They are the epitome of the societal changes that have taken place during their lifetimes.

Business leaders must be aware of and must change, mindfully, with the times. Those companies that fully understand and appreciate the power of Digital Natives will have the competitive edge in the future. To achieve this, managers have to use new and often subtle methods and behaviors when dealing with this generation. This does not mean that all we have done in the past to attract and retain talent is obsolete. But we need to add to our toolboxes and make some changes to our mindsets and work cultures. Command and control is old hat when it comes to people management; the future is about collaborating across all kinds of borders, including across generational borders. We need to invest time in understanding generational differences. The power has shifted, and we can learn as much from younger people as they can learn from us. And they want to learn and collaborate, preferably all the time. Give them constant learning and development opportunities. Use the workplace and its climate as a differentiator from other employers, rather than just tasks, salary and branding. Provide the right technological support and freedom. You will be rewarded with innovation, passion and adaptability. And this is precisely what it will take to be competitive and keep pace in an increasingly global and complex environment.

About the authors

Karsten Jonsen is a Research Fellow in Organizational Behaviour at IMD, Switzerland. He earned his M.Sc. in Economics from CBS in Copenhagen, MBA from ESCP-EAP in Paris, France and a Pd.D. from the University of Geneva. His research interests and publications cover a variety of issues in cross-cultural business including team performance, virtual teams, stereotyping, generations & trends, research methodology, career mobility, cross-cultural communication, gender and workforce diversity. Dr. Jonsen has served as advisor to large corporations in the field of workforce diversity and he is the winner of the Carolyn Dexter Award for best international research paper at the Academy of Management 2010.

Rafael Martinis passionate about social media and an entrepreneur at heart. YNovation, a social media and communications consultancy in Lausanne, Switzerland, is the second business he has co-founded. Rafael is responsible for the Swiss market. He is a board member of his first company, Emergya, an open source software consulting company in Seville, Spain. Rafael has a master’s degree in telecommunications and an MBA from IMD, Lausanne. He has been working with social media topics for several years and has been a speaker at various events, including IMD’s OWP program, which hosts more than 450 executives each year. Rafael develops tailor-made social media strategies for companies that want to use social media to their advantage.

Stephanie Weg has a technical background, a business mind and a passion for communications. As a co-founder of YNovation, a social media and communications consultancy, she is responsible for the German market. With a previous career in the world of conglomerates, she has worked in Germany, Australia and New Zealand, managing large IT projects around collaboration and communication for Siemens. Stephanie has a diploma in IT and received her MBA degree with honours from IMD in Switzerland in 2010. She offers social media seminars, speaks at events such as IMD’s OWP (which attracts 450+ participants each year) and works with companies to develop social media strategies with a focus on communications and business ROI.


1. Digital Natives describes anyone born after 1980. Generation Me describes anyone born in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s.

2. Twenge, J.M. & Campbell, K.W. The Narcissism Epidemic. New York: Free Press, 2009.

3. Karen E. Jehn, Melbourne Business School – see for example: Karen E. Jehn, Melbourne Business School – see for example:

4. Bruce Tulgan, Not everyone gets a trophy, Wiley 2009.

5. See Jonsen,






11. Bruce Tulgan, Not everyone gets a trophy, Wiley 2009.

12. Bruce Tulgan, Not everyone gets a trophy, Wiley 2009.




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