About 3-4 years ago my dad told me that some of guys who worked at his auto shop were so distracted by their IPhones that it was affecting their productivity. The "tire guys," who put new tires on cars and do the oil changes, were the ones he was concerned about. As a high schooler, I was a tire guy every summer, where, like NASCAR crew teams, we would race to see how fast we could take the old tires off the wheels, replace them with new ones and put them back on the car. This competition was good for business, back in the early cell phone days when texting did not exist and there was no such thing as phubbing. But recently my dad said he has to monitor his employees at times, correcting them and reminding them to stay focused on their work orders rather than their IPhone. This, in the end, effects my dad's daily sales.
IPhones are giving the Millennials a bad reputation, not because IPhones are bad, but because they are preventing our ability to reach our productivity potential in the workplace. My dad hasn't banned cell phones from Branson's Auto Service employees yet. However, moments like this only give older generations legitimate reason to associate Millennials with lack self-control when it comes to technology. This confirms a generational stereotype-------because it is partially true. Within the generational debates it is essential to sift out (1) what is an inaccurate generational stereotype from (2) what is a true crisis/weakness related to a specific generation. If Millennials can identify the latter, they will be better off in the long run.
A Millennial could respond to my dad "Oh he's just an old grumpy old man, who doesn't get technology." Millennials can make accusations and point out flaws about Baby Boomers as a reaction to criticism. Ann Friedman's editorial "How Millennials Should Deal with Baby Boomers at Work" is an example of how to respond in a sarcastic, passive-aggressive manner to misunderstandings with Baby Boomers in the workplace. I can empathize with Friedman's frustrations with disagreements with Boomers, but her vibe that we should feel contempt towards Boomers for being different from us is only divisive and somewhat immature. In the generational debates------one generation can use contempt as a tool for feeling superior to the other. Older generations can lose all faith in the youth and their ways, while younger generations can feel contempt for older people.
As for my dad's criticisms of the IPhone, he's a very optimistic and task-oriented man. Anything that gets in the way of being effective at work, he questions. My dad's frustrations with IPhones and social media is a reflection of reasonable skepticism among Baby Boomers. The popular narrative of Millennials' inability to focus or be productive because of IPhones, I believe, is real and should be taken seriously. I am assuming this is true(without giving facts), because I am more interested in writing this blog entry about how Millennials are responding to being addicted to their IPhone and/or social media.
Hooked to their IPhones, but Very Uneasy about Addiction
While many Millennials show signs of addiction to technological devices, the idea that young people today desire to be controlled or addicted is false. It is very easy for Americans (of every generation) to assume that young people are happy about the trends of their schoolwork, social lives, work tasks and daily tasks are transitioning to online platforms. I want to argue that many Millennials do not consider it normal or desirable to be addicted, controlled, tethered or dependent on online platforms. Instead, arguments by professor Cal Newport and an experiment from my English 111 class show that Millennials are aware of their potential technological addiction and seeking ways to live a less "digital life."
Reason 1: Cal Newport Argues that Millennials Need and Want to Know How to Be Focused Individuals
Newport has devoted a lot of his blog and his books to the idea that the internet (social media, email, random browsing) can be a serious hindrance to productivity at work and in school. Newport, a Millennial, is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and has written books about how to be successful in school and in the workplace. One of his main arguments for being successful in school (and at work) is to consider quitting social media. Newport wrote a 35 page chapter in his new book focused around a single claim: "Quit Social Media." He points out in this chapter about how prominent writers such as Malcolm Gladwell, George Packer and Michael Lewis all avoid social media for the sake of cranking out quality writing. Here's a link to Newport's argument for quitting Facebook written 7 years ago. But his skepticism about social media (and other forms of, what he calls, "shallow work") is rooted in his desire to push his readers to perform "deep work" which is a state of distraction free concentration on a specific task. Newport says this about the job market today and "deep work:"
"The growing necessity of deep work is new. In an industrial economy, there was a small skilled labor and professional class for which deep work was crucial, but most workers could do just fine without ever cultivating an ability to concentrate without distraction. They were paid to crank out widgets---and not much about their job would change in the decades they kept it. But as we shift to an information economy, more and more of our population are knowledge workers and deep work is becoming a key currency. . .Deep work is so important that we might consider it, to use the phrasing of business writer Eric Barker, 'the superpower of the 21st century.'"
Newport is essentially arguing that those people who have trained themselves to focus and who can perform "deep work" will stand out in a competitive job market where this is a common weakness. His book "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Sucess in a Distracted Work" can help anyone in any profession develop skills for focus. Yet more importantly------Newport's book contains many stories of Millennials who have used unorthodox habits to navigate a technological society and find success in their specific field. Newport's book addresses the very important question of "How do Millennials can function in a work-world where technology seems to be the norm?" We can say that young people are like brainwashed technological zombies-----but are we giving them enough direction of how to function in 2017 America?
Reason 2. The Results of the "No Technology Experiment."
On the first day of class in my ENG 111 class I give my students an assignment that is designed to help them find mental strength and discipline. Here are the directions to the assignment:
"Between now and the next class period, I want you to shut all electronic devices off in your house except your lights for 5 hours. Don’t use your cell phone, your computer, your IPOD, your radio, or television. Try to do this for 5 consecutive hours. If 5 straight hours is inconvenient for you, select another 2 or 3 hour chunk of time to unplug from electronic devices. You may do anything you want as long as it does not include technology. Log what you do every hour and then write a 200 word reflection about your experience."
I call this the "No Technology Experiment." I've been teaching community college English for 5 years and I've done this for every one of my freshman English classes-------and students like it. I'm always surprised at how many students say "I think I want to start doing this on a regular basis" and "I really enjoyed this experiment honestly." Students report spending their 5 hours socializing with siblings, cleaning their house, reading a book, mowing their lawn, studying for school, putting together a puzzle, painting, fixing their car or playing board games. Many say they find it easier to be productive without technology and more motivated to do their homework.
Yet as a teacher-----I have always found that I get much less resistance to this assignment that I would normally expect. If Millennials are as obsessed with technology as some people make them out to be, I would expect them to write about how miserable they were doing this. I give them an opportunity to express their misery when I ask them "Did you love or hate this assignment?"on an online worksheet. But every semester majority students express a desire to do this more regularly and often treat their 200 word reflection on their 5 hours as a confessional of how they want to live a more disconnected life. They confess that they want to stop wasting time online or on a video game and instead do something productive.
I assign this "experiment" to my students because they need to be able to be alone with their own thoughts. College students' thoughts (like any human) are full of overwhelming emotions, existential questions, curiosities, dreams, a desire to be entertained, confusing thoughts, contradictory thoughts, and desires to eat Moose Tracks ice cream. This gives my students a chance to be alone with their own thoughts and most importantly--------learn how to self-motivate and pursue their dreams. If they understand how to deal with their own inner thoughts and struggles------the goal of this assignment has been accomplished.
My students enjoyment of this assignment------year after year-----is evidence that Millennials desire some practice or weekly ritual for getting away from the omnipresence of technology.
I believe there is a growing skepticism (as opposed to this mindless, open acceptance) among young people about what IPhones, Instagram and Snapchat is doing to us on a daily basis. In 1996 David Foster Wallace said the following about America's view on television in an interview with Charlie Rose:
"It would be one thing if everybody was absolutely delighted watching TV 24/7. But we have, as a culture, not only an enormous daily watching rate but we also have a tremendous cultural contempt for TV… Now TV that makes fun of TV is itself popular TV. There’s a way in which we who are watching a whole lot are also aware that we’re missing something — that there’s something else, there’s something more."
Similarly, I think many Millennials are now, and will be in the coming years, skeptical of IPhone culture as Wallace described America's conflicted views on television over 20 years ago. Millennials will subconsciously be hoping for something real (not digital)-----other than whatever comes after Snapchat or Instagram as the next technological app that everyone uses. As if we know, deep down, that we were meant for face to face communication and fear we might be missing out on something more productive, authentic, real and meaningful. Of course, now it is only a matter of finding out "how" to life a productive and authentic life.