Called everything from "Generation Y" to "The Next Great Generation", Millennials are generally defined as those born between 1982 and 2004, ultimately getting their designation because they are coming of age at the start of the new millennium. They are "digital natives", having never known a world without personal tech. Educated, involved, and connected, Millennials are still hard to peg down; while they have earned a narcissistic reputation from their "selfies" and "entitled" work ethic, they also consistently demonstrate increased global exposure, social empathy, and a deep desire to change the world.
Yet how they will change it remains fairly unknown.
There is no mistaking that technology plays a large role in this evolution, both within the Millennial sphere and the one the rest of us live on. Regardless of how older generations feel about them, it is predominantly expected that Millennials, with their unprecedented access to data and education, will be a driving force toward either cultural integrity or globalization. And, in some strangely possible ways, both.
For Millennials, two things are happening simultaneously: culture is impacting technology, and technology is impacting culture. There is a global component, as these young adults share similar life experiences, musical tastes, food, and entertainment, and can even talk casually about favorite sports teams, movie stars, and multinational brands. And yet, there is a singularly cultural one, as where and how they were raised filters out what technology pushes at them.
On one hand, culture serves as a standard of judgment. It places an importance on what is acceptably good, valuable, and ethical. It conditions how and what we communicate, and it is the lens by which we perceive the world and, in some ways, the way the world perceives us. For instance, when Japanese fans cleaned up the stadium each time their team played in the 2014 World Cup, the world took notice. The tradition, deeply embedded in a culture that values respect for hosts and the environment, received praise from around the globe as pictures of those famous blue trash bags went viral. In one moment, the world not only knew Japan, but what it meant to be Japanese.
The same can be said of countries like India, the home country of many multinational CEOs, where the cultural values of education, social responsibility, and global adaptability are impacting companies, management styles, and their employees around the world. In this case, culture is influencing how a company does business on an inclusive, heterogeneous scale, and the use of technology makes it that much more pervasive.
On the other hand (the one clinging to your smart phone, for example), technology has served as a force for sweeping cultural change, joining the ranks of war, colonization, religious influence and military expansion as cultural modifiers. The expansion of the internet has allowed global communication and information to permeate everything from apartment walls to international borders. In some cultures, technology has skipped generations; in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, parents were barely exposed to television before their children had access to phones that instantly connected them to the world. In fact, the internet is more available than electricity in these countries. Where most Western schools fight to keep mobile phones out of the classroom, many African schools are welcoming them in as a way to improve learning.
Such global exposure has provided the basis for peaceful international homogenization as well as deep conflicts of perspective, and technological advances have increased the speed and frequency of both. Millennials have the ability to reach common ground on everything from the Hunger Games trilogy to global warming, but they also have the constant stream of opinions and information that clashes with their own experiences.
Millennials categorically have experienced worldwide events in real time and in synchronization, and in ways very different from their parents. Where people just one generation before had to physically travel to another country to experience its culture, Millennials need only to Skype. Where their parents had to be watching television to get breaking news, Millennials get notifications from their back pockets. Where generations before had to head to a library to research a topic, Millennials have found their answers within a few presses of a thumb. Where information had to be vetted before it was broadcasted, now the burden of determining truth is on the person digesting it.
In the end, it isn't the available information that will direct global change, but the conscious effort of Millennials to use their cultural values to translate, unpack, and embed it into their daily lives. In this way, technology becomes the child, and culture, the parent; very rarely does one not learn from the other, yet the parent is the one providing the guiding force. This force may lead to globalization, cultural intelligence, or cultural compartmentalization.
And it may be too soon to tell. The legacy of Millennials, so new to this world and its conflicts, may be how they influence the way the rest of the world engages with each other, including their cultural guidance to the generations that follow.