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I have achieved a milestone in my life — I am now officially a man of a certain age. 

I knew I had ascended to such a lofty (read: older) position when I found myself about to instruct a son on one of life’s profound truths.  Before I committed that sin, I caught myself with the thought, ‘Oh hell, I sound just like my father!’

There has always been a generational tension between mature, responsible elders and their not-yet-responsible youth. These tensions give way to a universal question: Do these kids really get it?  Until recently, most of this tension came from the inevitable cultural shifts, in entertainment primarily. In my pre-teen years, the young “bobby sox” women in poodle skirts and men with their slicked back hair swooned and cheered themselves into a state of near hysteria for a young Frank Sinatra.  This brash young cultural phenomenon from Hoboken, NJ caused just as much consternation for their bewildered elders as did the Beatles who produced shock waves for the parents of Baby Boomers when these long-haired musicians with amplified “music” and less than complex lyrics burst on to the American music scene. Later, with the arrival of acid rock, free-love and drugs, terrified parents… Well, you get the picture.  Some were so rattled with that latest cultural/musical evolution that they took to wearing Nehru jackets to their country clubs.  The end of modern civilization was obviously near.

Now we are witnessing yet another cultural shift. This time it is less about music and more about technology. Today’s middle-aged executives, many of whom are not particularly technologically savvy, routinely say that if they had to give up one thing to be more productive at work, it would be how much time they spend on email.  Reasonable point.  However, the distraction of email is only a precursor to a more dramatic shift with the newest generation. Generation Y — also known as the Millennials — is driven (obsessed) by computer games, interacting with social websites and texting on smart phones. All day — before school, between classes, and in class, after school, and late into the night.

Case in point: 14-year-old Allison Miller sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month, according to a New York Times article, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” She carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time.  That is about 60 text messages for every hour she is awake.  She sometimes gets so caught up in her texting that she forgets to do her homework. Allison is not even close to being an exception. That is the scary part. “Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston.

There are long-term consequences to this latest cultural wave. When Allison and her social network and the millions of other teenagers who are texting/YouTubing/gaming their way through adolescence graduate into the workplace, they will pose unique problems for their employers. And this challenge now has been assigned a name:

Continuous Partial Attention.

Great.  We are producing a generation of nurses, brain surgeons and CEOs who are less able to sustain focus.  I guess this is a modern-day example of the law of unintended consequences. 

© 2011 John Gregory Self