Chief Information Officer

U.S. Department of Defense

Norms and Characteristics of the Net Generation

Both the federal IT workforce, and the U.S. workforce at large, span five generations, with the Baby Boomers historically representing the largest working cohort. This majority representation changed in 2010 in the U.S. civilian labor force, as shown in Figure 5.1.1 Although the Net Generation is currently significantly under-represented in federal service, their presence will start to grow as replacement workers are hired behind the retiring Baby Boom generation. As part of the initiative to become better informed about the coming changes in workforce dynamics, the Federal CIO Council entered into a partnership with the nGenera Corporation (which includes the former New Paradigm Learning Corporation) in order to leverage nGenera’s research and experience in this area. This chapter addresses the eight “norms” that characterize the Net Generation, and the attitudes and expectations that Net-Geners are bringing to the working world.



Pre-Boomer 1980 49%
1990 28%
2000 13%
2010 3%
Baby Boomer 1980 51%
1990 54%
2000 48%
2010 37%
Generation X 1980 0%
1990 18%
2000 22%
2010 22%
Net Generation 1980 0%
1990 0%
2000 16%
2010 38%


 Figure 5.1 The Changing Representation of Generations at Work in the U.S. Labor Force
(Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistics as reported by nGenera Insight Research)


The Net Generation is slowly but surely coming to the federal workplace. The oldest of them are over 30, with education and some job experience under their belt. As a generation, they are over 80 million strong, larger in fact, than the Baby Boomer generation. They cannot be ignored as the major source of talent to recruit, develop and retain over the next decades. Additionally, there is much to admire about this generation. They are ambitious and innovative, enjoy teamwork, and understand technology. In short, they have sampled the best characteristics of each generation, while still creating their own identity and worth to the workplace.

In October 2006, the New Paradigm Learning Corporation (now nGenera) conducted 1,750 interviews with Net-Geners aged 13 through 29, in the U.S. and Canada. This research, as well as a follow-on global study, revealed and validated what Don Tapscott, nGenera Chairman, refers to as the “Eight Norms of the Net Generation.”2 These norms are patterns of behavior, which if properly channeled, can form the basis for a revitalized, innovative work culture that will benefit all employees, young and old.

The eight norms demonstrate the Net-Geners’ workplace needs for flexible work schedules and overtime; social connection with their peers and a place to belong; variety in their work; leading by example and involvement, with positive feedback and public recognition; and training as a tool for productivity and retention. Understanding the implications of these norms within the workplace is critical to successfully managing the Net Generation. The eight norms are:

Freedom - The Net Generation, more than any other generation, expects to set and abide by its own priorities. Net-Geners place high priority on time with family and friends, so much so that they see their job fitting into their personal and social lives/lifestyles, instead of the opposite, more traditional behavior.3 As discussed in Chapter 6, they are not the only generation wanting more flexibility in the workplace, but they may be the driving force behind the routinization of more flexible schedules in the workplace.

Customization - Living in a custom-created world is second nature to the Net Generation. They choose how they get their information or entertainment, when they get it, the color, configuration, and applications on the delivery device, and the picture on the credit card used to pay for it. In selecting a workplace, Net-Geners will look for choices in job benefits and will want to customize the jobs they select.4 The Net-Gen will gravitate to jobs that allow them to do more of what they enjoy and take an interest in, possibly even affording dedicated time for specialization.5 While it currently may be infeasible to enable customized technology in a federal workspace, engaging the Net-Gen in designing and improving work processes could yield substantial dividends.

Scrutinizers - The Net Generation is highly adept at online comparative analysis. Net-Geners in the hunt for work will carefully consider which occupations best fit their professional goals and work style preferences; and they will thoroughly research jobs available and the associated employers’ culture, benefits and emphasis on career development.6 Once hired, Net-Geners will demand trusting and transparent relationships with their organization.7 Because of this scrutiny, organizations should understand the benefit of a well-designed, current website and easily understandable job announcements as initial marketing efforts to future employees. However, the Partnership for Public Service recommends using both high-tech and high-touch, human interaction in educating young people about federal job and career opportunities.8

Based on their current scrutiny of the labor sectors, the Net Generation, in the past, had limited interest in working for the public sector as a whole, as shown in Table 5.1. However, the former Council for Excellence in Government concluded that interest in public service could significantly rise if young people were asked to serve by individuals whose opinions they respect, most notably, their parents or teachers.9

Interest in Sectors as “Ideal Employers” | Ages 13–30


Public Sector 20%
Non-Profit Organizations 25%
Private Sector 55%

Table 5.1 Net-Gen Interest in Labor Sectors as “Ideal Employers”
(Source: nGeneral Insight Research)

Integrity - As part of the scrutiny Net-Geners apply to their job hunts, they will be keen to uncover the record and reputation of potential employers with respect to their commitment to integrity and ethical practices.10 They will not embrace a company/organization that has questionable ethics or that does not appear to translate words (policy) into action (practice), nor will they follow questionable leadership.11

Collaboration - The Net Generation has grown up in an interactive world. They are used to pulsing their social networks for information and feedback and working collaboratively on tasks.12 Additionally, they want to provide their stamp on product and process development.13 Their preference for applications and technologies that support collaboration, such as Facebook, text messaging, and wikis, along with their inherent proclivity for collaboration itself, are creating a need for organizations to identify and acquire technical and non-technical solutions for enhancing communications. This is discussed more in-depth in Chapter 9.

Entertainment - Enjoyment of the job and the workplace is also very important to Net-Geners. They want to learn new things and be a part of the action, and they expect to have fun while doing it.14 Equally important, they tend to work hard at tasks and then want to decompress. Blocking social networking sites and discouraging any non-work internet usage basically prevents them from taking a break on their own terms, whether it be for gaming, blogging, surfing, or chatting.15

Speed - Owing to their demand for speed of communication, Net-Geners tend not to use more traditional methods such as the telephone and email in their personal communications, preferring the speed of instant messenging.16 They will look for avenues to speed their productivity and response time wherever possible. This includes everything from feedback on performance to their rate of professional growth within an organization.17 Net-Geners will value those who provide the timely feedback they desire.

Innovation - Members of the Net Generation are “digital natives.” Having grown up with technology in every aspect of their lives, IT capabilities are often second nature to them.18 And, with their desire to customize, they work hard to provide the solutions to adapt things to suit their own needs.19 As a generation, they have the greatest facility for the IT capabilities needed in the workforce, both today and in the future.


The Net Generation can be generally characterized as the most demanding generation in history, demanding challenge, meaningful work with impact, committed co-workers, and the ability to reach personal and financial goals. While recognizing that Net-Geners prefer to be viewed as individuals vice “a group,” federal managers can benefit by understanding where this generation is coming from and where they want to go.

Many Net-Geners are products of hectic, dual-career families and grew up during a time of significant economic prosperity when Boomer parents were able to bankroll their technology-driven lifestyle. Additionally, this was a generation exposed to a concerted, nation-wide movement by parents, teachers and counselors in the 1980s to build their self-esteem.20 During this period, it became general practice for trophies and certificates to be awarded for every participatory endeavor, regardless of skill or contribution. The result is a generation with a strong sense of entitlement and self-confidence, as well as a need to be recognized.21

Both employers and employees will need to manage their expectations, and strive to achieve mutually beneficial expectations. For the Net-Gener, this means coming to the realization that they probably won’t become superstars in the workplace overnight. At the same time, employers must understand the Net-Geners expect to receive challenging assignments shortly after arriving onboard, to be recognized for achievement, and to be paid for performance. Growing up on the go, Net-Geners have been steered to maximize their time, particularly with parental influence and guidance, and may not have learned how to set work priorities themselves.22 They believe they can do it all and expect managers to feel the same.23

Fame and fortune are high on the list of Net-Geners’ personal goals. In a January 2007 report from the Pew Research Center, 81% of 18 to 25 year olds polled said that getting rich is their generation’s most, or second most, important life goal; 51% said the same about becoming famous.24 Money, in fact, is by far their biggest problem, with 30% citing financial concerns as their top worry.25 Net-Geners may earn more than their parents did, but their earnings have less purchasing power. Additionally, many do not have health care coverage and may come into the workplace carrying more educational debt than any previous generation.26 While the Net Generation may view getting rich as their own generation’s top goal, it is not always a top response in work-related surveys. One of their personal top drivers when job hunting is the need to feel as though they are making a difference, according to both nGenera Insight research and surveys commissioned by the Council for Excellence in Government.

Managing in the Net-Gen World (Figure 5.2) will take more time, and perhaps more patience. Net-Geners will expect more feedback, more often, both to recognize their accomplishments and to help them move to the next stage in their work project. While they will want flexibility in how they do their work, they also need structured accountability and deadlines. Routine meetings will bore them and the formality, slow speed, and repetitiveness of government bureaucracy, will frustrate them. It will be important to educate them in the reasons for procedures, processes, and the repetitiveness of some tasks. Additionally, expect there to be give-and-take on communications. Older managers will need exposure to the greater efficiencies from text messaging and wiki collaboration, while younger workers will need tutelage on the need for documentation to meet statutory and regulatory requirements as well as verification that they can adequately judge the credibility of online sources of information.27

In their quest to succeed, Net-Geners will be looking for genuine mentoring. This is a generation that when asked to write about someone they respect, often selects their own parents. They respect the knowledge that others have to share, and while they may overplay their own assets, they do not underplay the skill sets that older generations have. The challenge for coaching this generation will be to know when they need supervision and when they need growing room and to make time to help them improve.

Net-Geners are also used to being heard. They will want to share their ideas with senior leaders and decision-makers. Organizations would do well to determine how to balance protocol and openness to ensure they do not stifle the creativity and energy that the Net Generation will bring to the workplace. At the same time, Net-Geners may need some mentoring on office politics and the chain of command. There is a place for both protocol and openness, but the balance is starting to tilt toward the Net-Geners as organizational hierarchies begin to flatten under the positive weight of collaboration.

As the Net Generation is integrated into the workplace, managers and leaders may discover more similarities than differences among all four working generations. Also, “cuspers,” those at the beginning or ending years of a generation, may possess a mix of norms, characteristics and values, based on their upbringing and other influences in their lives. The end goal is to help teammates of different generations find common ground, mutual appreciation, and respect.

Net-Gen World

They don’t want to be labeled.
They want continuous feedback and recognition.
They value genuine mentoring.
They want autonomy, responsibility, and challenges.
They need structured accountability.
They’re not interested in “paying their dues.”
They’re used to having their opinions heard.
They’re used to group/team problem solving.
They expect high tech/constant stimulation.
They’re used to living in a 24/7 environment.

Figure 5.2 The Net-Gen World

In the 1960s Baby Boomers famously popularized the phrase, “don’t trust anyone over 30.” In general, the Boomers were anti-establishment, and did not want to conform to society’s norms. Trusting anyone over 30 was seen as conforming. I was recently asked, “If the Boomers’ motto was don’t trust anyone over 30, then what is Generation Y’s motto?” Without much thought I blurted out, “Get as many people over 30 in your corner as you can. Learn from them. And do it better.”28



"Chief Information Officers Council"
Washington, D.C.
April 2010