Kids these days. Ever since Socrates, people have been complaining that the younger generation just doesn’t have any respect for their elders and to get off their lawns, already. The only problem is, with reports that Millennials will comprise up to 36 percent of the workforce this year, we have to coexist with them somehow. IT is no exception.

It’s not surprising, given the rampant age discrimination in the IT industry, that Boomers (born 1945-1960) and even Gen Xers (born 1961-1980) feel some degree of antipathy toward the whippersnappers. Similarly, Gen Yers or Millennials (born 1981-2000) are right to feel insulted at being tagged with epithets such as spoiled, lazy, and disrespectful by older workers — not to mention being treated like some sort of homogeneous new species instead of being recognized and acknowledged as individuals. (Moreover, surveys have indicated that some of the stereotypes about Millennials just aren’t true.)

Can’t we all just get along?

For sure, Millennials have grown up with the Internet, smartphones, open source, and born-digital information. That’s not to say that older people aren’t also familiar with these technologies, but when people grow up expecting to be able to download all sorts of information essentially any time they want — from data to music to movies — and to fiddle with it on their own, it’s not surprising that they bump up against people who feel differently — with the seminal case being that of Aaron Swartz.

Now we’ve got a similar instance where generational mores are in conflict, with the recent case at Yale of two students who, dissatisfied with the official online catalog, set out to create their own — and brought down on their heads the wrath of the university, which shut the site down, saying that it didn’t adequately explain the rating system it used, plus that it violated the University’s trademarks.

Since then, cooler heads have prevailed and the two sides actually started talking to each other. “The developers learned more about the underlying problems with using data without permission, the importance of communicating in advance with the university on projects that require approval and cooperation, and some of the existing mechanisms for collaborating with the university, among them the Yale College Council,” wrote Yale Dean Mary Miller, in an open letter to the campus.

“Administrators, for their part, heard more about the demand for better tools and guidelines for the growing number of student developers, the need for a better approach to students who violate the acceptable use policy — in most cases unwittingly — and the value students place on information contained in teaching evaluations,” Miller continued.

It’s easy to see this as a case of people taking information that doesn’t belong to them and doing something different with it from what was intended. At the same time, particularly from the perspective of Millennials, it’s also easy to see this as the case of a couple of people who saw a way to improve something that they viewed as broken, and who did it on their own time with no remuneration of their own.

Brad Rosen, a lecturer in Yale’s computer science department who teaches “Law, Technology and Culture,” told the New York Times that the debate got at a central tension of contemporary life. “Different stakeholders have different assumptions about how information is going to flow,” the Times quoted him as saying.

It’s the sort of initiative the Yale students showed that sometimes gets Millennials in trouble in IT organizations. They see something as broken or in need of improvement, and do what they see as fixing it, without necessarily worrying about niceties such as asking, going up the chain of command, or whose job it actually is to be responsible for the item in question. It’s where they get the reputation for being disrespectful, and having a sense of entitlement rather than patiently moving up the corporate ladder, that has tagged the group.

“Ask a millennial to do a task and nine times out of 10, the first question they will ask is, ‘Why?’” writes Heidi Farris, VP of Community Engagement and Marketing at Bloomfire, in a blog post about managing Millennials. “It’s a shocking response for some of us who were raised in a world where you don’t question authority figures, but the truth of the matter is that it’s a good question — one we should ask more often.”

In a time when organizations are increasingly trying to be innovative and disruptive, it’s an attitude that more people could cultivate, writes Ruchika Tulshyan in Forbes. “Society calls GenY’ers fickle and irresponsible,” she writes. “But thought-leaders in ‘disruption’ have identified similar traits in the greatest innovators: from Steve Jobs to Jack Dorsey.”

Don’t keep them off the lawn. Invite them on it. Maybe they’ll find a way to landscape it.


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