Millennial Think Tank: What IS Tech Savvy?

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One of the stereotypes most often bandied about concerning Millennials is that they are a “Tech Savvy” generation. It is ‘understood,’ especially in the workplace, that the 18 – 35 set are social media, application, and gadget intuitive. It is not uncommon for them to be handed tasks revolving around technology or social media simply because of their age.

As always, we are using our Millennial Think Tank to explore that stereotype and discuss its validity.

Recent studies have made my curiosity about the tech abilities of our young turn to concern; recent studies have highlighted that the US is lagging behind its global competitors in terms of STEM education and skills. Consider this from the Level Playing Field Institute:

The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 52nd in the quality of mathematics and science education, and 5th (and declining) in overall global competitiveness [v]

The United States ranks 27th in developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering [vi]

There are more foreign students studying in U.S. graduate schools than the number of U.S. students [vii] and over 2/3 of the engineers who receive Ph.D.’s from United States universities are not United States citizens [viii]

What I wanted to ask our Millennial panel was: What do they see as Tech Savvy, and how important is it?

We covered this topic in 2 segments; contributing were:

Watch the entire broadcast below, listen to it as a podcast, or read on for our blog recap:

What IS Tech Savvy?

With only 10% of US schools offering computer programming as a course, I wondered how our panelists saw technology education. Only one of our panelists, Albert, had a secondary degree that even touched on technology. I really wanted to know how they defined technological know how.

Daniel sees Tech Savvy as proficiency in using any type of technology, not simply user friendly apps or email/texts – those are just basic communication skills nowadays. Someone who can go deeper with the ability to pick up any kind of technology and self educate.

Kelly jumped in to say that being able to use a device intuitively is the antithesis of tech savvy. His theory is based on the way Apple has made everything so user friendly, making you feel tech savvy, yet the system does it all for you.

We are moving farther away from understanding HOW things work as they becomes easier to use. And, as Kelly pointed out, we become more dependent upon the producers of technology.

This reminded me of what it was like to set up a computer pre-iMacs; we all spent hours of connecting our computers and loading programs. Now they come pre-loaded with software; we just open them up and start working.

I spoke about my high school computer lab and learning rudimentary programming; I wondered if young people who may have whet their appetite in these classes would not consider programming now as they’ve become so distant from actually doing it.

My question was – how do we get children INTO programming now – back then everyone had the opportunity to at least touch it?

Kiernan thinks we learned because we HAD to in order to operate a computer. Now everything is native and integrated into the operating systems, and that young people interested in technology will still gravitate towards it without programming classes.

Joe pointed out the difference between people who USE technology, versus  the people who CREATE. Reshaping the OS of a phone means one must really understand technology. Knowing how and why things work is different than knowing how to use something.

Kelly high lighted that our kids are being taught how to use technology that already exists, rather than how those programs work and WHY they do what they do. There are 2 different worlds, illustrated by Albert’s anecdote of his IBM computer programmer parents not being able to navigate their iPhones.

Helen thinks that Savvy is more of  a common sense than expertise; growing up as digital natives may simply translate to an ease with technology rather than savviness.


The “I Don’t Need to Know” Culture

Kelly is convinced that we have relegated understanding technology to the realm of insignificant. Albert recalled that not long ago detailed descriptions of RAM, Intel etc. was used to market computers; now we just want to know ‘what can it do.’ People don’t put computers together. We find technology that works for us and then we use it. The Apple vs. Microsoft debates have died down.

Apple’s user friendly pioneering changed the game. It makes products that are intuitive – so easy to use that it disconnects the end user from the process in which it was made. In turn, it creates a system of dependence; if your Apple device breaks you have to go to the Apple store to fix it.

Just as advances in farming  moved the average American away from understanding where their food came from, we are moving away from understanding how technology works.

Helen doesn’t see the problem with this; for generations we have paid specialists to take care of the things around us from washers to cars.

As technology becomes easier for people to use, we have traded knowledge for accessibility.

What are we afraid of if we don’t understand technology?

Joe wanted to dig deeper into what scares us if we can’t look behind the screen. So much in our lives is targeted by algorithms and technology that we don’t understand; Joe wanted to know “What scares us?”

Albert’s primary fear would be not being able to find a job; lack of technological know how makes you much less employable.

My suppostion is that we are more afraid of the Edward Snowden syndrome; when we don’t understand the technology we don’t know what is being collected and how to protect ourselves.

Kelly brought us back to the Xbox 1, a piece of technology that was in many people’s homes but not understood. By tracking what shows we watched and monitoring our conversations, it used our information to target us with specific marketing, and people didn’t like it. He doesn’t think we have a choice – we don’t actually have the option to turn everything off. He is scared because we are becoming dependent upon the companies that develop the technology, and our ability to control our information and own our privacy is diminishing.


Is Coding Valuable?

My boyfriend’s son is learning coding in public high school, and I’m teaching him how to build websites so that he can make money part time. I have long seen the ability to code as a gateway to a better paying job. I wondered why we aren’t teaching more of our kids basic technical skills like this?

Helen doesn’t see coding as a necessary skill, but rather believes that we push coding and knowledge of technology when we don’t even know how our cars and appliances work. She thinks that coding is not a democratic right, and we over emphasize its importance. She believes it will be “the call center of the future;” it’s a lot more important to know how to fix your water heater and fridge, and the people who can do skilled labor will become more important while the coding proficient will become less valuable.

Albert pointed out that the ability to think logically from a computer centric basis is what is really important. Being Tech literate is far more important to today’s worker than understanding how things work. Purpose has taken the lead over the details of the technology.


Class-ism is Ignored

Samantha was compelled to talk about the elephant in the room; when we discuss what tech savvy means, and how GenY are digital natives, we ignore the fact that poor people have far less access to devices and technology. She is frustrated with our attempts at giving the less privileged access that may provide free cell phones, rather than education about technology.

Although her father was a computer teacher, Samantha’s family was of modest means. They fixed things themselves because they couldn’t afford to hire people, computers included; as a college student she fixed her own computer because she couldn’t afford a replacement. The group acknowledged that this is becoming more difficult as technology becomes more intuitive and less ‘hackable;’ another blow to the poor who may not be able to afford repairs by a manufacturer.



Our Think Tanks are definitely qualitative in nature, and we don’t pretend that our panel represents an entire generation. We do, however, glean in depth insights into the conversations Millennials are having around specific topics. From this episode we learned:

  • There is a debate as to what being ‘tech savvy’ actually means, and how important it is to understand how technology works. Our panel ranged from deep concern about being separated from that understanding and becoming too reliant upon manufacturers, to absolutely fine with just understanding how to operate technology.
  • The ‘I don’t need to know culture’ in regards to technology follows a similar pattern that humanity has been traveling since at least the industrial revolution.
  • There are considerable fears regarding technology, ranging from employability to privacy concerns; there is also a belief that there is not much we can do to halt technology’s invasive nature.
  • There is definitely a belief among our GenY members that the ability to code is not the holy grail, and it will become a much more common and therefore less valuable skill.

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Photo credit: Showing The Way via photopin (license).

2 thoughts on “Millennial Think Tank: What IS Tech Savvy?

  1. Angela J Carter says:

    Interesting discussion and I can understand the differing opinions as reported (I haven’t yet viewed the video). As a Boomer who tries to keep abreast of the changes in technology (a difficult feat for sure) I would say that today being tech savvy means being aware of the latest app/device that comes on the market. What I find is that the younger folks use the apps/devices superficially – as a means of connecting socially when they want to and how they want to. There is no in depth thinking to the process – it must be instantaneous. I, on the other hand, want to understand fully how the technology works and how much it can do for me. I usually use the example of conducting a search. I would probably go 10 screens or more when I am researching anything online. My daughters won’t go past the first screen and accept whatever pops up first.

    • hessie jones says:

      Thanks @angelajcarter:disqus there has been discussion even among GenXers about the simplicity of use these days – learning how to do things may seem “faster these days”. Back when we were in school learning Cobol or Basic was a process. There was no such thing as user experience. Using technology is very different than understanding it or “delivering it” as this hangout suggests.

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