Don Tapscott
Don Tapscott

Don Tapscott, an economic theorist and systems analyst who emerged in the 1990s as one of the preeminent futurist thinkers, has been able to examine and reflect upon a variety of subjects in his writings, including the digital world and differing generational values. Among the fifteen books he authored or co-authored, Tapscott has commented on the changing economy leading into the twenty-first century in 1995's The Digital Economy, how the internet will affect business in Digital Capital (2000), and how mass collaboration on a global level through digital platforms has radically altered our economic and social structures in Wikinomics: How Collaboration Changes Everything (2007). In The Digital Economy, Tapscott identified twelve 'themes' which, he stated, differentiate the new economy of the digital era from the old. These themes included molecularization, the clustering of individuals and workplaces, innovation, immediacy, and prosumption, with consumers becoming involved in the production process itself.

Though not focused on education specifically, Tapscott did contribute significant observations and arguments to the ongoing discussion surrounding the emergent generation raised in a digital era, dubbed the 'Net Generation' in Tapscott's book Growing Up Digital (1998). Here, with foundational observations made from studying approximately three hundred students, as well as his own children's experiences, Tapscott identified eight 'norms' typifying the generation born in the digital era, and significantly differentiating them from their predecessors' expectations and learned behaviours. Some parallels, expectedly, can be drawn between Tapscott's comments on changing economics in The Digital Economy and his framework for individuals growing up, and working, in this economy. The eight norms of the net generation are: freedom, customization, scrutiny, integrity, entertainment, collaboration, speed, and innovation. The latter three norms, in particular, are frequently examined by Tapscott in his work, though all eight indicators of the net generation were re-examined in his follow book Grown Up Digital (2008), which solidified the long-lasting presence and prominence of these norms.

Tapscott has gained increasing prominence in the fields of innovation, media, and technology's effect on society and the economy, continuing to write on the landscape of the digital age. He is currently CEO of the Tapscott Group , a global consortium examining a wide range of issues, Chancellor at Trent University, and an Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. He also received Thinkers50's Global Solution Award in 2013.

The Net Generation

While working in the field of economics and systems analysis, Tapscott was able to ponder the direction of the digital age, including the impact of the internet on socio-economics and individual behaviours. This, alongside his children's upbringing surrounded by computers, compact disc players, and more, led him to identify the key characteristics of this net generation separating them from their elders. Though focusing specifically on the economic effects of these differences, and how companies and organizations should properly acclimate to them, Tapscott's norms for this generation are applicable to a variety of settings, including interpersonal relationships, education, and politics. The norms, expectations, and characteristics of the children of the digital age are:
  • Freedom: Individuals of the net generation require freedom on multiple levels, including freedom and variety in their careers and job selections, political options, media, and educational opportunities. Flexibility in the workplace, including flexible hours and choosing a specific focus to dedicate time and effort to, as Google and Intel are doing, is considered essential to ensuring workers are both active and engaged. In education, with the freedom to access a seemingly infinite amount of technology at their fingertips, students of the net generation will find typical classroom structures, with rigid lecture outlines and fixed times, restraining and old-fashioned.
  • Customization: The ability to alter technology, including specific features, appearances, and settings, to suit personal preferences has become standard for the net generation. Without labelling them 'spoiled' by any means, Tapscott states that the net generation has grown up deciding what they want, as well as how, where, and when they will have it. This includes everything from controlled television programming to car customizations. In the workplace, certain individuals of this generation may become comfortable in changing their job description, with companies acclimating to this by creating 'work goals' instead of more structured settings and expectations.
  • Scrutiny: With a wealth of information available to them through the internet, the net generation has become accustomed to scrutinizing supposed facts, data, and perspectives they are presented, checking them thoroughly against other information provided by digital sources. This also relates to information posted online, as individuals will have access to a plethora of cross-referenced and verified outlets of information they can view as trustworthy. In education, students have demonstrated increasing scrutiny in what their educators have taught them, demanding accuracy and precision in the facts being presented.
  • Integrity: Alongside scrutiny, integrity has become an essential component in submitting, receiving, and processing information. Individuals of the net generation demand honesty, transparency, and commitment from both those in positions of power and authority, as well as their fellow students, workers and citizens. Tapscott notes that the stereotyped belief that the youth of this generation 'do not care,' about social issues in particular, is false, as the net generation is more tolerant of differences between people and take an interest in supportive and enriching communities and activities. Institutions, such as school boards and universities, have also been called upon to remain accountable, open, and considerate of this generation's interests.
  • Collaboration: The platform of the digital age has made the net generation adept collaborators, able to work both individually and in groups online, through chat forums, video games, and e-mail discussions. Of note are sites such as Wikipedia, which relies on the collaborative efforts of individuals around the world for a collective outcome, being markedly different than traditional teamwork. In economics, the net generation has helped companies create products better meeting their needs by becoming active members of the production process (The Digital Economy's 'presumption'). Tapscott states that education, like these companies, must become a collaborative effort, with students collaborating alongside both their teachers and their classmates to create a student-focused and directed environment.
  • Entertainment: The net generation requires fun and enjoyment, and with the numerous gaming websites, videos and other outlets for entertainment provided online, they have become accustomed to fulfilling these needs on a regular basis. This has two effects for businesses, both for their employees and for their customers. Employers who have workers seemingly distracted by this entertainment, Tapscott argues, are not recognizing the cognitive value in these distractions, as they have honed the net generation's ability to multitask. On the consumer side of economics, it has become essential for companies to produce products and services which are both useful and entertaining, thereby gaining and sustaining their buyers' attention.
  • Speed: Speed has become the standard in this digital age, with information processes online moving far faster than they did even ten years ago, between Growing Up Digital (1998, 9,600/bits per second) to Grown Up Digital (2008, 5,000,000/bits per second). The net generation expects instantaneous results and responses, both from their peers and from other outlets of information, including directors or managers, teachers, and educational institutions. Education and jobs, similarly, must meet the pace of the net generation, ensuring progression and feedback is given in a timely manner.
  • Innovation: Tapscott compares the rate of innovation in technology between this generation and his own through the example of the radio; the transistor radio of Tapscott's generation was considered both innovative and practical for years, while mobile devices are being updated and improved upon on a more regular basis. This rapid change in what are considered the standards for technology has made the net generation both flexible in preparing for changes, while also cementing their scrutiny of new features and capabilities. In business, this innovation has meant the dissolution of traditional hierarchies, with workers now contributing their own ideas to management, contributing to the overall workplace and potential progression of the company.


Curricular Considerations

Unlike learning theories and integration models for education, the norms of the net generation do not need to be implemented within the classroom; instead, they will be present in the students at nearly every level of education today, from elementary school to post-secondary education (as Tapscott provided the Net Generation with a birthdate of 1978 and later, this does, however, exclude certain adult learners in college and university). These needs and expectations of the students, from a proficiency for collaborative work to an expectancy of innovate and differing teaching practices, should be met and accommodated by educators to create an engaging and comfortable space for learning to thrive. There may be the argument that this flexibility in conforming to net generation norms could cause traditional classroom structures to lose their focus on education, with 'entertainment,' 'speed,' and 'freedom,' to name a few, initially appearing to be threatening concepts to pedagogies and student-teacher dynamics.

The norms of the net generation, however, lend themselves well to the twenty-first century classroom and curriculum, and as Tapscott notes throughout his writing, must be incorporated into learning lest students of this generation lose interest or a connection to education. Teachers can appeal to these generational traits and interests by making their classrooms student-centered, offering them choices in their course work (freedom), increased group work and student-teacher dialogues regarding what they will be learning to meet students' interests on particular subject matter (collaboration and customization), and offering valuable and clear lists of sources used throughout lessons (scrutiny and integrity). Access to technology will make these changes to the classroom smoother, such as providing students with online platforms for discussion, instantaneous feedback (speed) and information, such as a class-specific forum or blog. Digital technology and resources, such as multi-media online, can also act as sources of entertainment to use during and outside of class to further learning. According to Sweller's cognitive load theory, these sources of information will provide students with appropriate cognitive stimulation and development, immersing them in knowledge which may be new to the individual learner, though through a platform they are familiar and comfortable with.

Extending Questions

  1. Has the previous generation taken on any of these characteristics or norms, with the continued technological impacts of the digital age? Or are they strictly recognizable in the net generation?
  2. Do educational institutions have an obligation to accommodate all of these generational norms, through policies, classroom structure, and teaching methods?
  3. Have any of these norms been reduced in their recognisability or impact on businesses, education, and society, since Tapscott's Grown Up Digital (2008)? Is this framework viable moving forward when examining future generations?

Researcher's External Links

Blog on Thinkers50


Soules, M. (1998, July). Don Tapscott: Networking the Net Generation(s) [Book review]. Retrieved from
Tapscott, D (2015). About -- Don Tapscott. Retrieved from
Tapscott, D. (2014, October 31). (Almost) Everything We Think About Managing Millenials is Wrong. Here's Why [Web log post]. Retrieved from
Tapscott, D. (2009). Grown Up Digital. New York: McGraw-Hill.

"They have grown up being the actors, initiators, creators, players, and collaborators. It has made them who they are -- young people who are different in many ways than their parents and grandparents were at their age. The Internet has been good for this generation. And I believe that even the skeptic will see that these 'Grown Up Digital' kids will be good for us." - Don Tapscott