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generationmeIt came up gently enough at a session at Affiliates Day, a half-day conference put on by the University of Washington’s Information School. We were sitting in a circle with Prof. Mike Eisenberg, talking about the “Google Generation,” when someone pointed out that young people these days tend to act a little, well, entitled.

I hear this a lot in discussions about Millennials, especially in the context of work. Young employees lack loyalty and ooze self-importance, goes the argument. They treat their bosses as equals, text their friends between meetings and complain when they have to use the company email client. It’s all me, me, me.

No one likes to hear a negative trait applied to their own generation. (I’m an old Millennial, born in 1982.) But I’m convinced that many of the behaviors people attribute to one generation’s sense of entitlement are just the natural result of something simple and universal: the personalization of technology.

And they’re really not so bad.

How quickly our devices have glommed themselves onto each of us is obvious enough. When I was in high school, each member of my family shared the computer without complaint. Today, if I even have to sign in more than once to anything on my phone (my phone, my rules!), I get — in that sharp, little way — pissed.

Then there’s communication. Most of us manage some profile online, some small pulpit, if not several. And despite the plethora of cautionary tales about social media posts gone wrong, we’re getting really good at it —knowing what photos to share, how to caption them, how to phrase our feelings and ideas. Our use of the Web all but revolves around our own self-representations.

That’s pretty much the definition of self-centered. But is it really a problem?

It’s no stretch to make the connection here. Personalization has become the expectation not just of the emerging generation, but of everyone whose lives in the technological present. Life just works better when the tools we use to navigate it reflect who we are and how we like to do things.

And the more personal these technologies get, the more they become the hubs of our whole lives — work, play, everything — the more critical that personalization becomes.

If you missed Paul Miller’s stellar essay in The Verge last week, check it out. The 26-year-old just spent a whole year without the Internet. He expected to rediscover the “real him” in a disconnected nirvana. There was no such thing.

“I fell out of sync with the flow of life,” he wrote.

Monica Guzman
Monica Guzman

Seen through this lens, the young employee who’s irritated because his workplace won’t let him download the apps he likes onto the computer they make him use is not acting entitled, but questioning inefficiency. Does he want to do things his way? Yeah. But it’s the way he’d be most productive. And it’s kind of the norm in the rest of his life.

And one other thing. Our personal devices are not just devices anymore. To borrow an idea from the cyborg anthropology, they’re a part of us. You may have good reason to tell an employee she can’t use her own machines for work. Security or productivity reasons, maybe. But be aware: you’re getting between her and, well, herself.

Is this individualistic? Oh yeah. But critics who attribute that to selfishness or a lack of empathy are missing the bigger picture. This isn’t about self-obsession, but self-empowerment. Personalized technology gives each of us superpowers, including the power to work together more effectively than ever before. But we have to calibrate those superpowers to fit who we are. That means knowing who we are, and caring about it — at home, at work, wherever.

Researchers like Jean Twinge, author of “Generation Me,” can go ahead and lament what they view as a sad sense of entitlement.

Me? I think it’s nothing more than people waking up to their own power and not being willing to compromise it.

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