The Generational Attention Gap

April 23, 2019

The generational differences in how we pay attention.I speak to a lot of people every year. People think I can’t see them in the audience because of the lights, but I can.  In fact, I make it a habit to observe whether my audience members are paying attention to me. (The responsibility is on me, the speaker, to keep them engaged. The same is true for any speaker or any leader for that matter.)

 

I’ve noticed some differences that seem to run along generational lines. You would likely notice the same differences if you observed the audience at your CEO’s annual presentation or groups of friends sitting around tables at a restaurant.

 

Generational Differences

The older generations will put their devices away and look at the speaker or at each other. Now, that doesn’t mean they are paying attention! They could be thinking about problems at work, problems at home, what they’re going to say next, or running through the to-do lists in their head.

 

The younger generations have their phones out, typing away, perhaps tweeting a great quote from the CEO, or posting a picture of their entrée. Older generations tend to believe younger generations are being rude when they are on their phones in the company of others. Younger generations would never be offended by someone being on a phone in their presence. They are just excited to spread the latest news, whatever that may be.

 

Both older and younger generations likely think they are paying attention. Both probably aren’t.

 

Perception is Reality?

But their perceptions of their own and others’ attention are very different. Those who grew up before the advent of the internet and smartphone likely know how to give someone undivided attention, how to be present in the moment during a special event, or how to focus on a task for more than a few minutes. But like any good skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Those who grew up in the digital age have never known anything other than a multitasking, multiscreen, always-connected existence.

 

The youngest generation is growing up on a full-time diet of technology, electronics, and social media almost from the time they are infants. Their babysitters are watching movies on a tablet and playing games on smartphones. According to a study performed by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda, most children and teens spend 75% of their waking lives with their eyes fixed on a screen. It remains to be seen if their brains will actually be wired differently than the brains of older generations. In the meantime, we know the brain can’t do two things at once.

 

I recently had a conversation with my incredibly talented 21-year-old neighbor about attention and his generation. He said when his generation meets with older people, they don’t tend to be on their devices out of respect. (Except with their parents—they think that’s very different.) It was fascinating. That tells me that, despite what younger generations think about their ability to focus on more than one thing at a time, deep down they know it isn’t true.

 

Whichever generation you resonate with, we need to understand not all generations see attention the same way as us. Let’s focus on how we can be better at paying attention, regardless of the generation to which we belong.

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