The generations at the end of the alphabet (X, Y, Z, Millennials – I know that’s not a letter) of today are amazingly savvy when it comes to electronic media, technology, and ways to use them.  This knowledge also allows them to be very self-sufficient.  When it comes to problem solving, the technology of today is at their finger tips and they know how to use it.

When Internet service is down, and cell phones are inoperable, something interesting happens.  A lot of them do not know what to do in order to communicate or function efficiently in a purely analog world.

My son is by all objective criteria, a smart, level headed, problem solving, fun loving young man of 16.  He knows what he knows, and he knows a lot.  I am always amazed at what he knows.  He knows songs from the late 60’s, can hold his own in a political conversation with adults, built his own computer, enters writing contests, and is creative with video software.  He can thumb text with the best.  In short, he represents his age group well in our digital times.

Somehow, my wife and I have failed him.

He went to Italy to celebrate the New Year with his school’s choir.  Ten days in Rome, Assisi, and Florence.  He knew his cell phone probably would not work, but he was sure he’d be able to reach us through the group’s Facebook page or a blog he was writing.  He also knew that one person in his group had a world phone. No problem.

He was gone about five days, and we had not heard from him.  The two group Facebook postings were thin, promising more to come, and no blog.  While waiting, we went from not wanting to interfere to wondering when we would hear something to frustration and anger.  It just about ruined New Year’s Eve for us.  We had spent all that time getting him ready, saved the money for the trip, and took him to all those early morning choir practices.  All we wanted him to do was pick up a phone and call home.  Not a difficult thing to do–so we thought.

Finally, on day five the phone rang, and there he was.  Before we could say anything, he apologized for how long it had taken him to phone home.  He wanted us to know that he had been trying very hard to reach us, but:

  • The internet service was undependable and appallingly expensive at the hotel;
  • Most of the Internet Cafés were closed during the holidays or had erratic schedules; and
  • The only available cell phone worked intermittently and was in heavy demand during limited breaks.

We wanted him to know that when faced with this in the future, he could call us collect.

This is the point where we failed him – “call us collect.”

What is collect?”  “How do you do that?” he asked.

We turned to his sister who was listening in, also an international traveler herself, and asked her, “Do you know how to call collect?”

What’s collect?  What does that mean?”

She’s as smart as he is.  We failed her too.

It was so simple and obvious to us because we had the experience. We did not know what they didn’t know, and they didn’t know what they didn’t know.  A case of misplaced anger on our part.  We assumed everyone was backward compatible.

I have spoken to a number of adults born before 1990 and asked them what call collect means.  Everyone knew the answer.  I have asked the same question to those born after 1990, and they looked confused.

There is an abundance of young, smart, technologically proficient people in our world today.  They can do a lot with the things they know.  It looks like they can do anything.  But they, like all of us, are limited by the things they do not know they do not know.  We forget this sometimes because they are so talented and technologically savvy.

So, what to do to keep from failing those important to you?

  1. Understand what they do not know,
  2. Help them prepare a plan B for the times when the technology disappears,
  3. Encourage them to seek help from more than one person and from some born before 1990,
  4. Trust that with a little help they can figure things out, and
  5. Have them watch any season of MacGyver – its free – He is amazing with a gel pen ball point pen.