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Are the Millennials Really That Technology Savvy?

I don't know why, but the themes of the week have been social media, smartphones and the Millennials. It's late August, there's nothing going on except for a hurricane that might ruin next week's Republican Convention, and no one introduces new products until September. So let's talk about the Millennials again, shall we?

The Millennials have been on my mind this week after reading a Washington Post story about how they'll make the workplace better for everyone. The author seems to be saying that the Millennials and Gen Y are one and the same, but I thought they were different groups? Anyway, it doesn't matter because these kids are total phenoms when it comes to technology. The media tell us it is so: A Google News search of the term "Millennials technology savvy" pulled up 1,100 results in 0.25 seconds. Stand back, gray hairs, and let the Millennials show you how it's done.

But how does the younger generation define "technology" when compared and contrasted with the older generation, Generation X? Ah, this is where things get very interesting.

Say you're a Gen X manager who hires one of these Wi-Fi wunderkinds. "I'm really good with technology," your new Millennial hire tells you with supreme confidence on his second day of work. Okay, kiddo: Then take these data and put them in an Excel spreadsheet, and get it back to me ASAP. Thanks.

But the Millennial just stands there looking at you, blankly, like you've just told him to flap his arms to make the air conditioning run. "Excel? What's that? Um, I don't know how to use that."

Ugh. Now replace Excel with Illustrator, Photoshop, and in some cases, even Microsoft Word -- any tried-and-true software program that is still, for better or worse, the backbone of most businesses. Software? People still use that stuff? Why yes, they do. Especially at, um, work.

So the Gen X manager (or unlucky Gen X employee) gets to show Junior how to use Excel. Or Illustrator and Photoshop, depending on the work. And how to create tables and set margins in Microsoft Word. Goodbye, personal productivity levels. It was nice of you to stop by last week.

Welcome to the front lines of the under-reported technology tensions raging between Gen Xers and Millennials on the job. The Millennial thinks he'll be showing Mr. gray hair Gen Xer a thing or two about technology, when really, the opposite is often true at work. When the Millennials say they're "good with technology," they're usually talking about social media, video games, and using a smartphone. When Gen Xers talk about being good with technology, they're usually talking about formatting documents, mastering software and using mobile gadgets. Like two ships passing in the night, these two.

Of course, using Facebook and formatting a report are two completely different things. "The younger generation doesn't know anything about formatting. They've pretty much never heard of it," one Gen X professional complained to me. "It can take a lot of time to teach them the basics."

This comment sums up the feelings of other Gen Xers I've had this conversation with, too. Get them talking about it, and it's like a dam bursts.

So the Millennials might not be "transforming" the workplace with their technology savvy as much as they might be slowing it down. But what can be done to reboot this workplace problem? Well, for starters, journalists can start defining what they mean by "technology" when they tout the Millennials as "technology savvy," because one person's media-anointed technology savvy can quickly become another person's dropped-in-lap training nightmare.

Maybe universities can require students to take a software class that covers the workplace basics, too.

In the meantime, the underlying technology tensions rage on. Software vs. social media, formatting vs. Facebook. Which side will win? It remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Gen Xers would like to be able to get their own work done instead of spending another hour explaining Excel.

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