No Free Lunch

Understanding the young

It is claimed that today’s youth — the so-called millennials and Generation Z — have an attention span (8 seconds) shorter than that of a goldfish (9 seconds). References point to a Microsoft Corp. study that surveyed 2,000 Canadians and studied the brain activity of 112 participants with the use of electroencephalograms. It supposedly found that average human attention span had dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013. If 8 seconds is the average for all humans, then one can surmise that it must be even shorter for younger people, whose focus is quickly diverted by electronic media.

I’m not surprised, then, why through the years, many online and e-mailed comments received by this column, especially from naughty (and at times vicious) online hecklers, were obviously made after reading only the title and my first few lines at most. The kind of comments that annoy me most, and I get many of this type, are those that say almost exactly the same things I’ve actually written in the article — if only the reader bothered to read beyond the first few lines.


That’s why I’ve come to see wisdom in how Inquirer editors reduced op-ed columnists’ space allocation to 650 words from 950 when it reformatted in October 2016, to the initial resistance of some fellow columnists. The Inquirer’s op-ed columns are now tagged as a “2-minute read” — still well above our alleged average attention span.

Some serious researchers question the goldfish comparison, suggesting that it may be an urban legend perpetuated by constant repetition. Factual or not, the point of the comparison is that today’s young people find it harder to focus than their forebears did, what with the many distractions that the age of the internet and smartphones have brought about.


Gen Z, or those born between 1997 and 2012, are described as “digital natives,” as they were born in the internet age and never knew a world without internet. These are people who started using digital devices early in life, and are at home with using smartphones and tablets for communication, education and entertainment.

Digital technology is second nature to them, and living life and doing work without it is next to unthinkable. They get their daily affirmation from Facebook and Instagram “likes,” and the first thing they reach for in idle moments is their phone. Over 77 percent of surveyed Canadians age 18-24 answered yes when asked: “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone.” Only 10 percent of those age 65 and up answered yes to that same question.

The decrease in human attention spans is observed across all age groups and genders. The same study reportedly found that 44 percent of Canadians have to “concentrate hard to stay focused on tasks,” and 45 percent reported getting “sidetracked from what they’re doing by unrelated thoughts or daydreams.” This inability to focus on a single task is largely attributed to the adoption of technology, exposure to large volumes of information from digital and social media, use of multiple screen workstations and proliferation of hyperlinks within sentences in online text.

In general, it appears that increased digital consumption has diminished people’s long-term focus. But there’s also good news: the capacity for multitasking has reportedly also increased and widened.

What do all these imply for the economy? The Philippines, unlike more developed economies, has a prominently young population, and millennials and Gen Z are poised to dominate the workforce and consumer population, if they do not already. They are restless, are found to change jobs an average of 10 times before they reach age 35 (the security of tenure bill passed by Congress may well be academic and unneeded if true!), and prefer flexible working conditions, including working from home. They prefer to be their own boss, hence tend to be more entrepreneurial. But they also stress out easily, with youth suicides seemingly skyrocketing worldwide.

One thing is clear: Planning for our nation’s future cannot be done the traditional way, and must be done with the youth prominently in mind, and actively taking part.

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TAGS: ‘millennials’, attention span, Cielito F. Habito, Generation Z, No Free Lunch, youth
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