Someone asked me last month why millennials are so impatient.
He rattled off examples. We can’t wait for a cab, we need Uber now. We can’t wait for the news, we need Twitter now. We can’t listen to a voicemail, we need a text now.
These weren’t examples of impatience, I said. Millennials just have no tolerance for inefficiency.
There’s a big difference between the two, although they look similar. Understanding the difference explains why so many new technologies are mocked by older generations.
Impatience is the unwillingness to wait when there is no alternative to waiting. No tolerance for inefficiency is the unwillingness to wait when there is, or should be, a better alternative.
The problem is that everyone knows impatience is basically a sin, right up there with greed and envy. But having no tolerance for inefficiency is the spark that has pushed every great innovation forward. When you confuse the two – and we often do – people who are in the process of growing the economy are told they’re being impatient, which we associate with slowing the economy.
In defense of the guy shaking his head at millennials, every generation does this.
Take this paragraph, written in 2013:
The demand for instant results is seeping into every corner of our lives, and not just virtually. Retailers are jumping into same-day delivery services. Smartphone apps eliminate the wait for a cab, a date, or a table at a hot restaurant. Movies and TV shows begin streaming in seconds. But experts caution that instant gratification comes at a price: It’s making us less patient.
And compare it to this, written in 1998:
In this impatient age Americans aren’t used to waiting. Think about it: We have overnight package delivery, express lines at the supermarket, TV ads touting faster Internet access. Faster, faster. Instant gratification isn’t fast enough.
It’s pretty much identical, with different products.
Take this, written in 1985, criticizing how impatient faster meal preparation had made us:
Historians, sociologists, teachers and etiquette experts say that dining [manners] have reached a low for this century. For an explanation, they … point to the growth of fast food and ready-to-eat meals, and the fact that individual freedom has come to be valued over decorum.
Or this, written in 1931, criticizing movies and radio:
[The Cardinal said] there was a craze for pleasure and excitement among the young, impatient of parental control. He referred to radio broadcasts and movies as a ‘distraction’ … and commented that demoralizing effects inevitably were produced by the printed material of today.
Or this, written in 1913, criticizing the push toward a modern broad-based school curriculum:
The younger generation shows many signs of being too impatient to prepare for life. What is called vocational training is being steadily pushed down through the secondary into elementary schools and presumably it will soon reach the cradle.
In hindsight we know these were movements toward progress. Radio, TV, universal education, overnight delivery … these things are great! But at the time the response was, “Why can’t you impatient people slow down and do things like we’ve always done them?”
We’ll keep doing this forever. Changes are almost always indistinguishable from degenerations at first, and new technology is almost always indistinguishable from toys and fads at first.
But we should always look for a distinction:
If you try to cram an existing process into a shorter period of time, you’re being impatient. And you should be criticized.
But if you come up with a new process to make something happen faster, you’re weeding out inefficiency. And you should be rewarded.