“Young People are Just Smarter” – Digital Immigrants vs Digital Natives

Noam Scheiber, New Republics Senior Editor, couldn’t put it any clearer – “Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America”. Yes, it seems Mark Zuckerberg’s premise predicated to an audience at Stanford back in 2007 that “Young people are just smarter”  is now the accepted creed;  that it’s better to be perceived as naïve and immature than to have voted (or have danced to Madonna) in the 1980s.  

What worries me most, though, is that I don’t think this mindset is restricted to the technologically gifted young crowd in the Bay area. I believe we are looking at a cultural revolution taking place all around us.  Men and women with impressive professional achievements and credentials are being let go, nudged out and pushed aside everywhere in the world without a second thought as to where else in the workplace they could make a valid contribution. Scouring the useless job sites day in day out and spending endless hours writing ridiculously detailed cover letters to match even more ridiculously detailed selection criteria, does not help them but find themselves turned away even for the most basic retail jobs. Not because they aren’t competent. Not because they lack skills. But simply because the are not “cool enough” (not lying, that’s happened to me)  and assumed not to be in touch with the latest technological trends.

Wrong.

Old ducks know a thing or two about the world. And we can be very cool too (if we put our mind to it!).

digital nativeAlthough a vast percentage of the global population is not a “digital native” (a term coined by U.S. author Marc Prensky in 2001) and did not grow up with the Internet, one cannot forget that they (we) have, in fact,  invented the actual technology that defines the digital native. And yet, many of us remain, as CNN’s Olivery Koy would have us called, “digital immigrants”,  “a relic of a previous time […] Old world-settlers, who have lived in the analogue age and immigrated to the digital world.”

Prensky insists the differences run a lot deeper than merely our typing speed. There is a significant difference in the way we process information, with digital immigrants taking it in linearly instead of switching from source to source at warp speeds as natives do.

Management Consulting Firm Deloitte quotes a 2012 study by Time Inc which, biometrically monitored both digital natives and immigrants for 300 hours to determine emotional engagement and visual attention. Interestingly but not surprisingly, natives showed a lower emotional response to content, because they experienced it briefly and simultaneously. Once boredom sunk in, they moved on.

“This study strongly suggests a transformation in the time spent, patterns of visual attention and emotional consequences of modern media consumption that is rewiring the brains of a generation of Americans like never before,” said Dr. Carl Marci, CEO and Chief Scientist, Innerscope Research, who performed the biometric monitoring for the study. And while this poses serious challenges for storytellers and marketers in this digital age when it comes to successfully engaging consumers, there is no denying that experience with technology can turn older people into digital natives.

And in fact, it already has. The generational digital gap is narrowing. In some places.

Recent research has shown that baby boomers comprise the fastest growing segment of smartphone owners in the US and they make up a third of all Internet users, with a third of those boomers describing themselves as “heavy Internet users.” Google’s study of more than 6,000 boomers and seniors confirmed that:

  • 78 percent of boomers and 52 percent of seniors are online
  • The two groups spend an average of 19 hours on the Internet each week, more than with TV, radio and magazines/newspapers
  •  71 percent of boomers and 59 percent of seniors use a social networking site daily (the most popular being Facebook)
  • 82 percent of viewers say YouTube is their preferred online video watching site with three in four online video watchers have taken action — such as searching on the Internet for more information — as a result of an online video.
  • 77 percent use their mobile device simultaneously with another screen
  • 82 percent of them use a search engine to gather information on a topic of interest,… and to broadcast their opinions not unlike these very savvy, very cheeky older internauts:

digital immigrants1 digital immigrants2 digital immigrants3

And yet, that doesn’t seem to matter.

In the UK, the number of over-50s who have been unemployed for more than 12 months rose in 2012 from 11,000 to 191,000.  According to the research conducted by over-50s recruitment website Skilledpeople.com, 80% of over-50s have experienced age discrimination. Managing director Keith Simpson says it is high time employers stopped seeing older people as a potential burden and took a more enlightened approach. “Far-sighted employers should be cherry-picking the best over-50s now as an insurance policy for the future. These people need less training, are more reliable and less money-motivated,” he says. The Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin also studied how more than 200 workers, aged 20 to 31 and 65 to 80, performed 12 tasks testing perceptual speed, episodic memory and working memory. The analysis showed that the older adults higher consistency in the workplace is due to learned strategies to solve the task, a constantly high motivation level, as well as a balanced daily routine and stable mood. 

Plus, studies show that older workers use fewer sick days on the whole than their younger counterparts.  Professor Peter Cappelli, who directs the Wharton Center for Human Resources explains that health care costs are actually less for older workers because most no longer have small children as dependents on their health care plans.

However, I think it’s too late. Only a handful of employers realise that the older generations are highly reliable, punctual and take a lot less unexplained leaves of absence which, ultimately, makes them a lot more productive.

As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara–based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its “careers” page: “We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.”

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