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Generational Technology Use Doesn't Support Easy Generalities

There is no question that remote work during the COVID lockdown created a significant change in use of information and communications technology. How much has this impacted each age group, from students to retirees? This is a subject that prompts extreme viewpoints ranging from a cynical proclamation of younger generations living their whole life online, unable to have a face-to face conversation, or the opposite: advocacy for surrendering all the technological reigns to the next generation of “Digital Natives” who have a natural inclination towards technology that the old folks just can’t replicate.

IT professionals do not want to be seen as laggards and naysayers (especially if they have a product to sell). Still, we have an obligation to make sure that we deploy effective solutions, based on careful analysis, not tech marketing and buzzwords. I wrote an article ten years ago for NoJitter, “Millennials and Collaborative Tech: 5 Reasons to Freak Out” that was one of the earliest business critiques of the “Digital Native” mindset. Similar perspectives were published a few years later by mainstream analyst firms. Let’s reexamine our perceptions of each generation, considering how each one uses technology today.

Innovators, Early adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards

The formal study of innovation adoption began in the late 1930s, and in the 1930s, the context was not computing, but in how technology boosted exponential productivity gains in agriculture and food production. Universities studied the reasons why some farmers would quickly adopt new tools, new irrigation techniques and hybrid seeds while others would wait until everyone else had already done so. This field of study was known as the “diffusion of ideas.”. In 1962, Everett Rogers, a Rural Sociology professor at Ohio state University formalized the categories for “The Diffusion of Innovation” and extended this theory from a primarily agricultural context to the general process of innovation adoption. The adopter categories commonly used in the technology world today -- Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards --have their roots in 1940s agriculture.

Age was a strong factor in the early Rural Sociology publications. An influential 1957 Iowa State College presentation on “Farmer’s Adoption of Hybrid Corn” included the following descriptions:

  • Early Majority: Adopt innovation after significantly longer time. Slightly above average in age.
  • Late Majority: Adopt after the average participant. Older than the Early Majority.
  • Laggards: They are the last to adopt an innovation. Oldest among adopters.

Anecdotal Generational Theories

Many of the most common impressions about age differences are based on anecdotal observations of recreational technology use. How many times have you watched the four-year-old in your family, or in a public setting maneuvering their Amazon Kids tablet and thought, “I could not imagine doing that as a kid!” The original Digital Native theory from 2001 by Marc Prensky “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” was based on anecdotal observations of young people’s use of video games, not on statistical evidence. Similarly, a 2022 report by Vice Media Group “The Metaverse, a View from the Inside” was based on input from 1,000 immersive gamers and conducted within the gaming platforms. Even though the study was clearly limited to a very specific subset of technology users, the Vice study has been cited as a general observation of all of Generation Z “Feeling more like themselves online” and “Socializing more in virtual platforms than IRL” (In Real Life). Very little objective data is used to substantiate these bold claims made about the youngest generation of the workforce.

Statistical Analysis of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Adoption

Dr. Ming-Yi Wu, a Research Consultant and Graduate Faculty at Northeastern University compiled Pew Research data from 2018 to determine generation differences specifically on Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Her analysis shows that there are less than 5% differences between Gen X, Y and Z on most technology use. Where the significant gap occurs is when a generation is no longer in the work force at the time that a new technology becomes prevalent. The workplace is the great technology equalizer and generational differences even out once they are at an adult working age. Some differences such as Generation X (43 to 58 years old) owning more tablets (a newer technology) or more likely to have a home Internet subscription have other explanations, such as eyesight limitations and economics. Some technologies that are even more likely to be adopted by Gen X or Boomers than younger generations, such as wearable fitness devices and smart thermostats. Game Consoles are also in the ICT study, but why? We’ve spent a lot of time since 2001 looking at recreational gaming habits and unsuccessfully trying to translate those observations into facts about future work habits.

Generational Cohorts and the COVID 19 Generation

When the terms Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Y are referenced, it is referring to a “Generational Cohort”. A Generational Cohort is a group that is at the same stage of life as they experience major world events, social influences, and changes in technology. In a way, the pandemic created a new cohort. The lockdowns associated with the pandemic gave us all unprecedented, shared experiences. For over a year, everyone from kindergartners to grandparents were doing the same thing. We may have been at different life stages, but everything was done at home, over video and social media. This accelerated the adoption of technology out of necessity. As a result, AARP’s 2022 Tech Trends and the 50-plus shows significant changes in the use of technology over two years among older adults and seniors. Driven by the pandemic, a majority of seniors, even in the over 70-year-plus demographic have significantly increased smart phone ownership and usage, social media, video chatting and attending virtual events. Out of necessity, older adults were very successful at adopting technology, even beyond the ages in the workforce.

Other statistical surveys, such as this National Telecommunications and Information Administration Internet Use Survey show a similar normalization of ICT activities in the post lockdown years across every generation.

Why it Matters

If the data is correct about the workplace normalizing technology use, then it is time for Enterprise IT to lead instead of follow. A multigenerational approach to technology planning means several things: It means investing in training instead of assuming that your Millennial and Gen-Z workforce automatically “get it” and that your older workforce never will. It means careful design of user interfaces. Carelessly created mobile-only solutions may exclude anyone with poor eyesight, not just your soon to be retirees. It does not mean a moratorium on innovation. Instead, it means good, universal design. Anything less may end up poorly serving your work force, including the younger generations that we think we are catering to.

Note: Robert Lee Harris will be addressing Planning I.T for a Multigenerational Workforce on March 30 at Enterprise Connect in Orlando.

Enterprise Connect 2023 will be held from March 27-30 at the Gaylord Palms in Orlando, FL. You can check out the attendance options here and dive into our line-up of sessions and keynotes here.