Editor’s Note: While the digital business model and overall shift to a digital economy (or some might add the Internet of Things) is equal opportunity as it pertains to demographics, there are still challenges. April breaks this down expertly here and illustrates how, regardless of age or status, understanding the nuances of new channels like social media are key. This post originally appeared for April’s column on the Huffington Post.
Recently, my 18 year-old son asked me, “Are you the oldest woman in social media?” While most 53-year-old women do not relish being the “oldest woman” anywhere, I found the question to be more of a compliment than a criticism. My son was half-joking with his question but it stirred me to think about how he is a “digital native” while I am a “digital immigrant.”
One obvious example of inherent generational differences between a digital native and digital immigrant lies in the way that I conducted my initial research on this topic. I went to Google and then Wikipedia as my “sources.” Next, I went to the Urban Dictionary. Back when I was in high school, my tools and techniques for doing research were completely different. I went to the library, used the Encyclopedia Britannica, went to the card file system and used the Dewey Decimal system to locate print books on my topic. If the print books weren’t available, you might have found me using microfiche.
Wikipedia defines the “digital native” as a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technologies and, due to interacting with them from an early age, has a greater understanding of digital media concepts. Conversely, a digital immigrant is an individual who was born before the existence of digital technology and adopted it later in life.
Yet, when I compare my digital comfort level and expertise to that of many of my similarly aged peers, these designations don’t really hold up. Instead of the binary categories of digital native and digital immigrant, can there be a “mash-up” of an individual who gravitates to and understands the application of digital technology but is housed in a middle-aged body? Yes, that’s me and many others like me; we can remember our first Compaq portable computers in the 1980s but that doesn’t mean we are less savvy with Twitter or Facebook than younger generations.
I used Twitter before my kids, we probably began on Facebook together, and I’ve also migrated them to LinkedIn. Part instinct and part affinity, I firmly have established myself as a hybrid in this rapidly changing world. I know that social/digital media platforms are cool and useful and that Apple has created some truly innovative hardware, but I also know that these are just fads like the Wang Word Processor, IBM Selectric, and IBM PC. It’s not hard for me to foresee Everything one day outdated by the next new technology.
Although my age excludes me from the Wikipedia definition of “digital native,” digital technology is truly embedded in my life. For instance, I tweet happy birthday to my kids, who each run their own Twitter accounts and blogs. Professionally, I founded a financial services marketing firm that is well-known for helping clients to create their own digital/social media strategies. And while digital natives may understand the technology and how to operate it, it doesn’t mean that they have the expertise to implement programs that require business-level understanding. So, it’s still not a good idea to hire summer interns to run your social media campaigns. I have 20-plus years of solid marketing experience that I apply to digital technology; that is not at all about knowing which button to press.
Furthermore, having begun my career working for Kelly Services, the leading temporary help firm, I know that the skill sets required for today’s workforce are also rapidly changing. I see evidence of this in my everyday work when I witness conflicts, lack of adoption, and general lack of awareness of how and why digital and other technologies can be used to increase productivity and efficacy in almost every sector and each office. As the mother of a 21-year-old and an 18-year-old, I can see the same generation gap playing out in workplace conflicts between digital immigrants – which are the managing directors, senior vice presidents and C-suite executives of most major corporations – and the younger, digital natives who they are trying to manage.
Surely, this is one reason why young entrepreneurs may leave the “traditional” workplace in search of creating their own native work-setting. How can digital natives be expected to understand why large, global firms move at a glacial pace or why certain rules that they perceive as arcane and outdated even exist? If you want something, can’t you just get it or buy it? Why must a digital native “prove” the value of a digital technology platform to a digital immigrant? Is that even possible? Imagine two people speaking different languages to each other; it sounds frustrating at best. And who is leading the charge today in places like Wall Street? Digital immigrants. It sounds like a scenario that is frustrating, infuriating and probably inexplicable to the new college recruits each year. No one needs to teach them or convince them the value of something like Twitter; they’ve used it for many years. Yet, words like “tweet” and Twitter must seem like a foreign language to digital immigrants who are forced to use new technology. Adapt or die.
Each time I see a toddler mesmerized by an iPad, I wonder what the future digital native will look like and what skills they will possess. The environment and habitat in schools are also different. My kids went to a high school with smart boards and no books. Most of the teachers were, like myself, early adopters of digital technology or they were requested early retirement. The teacher looking for the chalkboard is a dinosaur, as is the corporation that considers digital/social media strategies less important than the print ad.
I hope that one day some young upstart asks my son if he is the oldest guy in his field.