September 12, 2011 | last updated April 6, 2012 1:47 pm
DIGITAL DIVA

Digital Diva: Technology And The Generation Gap

There's a battle happening in your office. The lines of warfare aren't drawn along race or party, but age, and the weapon of choice is technology.

All right, it may not be all-out war, but the gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials (also known as Generation Y) is yawning and, thanks to technology, it can seem impassable at times.

You've Got Trouble

This hit home to me recently when I heard about Beloit College's annual Mindset List. The list, produced each year by the Wisconsin-based college, is a cultural touchstone for professors to give them a sense of where the incoming freshman class is coming from. This year's list, which describes the perspective of the Class of 2015, is topped by the simple statement: "There has always been an Internet ramp onto the information highway." In other words, members of the Class of 2015 have never known a world without the Internet. In fact, they were born in 1993, four years after America Online (then known as Quantum Computer Services) launched with its catch phrase, "You've got mail."

The current crop of young workers, the aforementioned Millennials (loosely defined as anyone born between 1981 and 1999), are much the same. They have come of age as "digital natives" who breathe technology like oxygen.

But the Baby Boomers are still very much in place in offices throughout the United States. They use technology, but for the most part (warning: broad generalization here) don't have the same intuitive relationship with it that most 20-somethings do. While the generation gap in the workplace exists for reasons beyond technology, technology certainly plays a role and even exacerbates the problem.

So what's to be done about this generational divide and the fact that technology is sometimes widening the gap, rather than breaching it?

Getting Educated

The first step is to stop ignoring the problem, according to Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a former attorney at the Worcester-based law firm of Bowditch & Dewey, who is working on a book about the challenges we face as more Millennials enter the workforce. In her roles as president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and executive-in-residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family, she also speaks and writes on the generation gap in the workplace.

"I think the biggest problem with the technology disparity (between generations) is that not enough workplaces seem to be dealing with it," she said. "This isn't a question of wait a few months and those who are not as adept will be gone. This is a long-term issue."

In fact, economic conditions may be prolonging the issue. Baby Boomers are looking at their 401(k) statements and realizing that retirement at 65 might not be possible. The result is that they'll stay in the workplace longer, meaning that inter-generational issues in the office will be with us for many years to come.

Rikleen said executives need to be proactive in training all workers so that they're comfortable with new technologies, from texting to Twitter to LinkedIn. Just crossing your fingers and hoping everyone gets up to speed just won't cut it.

Robert Wendover, managing director of the Colorado-based Center for Generational Studies, also points out that it's not simply enough for a company executive to introduce a new piece of software or social media tool and walk away. While Millennials will likely jump on board in their digital-native style, more senior workers need coaxing.

"For the older individual, you need to sell them on the use of (the technology)," he said.

Of course, it's not all upside when it comes to Millennials and their techie ways. Their preference for digital modes of communication can hinder them and that's where cross-generational teams can come in handy, according to Wendover.

For example, a 20-something who inherits a sales territory from a Baby Boomer may assume all his clients are just like him, meaning they only like to hear from salespeople via email, if at all. But chances are there are Boomers in that 20-something's territory who expect a relationship out of their sales rep — perhaps a business lunch, a golf outing or a monthly visit. Without proper training and mentoring from senior salespeople, that new hire may fall flat on his iPhone and tweet about it on his way to collecting unemployment.

Time Out

I know from my perspective as a pseudo-Millennial (I was born in 1980, so some might define me as a member of Generation X), these issues around technology can be maddening. It's hard to get any diverse group of people on one page about any new initiative. But throw technology into the mix and you've got the potential for frustration from both the Boomer and Millennial perspectives. One group may think you're moving too fast, while another will think you're moving too slow. Both are probably right.

The importance of education that both Rikleen and Wendover speak of certainly resonates. But with such rapid change in the technological space (remember that Twitter was founded only five years ago), that training piece often gets missed in the urge to move quickly. I think most businesses would benefit from a more thoughtful approach to adopting new technologies that allows time for all members of a workplace to adapt. It may be challenging to take that extra time given the economic pressures we all face, but that investment will no doubt pay off in the long run.

Got news for our Digital Diva column? Email Christina H. Davis at cdavis@wbjournal.com.

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