Technology for the gray at heart

My hair has long since gone from graying to gray. So I was happy to read Andy Patrizio’s article in CIO magazine debunking the myth that older workers struggle more with technology than their millennial counterparts.


I’m an old hand but I know how to use the technology.

Citing research by cloud storage provider Dropbox and a marketing firm called Ipsos Mori, Patrizio finds that older people are just as likely to use a variety of technologies in their work — and are less likely to be stressed out using them.

For Patrizio, the findings reflect people’s level of frustration with their workplace technologies. And younger workers actually feel more frustrated because, being accustomed to really good technology in their personal lives, the have higher expectations when they come to the workplace.

Maybe that’s true. Another reason, I think, is that older workers tend to take a pragmatic view of technology. For us, technology is a means to an end. We evaluate it simply on how well it helps us get our work done. Not on how elegantly designed and shiny it is.

I applaud Patrizio’s assertion that older workers are just as effective using technology at work as their younger counterparts.

But I’m taken aback by the last thing he says. Quoting Rick Devine of TalentSky, a job-search website, Patrizio writes:

…the burden of keeping people’s technology skills up to date falls on the employer. “Employers need to see where your deficiencies are so they can provide for you. It is the moral obligation of every employer to see the deficiencies of their workforce, so if these older professionals are falling away in skills, shame on their employer for not providing them with the work experience to be employable,” [Devine] says. “And that’s a failing of the system and we all need to come together to right that wrong.”

Is it really up to my employer to make sure my skills stay current? Sorry: I might’ve believed that in 1986 — and then only because I worked for IBM, where the “you have a job for life” culture was still in place. But I’ve known for decades that no one but me cares about keeping my skills current. I’ve counseled countless colleagues and students to take charge of their own skills development. It’s why I encourage people to attend conferences, to get training, and to read up on what’s happening in the profession.

If the onus is on employers to keep their people’s skills up to date, many employers will use that as just one more reason to push out older workers and replace them with younger ones fresh out of college or grad school.

I appreciate it when my employer gives me work that hones my skills. I appreciate it when they train me in new technologies that I’ll need on the job. But I, and I think they, understand that I’m ultimately responsible for maintaining a skill level that makes me valuable to them and to potential future employers.

What do you think? Have you found older workers to be just as skilled as younger workers in using technology at work? Do you agree with Patrizio that employers are responsible for keeping their people’s skills up to date? Why or why not?

10 thoughts on “Technology for the gray at heart

  1. Ben Woelk

    I think the workplace culture (employer) needs to be supportive of professional development, whether that is acquiring new skills, pursuing appropriate certifications, etc. It’s up to the employee to take advantage of those opportunities.

  2. Mark Baker

    When I was young, knowing how to use a computer meant knowing how to program. People know far less about their digital devices today than in those days, just as they know far less about their cars today than car owners in the 40 and 50 did.

    That is part of the natural progression of things. It is what lets society as a whole move on to the next problem. But the idea that the younger generation is more tech savvy than our generation is just not supportable. They are really more tech habituated than tech savvy. It is ubiquitous and it works and they don’t much care how it works. They have integrated it into their lives and their habits to an extent that people of our generation probably never will. (I still buy CDs!) But if you want to find people who understand how stuff works, you need to look back a generation to people for whom it didn’t “just work”.

    The catch is, of course, that not everyone keeps up. People who knew how to do a tune up may understand far more about how a gasoline engine works than someone who has only driven a car with a computer controlled engine that does not require tune ups. But unless they have kept up, they will not be able to service that modern engine. And the unfortunate truth is that many older workers don’t keep up. For that matter, many older companies, many older industries, don’t keep up. In part the innovator’s dilemma is at work here. Why learn the next set of skills when I am making good money and going home at 5 based on my current skills? Why train for the next job when I can run out the clock in my current job?

    With a young worker, fresh out of college, there is less of a danger that they have settled. (It is not zero — often they were trained in outdated technologies. How many tech comm graduates are still coming out trained to produce books in PDF?) But at least they are malleable. As an older technical writer who spends most of his time trying to drag the profession kicking and screaming into the age of the Web, I really do get the reluctance of employers to hire workers of my generation. It is easier to train than to retrain.

    But you are right that there are many of us who are just as tech savvy, just as anxious to learn and to move forward as we ever were. The problem is, how does an employer tell the wheat from the chaff?

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. You make several good points. To (partly) answer your last question, Patrizio advocates revamping our resumes to list skills and talents instead of job history. I like the idea of listing skills and talents — as long as the list is concrete and isn’t simply the dreaded “I know Tool A, Tool B….” I also think the job history is still useful, not as a catalog of job titles and dates but as a platform for describing the ways in which I’ve kept up — and kept on innovating — in my most recent positions.

      1. TechCommGeekMom

        I have actually changed my resume to be a functional resume rather than a chronological one for that very reason. However, when you are a contractor looking for work, it’s not unusual for prospective employers, especially big corporate conglomerates, to insist on chronological ones. That doesn’t always work in my favor, especially when in the last year, I haven’t used any tools that showed any innovation at all. Who still writes documentation in Word 2010? (Several people, but again, this is a big global company where I’m working right now, and they refuse to upgrade to more efficient tools.) It’s a very slippery slope out there, and I feel like I’ve been down that Slipe n’ Slide for the last 5 years or so. :-S

  3. Susan Carpenter

    Employers are not obligated to keep employees’ skills current. However, employers should not be surprised when employees jump ship because they’re not given the time or opportunity to learn something new. We are all Businesses of One who will benefit – or suffer – from our personal level of investment in learning and growth.

  4. ermphd

    I have been able to use my skills in the psychology of learning to reinvent myself several times during my career. With the plethora of online resources for continuing education it’s absurd to abdicate ones responsibility for self improvement to a corporate entity. JUST DO IT!

  5. TechCommGeekMom

    I would echo what Ben said. In the last 4-5 years, I’ve done everything within my own power to educate myself, but there are so many new technologies that I can’t get access to as an individual. If the opportunities become available at work, I definitely take advantage of it. It’s also hard, when trying to self-teach yourself, to understand how to use a tool in context. It’s also difficult to learn with only one-month trials. Getting tools on your own is very expensive as an individual, especially if you are learning on your own. When you are a contractor, you are lucky if the client is willing to train you on something. Usually, they don’t. It’s up to you to learn.If you are set in your ways, then it’s to your disadvantage, and it’s your fault. I’m not a kid right out of graduate school anymore (not that I was a kid when I did graduate), and I got my first job post-grad school because I was malleable to learn new things. If you can’t keep up or willing to keep up, then you should not being doing this or at least understand that it’s your inflexibility to retrain that is holding your back.

    But I agree–being older (I’m not that far behind you) doesn’t mean you are incapable. If anything, we have many, many years of context to refer to with new technology. We understand where the technology came from, we remember doing things manually–the harder way–so we are more than capable of learning. It’s a mix–you have to take care of yourself, but prospective employers can’t be expecting much if other employers aren’t helping with the training aspects. Individuals try, but can’t keep up due to circumstances beyond our control at times. We’re not all inflexible. In some cases, necessity forces you to become flexible if you want to stay employable.

  6. Martin Edic

    Larry, I’m an older tech worker and I have no problem with acquiring new tools if, as you state, they make my work easier and offer me insights (I’m a marketer). But I slightly disagree on your assertion that it is not the employer’s responsibility to help employees understand how to use the tools they are provided. If nothing else, a workplace must allow employees time to learn. If employers did not do this, our business (easyDITA), which provides a relatively complex but highly empowering toolset, would not do well. You cannot simply go off and figure out these tools on your own and you should not. It is critical that employees be trained in how their company utilizes software because each instance is different. If every writer in a DITA CCMS environment worked using their own workflows and made their own choices in how to configure an enterprise architecture, chaos would ensue! And this has nothing to do with age…
    Let’s look at a simplistic example. You have ten writers using Word and they are formatting docs inconsistently (believe me, this is way too common). You want to structure those docs but you can’t because they didn’t follow a consistent model based on employer-provided training. When you migrate you inherit a total mess.

  7. Pingback: Embodying the modern elder | Leading Technical Communication

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