Technology and the Generation Gap

While the young are busy posting an apology to their readership on their blog, before they take an extended summer vacation with their family; the older generations are slow to make use of the latest gadgets and online tools, and are baffled by the reason one would want to post the date you will be absent from your house on the Net. The resulting clash is being called a new generation gap.

A survey1 and subsequent news articles suggest a generation gap exists when it comes to using online services and it's provoked some conflict between generations. While the younger generation has expressed impatience with the older generation's slowness to adopt the latest online product, the older generation is just as bewildered by young people who choose to publish their private information on the Internet. The frustration expressed among generations is considered a new generation gap - 2 one the pre-Baby Boomer generation would probably call payback.

Some oldsters express consternation when these young whippersnappers show off their expertise and remarkable agility when using electronic gadgets, while others view the way the young use technology as uncanny. I've even heard it rumored that developing one's skill on the Internet can rewire a teenager's brain, although others suggest it's the thumb.

Interesting, when I think about my own body aging, I believed it would be wrinkles and stubborn belly fat that would finally betray me, not my failure to sign up for Twitter, a service whose intended purpose is to answer the question, "Where you at?"

It is seen as a generational shift. The older generations, coached by their parents that privacy has value, don't always understand the attraction of such remarkable social networking tool as MySpace, Skype, or YouTube. As for the younger generations, they see the tools as fun and necessary, a quick means of getting an answer to a question. They don't view the tools as a malignant force guided by the suggestion, "Sure, the cell phone is annoying, but is it annoying enough?"

So, while the older generations discover social-networking tools and imagine the tug of a small hand on a pant leg, those who have grown up using new technologies search the globe for friends, contacts, and merchandise; for them lack of privacy is not so much an annoyance as part of the marketing package.3

Or perhaps it is just a question of preference: For example, in days gone by, when asked, "What is it about summer that you like most?" People might say, "Warmer weather, ice cream" or even "vacations." Netizens appear to be saying, "Why, the return of the mosquito. I miss that."

Although, no one suggests older adults aren't going online. They are and in large numbers. They game, bank and shop online. They create blogs, share pictures of their grandchildren and photos of their RV vacations. They purchase and download music and movies, almost like a kid, except they usually pay for it. In fact, when it comes to these activities, seniors may even have more money, their soft, padded rumps extended by a padded wallet; online marketers aren't ignoring this fact. It's just that the media wants to remind us that age is an issue for human beings, even in a virtual setting. You know, lest we forget.

Of course, another article I read on this topic was careful to stress that the suppliers of user-generated online content are not necessarily age restricted.4 All generations are generously included when describing the social networking phenomenon. These users are given their very own label; Generation C-C is for Content or in an update to that article, C is for Cash.5 But even that article acknowledges that youth is leading the way in the "haves" a profile/blog/website vs. the "have nots" a profile/blog/website.

In my career as a law librarian in an academic setting, a reportedly graying profession that is now attracting young, hip professionals,6 I witnessed my own demonstration of the widening gap between the generations when I attended a presentation on the Web page redesign for our campus library at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The presentation included the results of a Web user survey. We were told by the presenter, who claimed he did not want to be generational, (or is that being a generationalist?) that the older generations were not as fast to pick up on the information on a Web site. They didn't see links as quickly, were not as sure of hand in their responses. In summary, the older group (mostly faculty) was not as comfortable with the Web design as the younger group (students).

It never occurred to me when I browsed the cosmetics counter at Macy's that I would do better hiding the ravages of age, not with face cream, but by practicing rapid fire instant messaging and mouse techniques.

Yet how will aging Gen-X'ers and Boomers, perhaps even a few Gen-Y'ers keep up as the youngest generation gains speed? The Internet Generation, born between 1994 and 2005, has never known a time before the Internet. How long will Generation Now tolerate the behavior of their elders before they race past those who drive in the slow lane of the information highway? And how will the old folks, those of us whose birth announcement did not include a video and a posting on the Web, cope?

I suppose the generations, like usual, will be forced to bridge the gap. After all, at least in the workforce, it is implied that our jobs may well depend on our ability to become lifelong technology learners. But for this essay, I have chosen to look to the past for my answer, where I personally experienced how a pre-Internet generation gentleman dealt with emerging technology.

Technology Issues that Dogged the Pre-Internet Generation

When I was a library student back in 1990, I took a job as a receptionist in a senior citizen's home to help pay for college. The home for seniors was euphemistically called an independent living facility, an irony that probably escaped the nursing home administration and its residence. One day sitting at my desk at the independent living facility, I received a visit from a nice old man of about ninety, Clyde, who came to my station and ask me for help with his technology problem. He explained to me that he had been given a tape player by his son because his son knew he loved to listen to music, but he couldn't get the darn thing to play.

What kind of music did Clyde listen to? Well, I once made the mistake of asking an elderly woman at the home if she liked big band music and she told me she didn't go for any of that "Modern stuff," so let's just say this gentleman's musical preferences were late 19th century, some early, very early, 20th century. But my music loving visitor, Clyde, former milk truck driver, married more than fifty years to the same woman, father of three, widower for around five years, had a small tech. issue. He couldn't figure out how to work this modern contraption he placed on my counter. So, feeling helpful, I gladly show him how use the tape player.

Every day afterward, Clyde would visit me during my shift at the desk and ask me if I would show him the steps to using his gadget. While I performed my demonstration, we would talk about music and gossip about people at the home, usually what resident was entering the nearby hospital or who had returned from a trip to the hospital.

If the resident was over the age of seventy, Clyde would discuss what a shame it was that someone so young was having health problems that required a hospital visit. If the person was over the age of eighty, he again voiced concern, "How awful, what bad luck." But if the resident had achieved the age of ninety and was gravely ill-had suffered a heart attack or a stroke-then Clyde's attitude changed, "Well," he would reply on hearing the news, "he has lived a good life."

I learned from Clyde that ninety is considered to be the cut off date for accepting the inevitability of death. So, if any of you assume there will be sympathy for the aches and pains of old age and you hover somewhere above ninety, your peer group will set you straight.

Some days we didn't discuss old people and their health at all and instead I would entertain Clyde with my latest dating failures, always good for a laugh. During our talk I would also show Clyde how to insert the tape into the player. Carefully, I showed him which buttons did what and how they were marked; I demonstrated how to use reverse, fast forward, eject and play. Now and then, I looked up from the machine to reassure myself that he watched what I did. He always seemed to be paying attention.

Finally, I would end my demonstration by patting the tape-player and saying something like, "There, see, it's easy." Music would tinkle from the player.

"How about that? It works. "Whoop. De doo!" Clyde would exclaim, and then he would shake his head at his lack of comprehension over a simple man-made gadget, smile sheepishly at me and say, "Thanks, I really should learn how to use this."

But he never seemed to quite get the hang of it. Old people, I guess. We all accept it as common place that the generations who pre-date the computer age appear to struggle with such things as cell phones, programming their VCR's and working other assorted electronic gizmos. Yet my grandfather, a man from the Greatest Generation, automobile test-driver and brake supervisor for Chrysler, found it no problem at all to take a car apart, place it on someone's roof and rebuild it, as a practical joke. (I'm sure at the time finding a car on your roof was a real hoot.)

I'm not sure I could take the auxiliary battery out of my Prius and replace it. Sure, you could argue, cars were simpler back then, no electronic do-dads, far fewer safety features. But is putting together a car truly less complicated than using the Internet? Seems to me that any tween can put up a Web page, add a fuzzy video or two and find an audience, but do you know any teenagers rebuilding a car for a lark?

I guess what I'm saying is, I don't believe past generations are really incapable of learning how to use an online product. But if that is true then what's really going on with the older generations and computers? Can they really be, as is suggested, technophobes? I've chosen not to believe it.

Confident that my geriatric visitor was capable of learning, I repeatedly taught Clyde everything he needed to know to use his tape machine by himself. I cared that he figured this out, especially after I invested so much time showing him how to use it. I wanted to wag a finger at him every time I saw him wobbling up to my station, recorder in hand, and say, "Become independent, you old cote." But Clyde was having none of that.

Clyde could safely be pegged a technophobe. Poor old man, he was "pre-tape player," and he would never be called an early adopter of a new technology. "Early adopter" is a term coined by technology marketing departments to increase desire for their product. If you use their product right away, that is, buy the product before anyone else has found a practical use for it, you to can be targeted as an "early adopter." iPhone Generation 2.0 is just around the corner, for example.

I admit at first I was somewhat amused that Clyde needed my help, even flattered. I suppose I felt that condescending superiority that comes from knowing something about technology that others do not. Nothing proves the worth of the young like a good technology trick. Something they can hold over the old folks to make them feel uneasy.

I'm older now myself, and technology has moved at a fast pace, so I've developed a new respect for that unease. But while some writers express their discomfort with technology by scoffing at those who uses social networking tools, viewing these people as narcissistic, I, as a parent of preschoolers, see no need to scoff; it doesn't surprise me that the young want to shout, "Look at me," even to an audience they cannot see. In fact, it seems pretty normal. Perhaps the older generations are just feeling a bit threatened. For them, it's as if the 1984 horror flick, Children of the Corn, has spawned a demon-seed hybrid, Wired Children of the Corn, and they fear being caught alone in the electronic cornfield. However, this is not a fear in my profession, for librarians have embraced technology in the library.

Many librarians, much like me only smarter and better organized, consider themselves early adopters of new products. How this translates to the profession is that these librarians are doing their very best to use technology to disprove the bun on top of the head image created by too many reruns of Marian the Librarian in the media.

Librarians yearn to be bunless, and they will go out of their way to dispel what they view as a negative stereotype. Sometimes they will flat out say this, that they are using technology to disprove the bun, and they post smiling, bun-free photos of themselves on their blogs and home pages. On other occasions, perhaps in order to appear more professional, they will claim they are using technology to reach out (i.e. using social networking services) to patrons who, for some reason or another, can't find their way to the library but manage to find the local shopping mall without any problem. Of course, sometimes they totally cave and build libraries in shopping malls.

At any rate, librarians are technology front runners, embracing new products and using them to introduce a new generation to the electronic library of the future. The coolness factor glossed upon librarians by their use of technology goes a long way in making up for their embarrassingly low salaries.

Yet, young as I was back then in 1990, in the pre-dawn hours of the Internet, I instinctively knew my elderly gentleman caller was not going to fall for any "master technology for lifelong learning" sales pitch.7

But although my friend Clyde didn't have much experience with electronic gadgetry, he had, over the years of delivering milk door to door, developed a few skills with people. I discovered that Clyde was a very pleasant person to while away my work hours with, and I came to enjoy our chats. Over time, like any friend, we became pretty comfortable with each other, enough to share confidences.

One day, I arrived at work still fuming at a friend from college who had, over beers the other night, pointed out some minor flaw in my character. I forget the details, but it centered on the fact that I couldn't handle my liquor, a common enough complaint of bar frequenters, I mean students, in Madison, Wisconsin.

At work, I vented my feelings of injustice to a sympathetic ear, my sparsely gray-haired technology-free buddy, who, after listening to my tirade about my friend's ridiculous claim sighed and said, 'I'm so glad I'm too old to care about these things."

It cooled me off immediately.

Such a nice thought. Imagine, eventually, we get too old to care what people think about us, which explains the whole black socks with white tennis shoes and plaid shorts combo that old men like to affect.

I applied what I had learned about Clyde to his problem with technology. After several more demonstrations of the workings of a tape player, it finally dawned on me that Clyde had no real need to learn how to use a portable tape player. He had his phonograph for that. Clyde was using technology in exactly the way he wished. He used it to strike up a friendly conversation with the pretty young college student that worked at the reception desk, and if it meant repeatedly acting confused about some odd piece of technology, then, "Whoop de doo, it worked."

I've taken a lesson from Clyde, because this may well be how the generations will bridge technology issues. Some will use the technology at hand, others will find uses for it unimagined by marketing departments, while yet others will take comfort in the habits of older technologies, unmoved by the latest gadget. Finally, a few, like Clyde, will use any gizmo as a bridge to a human connection. I guess you could say that those folks prefer to socially network in person, which is so 20th century, don't you think?

Social Networking & the Generation Gap on Campus Libraries

EMAIL: Recently, the link to an article titled Email is for old people8 was passed around via our email system to all us old folk, two years after the PEW study on Teens and Technology, so, speed of light on that tidbit of news. The conclusion of this study was that when the Internet Generation needs to communicate with old people, they email, but to contact friends, they text message or post to a communications network.

So email can be viewed as a bridge to communication between the generations, but I also think that email serves to connect people with a shared purpose, no matter what their age.

For example, one form of email especially important in the workplace, and which appears to have replaced the traditional printed memo for business communication, is a remarkable service called the group email. Group emailing is a service designed to facilitate sending announcements and meeting reminders to a mass audience. It's fast, it's simple, and so seamless in function that it can be done without taxing anyone's ability to put effort into their writing, making it a nearly perfect form of professional communication.

Still, as much as I enjoy this daily, sometimes hourly mailing feature, I find that I do occasionally forget to read group emails, much to the astonishment of my co-workers who love to send out important memos to their group on topics like, "Why does the elevator smell?" or "What's that fan doing in the hallway?"

Sometimes, reading these notices, I can't help but wonder what people did to communicate with a group before email. Did they stand at the water cooler and shout as their fellow co-workers walked past? Did they post a memo about how to keep stains from the carpet or rodents out of the breakroom? I wish I could recall, but I hear aging affects memory, so there you go.

I do know that I occasionally miss reading those practical work-related messages. This fact has been noted with amazement by my fellow librarians, who apparently sort and read everything sent to their inbox and view me as transparently lazy.

I suffer from another technology glitch with email. My spam filter is flawed. Sometimes it tosses relevant emails to my junk file; like my monthly free movie coupon. Sometimes it doesn't filter out those lottery winnings sent from the Ukraine.

Noting these minor issues, I've come to believe that email may not always be the best method of communication, even for the elderly.

In fact, I'm not sure email problems have anything to do with the age of the sender, or the gender, (if anyone wants to argue that point.)

In conclusion, I believe that every email sent carries two seductive features: First, you can avoid talking to a co-worker in person and still claim to be communicating efficiently. Second, you can claim you never saw an email and people believe you. I just can't decide if these features are a technology flaw or a selling point.

But perhaps text messaging is the solution. Let's see how that works.

IM CHAT ON CAMPUS: I quizzed a few college students in a less than official text messaging survey to see if they rely more on text messaging in college or email to communicate with each other and this is what I was told: The students used to chat when they were in high school, but now their friends are all on different schedules, and that makes connecting via IM more difficult.

Apparently, in order to communicate more effectively, they joined the grown ups, even when communicating with each other. They also use their cell phones. Sometimes I believe they hang out together and just talk, but it makes them feel terribly old fashioned.

IM CHAT FOR THE REFERENCE DESK. IM Chat is a new service rolled out on the library's Web site. It's activity can be counted, an important feature when putting together an annual usage report. However, those of us at the reference desk can't just ignore older technologies, for example, microfiche, the bane of libraries in the 80's, is still around. So, the desk phone still rings and the reference email inbox fills up-mostly with ads for products that old people can use to improve their waning sex drive or penny stock tips for their retirement. We also occasionally get a live visitor now and then at the desk. I believe we refer to this as face-to-face contact. Between all the reference services we offer, I find, despite my advancing years, that I can multitask. A custom I am told is restricted to the young.

So let me send a shout out to all those who have helped me develop this youthful skill, honed by years of working at the reference desk of a busy law firm library, strengthened by being a m.o.m. (mother of multiples) to two small girls born to the Internet generation. I can see from the list of latest Web 2.0 products that I will only continue to evolve my meager brain/thumb.

FACEBOOK: Recently discovered by the older set, librarians are flocking to FACEBOOK. I believe their communities or "friends" are usually other librarians rather than students, even in the public and academic setting. However, librarians have advanced the idea that this social networking tool is a way to reach out to the younger generations.9 Well, it's logical. After all, if early adopting sexual predators can develop the skills necessary to prowl the Internet and reach out to young people, librarians can too.

BLOGGING THE LIBRARY: There is evidence that blogs can be used to lure patrons to use library services. For example, public librarians reach out to teens using a variety of technology resources and get teens involved in their community libraries by asking them to help create the blog, wiki or podcast. Others events in the luring-teens-to-use-the-library arsenal include hosting gaming sessions in the library. But don't just rely on technology, for as the author of one article admonishes,10 for librarians it is essential to maintain as much face-to-face contact with teens as possible.

How quaint.

LIBRARIAN IMAGE & TECHNOLOGY: Buns in the hair, sexy, hot '50's style clothing and owl-shaped glasses for librarians sold during the Halloween season, shushing, frowning librarians, these images have but one thing in common: They are female images. If women dominated the field of carpentry, firefighting, and professional baseball the way they dominate professions as librarians, nurses and teachers, then baseball players would have an image problem that had nothing to do with the use of steroids.

Call me cynical, I hear it is a feature of my generation, but I don't think technological skills or networking skills alone will displace the bun, although it might raise our salaries. (I've noticed the IT folks on campus all make more than me.)

However, for those who care about their professional image as librarians, I do have a suggestion: Either you can grow older and learn to not care about the opinion of others, or encourage more men to join the field, but make sure they work out. Maybe you can lure these hunks to the profession with hot technology and games.

Generation Now's Hardware Request

My daughters, twins, age five, told me they want a computer of their own. They are both from the Internet generation so, as the media has pointed out, their technology skills are innate and I won't have to train them in usage.

Therefore, I simply asked my girls, "What kind of computer would you like?"

One daughter said she wants a pink one, the other, a rainbow.

[1] Teens and Technology: Youth are leading the transition to a fully wired and mobile nation, Pew/Internet & American Life Project, July 27, 2005. http://www.pewinternet.org/report_display.asp?r=162.

[2] Say Everything, by Emily Nussbaum, New York Magazine, February 12, 2007, at www.nymag.com/news/features/27341/index.html

[3] Children of the Web: How the Second-Generation Internet is Spawning a Global Youth Culture-And What Business Can Do to Cash In. by Steve Hamm, Business Week, pg 51, July 2007.

[4] Meet Generation C: Creatively Connecting Through Content, by Jessica Dye, Information Age, May 1, 2007.

[5] "Generation C(ash)" at Trendwatching.org, http://www.trendwatching.com/trends/gen-cash.htm

[6] A Hipper Crowd of Shushers, by Kara Jesella, New York Times, July 8, 2007 at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/08/fashion/08librarian.html?ex=1184644800&en=6002308d8bef307b&ei=5070&emc=eta1.

[7] Clyde knew he was over ninety and if he didn't master a skill, so what?

[8] E-Mail is for Old People, by Dan Carnevale, Chronicle of Higher Education: Information Technology, Oct. 6, 2006, at http://chronicle.com/free/v53/i07/07a02701.htm

[9] Standing Room Only: Want to get teens excited about the library? Just surrender some control, by Diane Tuccillo, Library School Journal, March, 2007.

[10] Ibid.