Boomers – Winners or Losers in the Age of Technology?

Postman’s theory of gains and losses is used as a framework through which issues facing the Baby Boom generation and its use of emerging text and communication technologies are examined. General attitudes toward technologies and specific motivations for and against the eventual uptake of skills and knowledge are addressed. For the purposes of this commentary, the Baby Boom generation is defined as having been born between 1946 and 1964. Similarly generations X, Y and Z are respectively defined as having been born between 1964 and 1981, 1982 and 1995, and 1996 and the present.

Baby Boomers are a unique generation in terms of how they view their relationship to the rapid evolution of technology. They span the digital divide, often unsure of the implications inherent in a decision to remain a technophobe or become a technophile (Postman, 1992). Boomers didn’t grow up with technology; O’Neill (2008) considers them to be ‘digital immigrants’, examining technology from an outsider’s perspective. The distinction between technophiles and technophobes illustrates Postman’s belief that there are winners and losers; gains and losses associated with the, “development and spread of computer technology.” (Postman, 1992, p.10) Postman’s stance of weighing the gains and losses associated with technology is relevant when examining the impact information technology is having on Boomers’ lives. However Postman’s theory is perhaps less applicable when examining the relationship subsequent generations (Generations X, Y and Z) have with emerging technologies. These generations have grown up fully immersed in information and communication technologies throughout their formative years—consideration of Postman’s gains and losses where they are concerned does not necessarily apply.

What has become apparent for Boomers is a pronounced shift in the balance of workplace power and mentorship away from themselves towards younger and less experienced members of subsequent generations, who have assumed the seat of power as it relates to technology. Innis focuses attention on knowledge monopolies, where “those who have control over the workings of a technology accumulate power and inevitably form a kind of conspiracy against those who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology.” (Postman, 1992, p.9) Members of generations X, Y and Z have a monopoly in the workplace when it comes to fluently using new technologies, leaving Boomers to fear that their accumulated decades of wisdom and experience will be lost if they are not able to match the speed of changing technologies and regain this lost power.

Change is the one, assured inevitability of technology (Postman, 1992). The last 25 years have seen a myriad of technologies introduced into the workplace. Postman further states that “such changes occur quickly, surely and, in a sense, silently… And it does not pause to tell us. And we do not pause to ask.” (Postman, 1992, p. 8, 9) With each new workplace technology comes a period of being an ‘unconscious incompetent’ for many Boomers. They lack the understanding around what new technologies can do, how they can be effectively used, and what the implications of employing these technologies might be. Soules (1996) writes that, “In order to understand any medium, we must attend not only to its physical characteristics, but also to the way in which it is employed and institutionalized.” (p. 2) Soules further notes that Harold Innis, “sees a dialectical relationship between society and technology.” (p. 2) Whether a Boomer chooses to remain a technophobe or to adapt to the mindset of a technophile will depend on the attitudes of that individual. Our past experiences determine our thoughts and beliefs, which then influence what we are willing to embrace or not.

For most Boomers technologies as they currently exist were not part of daily life as they progressed through formal learning environments prior to beginning their careers. Becoming familiar with the various technologies now available, and then keeping up with the rapid evolutions of each, is overwhelming at best. Members of generations X, Y and Z, who have grown up integrating new technologies into all areas of their lives, need not consider becoming familiar with emerging technologies as either a gain or a loss; rather it is simply part of how we now live.

Each evolution in technology represents an evolution in the way we think, communicate and interact with each other in the workplace and in society. This level of thinking in turn can be viewed as a form of personal currency in these realms. Boomers who accept technological defeat and choose to remain technophobes risk reducing their workplace currency considerably, regardless of wisdom and experience: a considerable loss. To embrace technology and the gains it brings they would need to overcome many of their negative ideas of how technologies impact our work and personal lives: a foreboding sense of impending dependence on an ever-evolving group of technologies, changing social norms associated with new technologies, the tension between continual availability and a struggle for ‘balance’, frustrating moments of technology-based inattention or interruption throughout the day, and Blackberries in boardrooms.

How technology is used is determined by the ways in which one perceives it as well as the way in which one participates in it. Bridging the digital divide requires both, “physical access to technology and the resources and skills needed to effectively participate as a digital citizen.” (Digital Divide, 2010) Innis believes that, “sudden extensions of communications are reflected in cultural disturbances.” (Innis, 1951) Boomers could be the groundswell of just such a disturbance, where the gains for them would be increased efficiency and productivity, the ability to remain dynamically connected to others and to workplace events as they unfold, powerful new skills and knowledge that fits well with their hard earned wisdom and experience. As technophiles, Boomers could regain their lost workplace currency.

References
Digital Divide. Retrieved October 2, 2010 from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_divide

O’Neill, J. (2008, December 28). More and More Baby Boomers Embrace Technology. Retrieved October 2, 2010 from Finding Dulcinea Web site:http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/technology/2008/December/More-and-More-Baby-Boomers-Embrace-Technology.html

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc.

Soules, Marshall (1996). Harold Adams Innis: The Bias of Communications & Monopolies of Power. Retrieved October 2, 2010 from Vancouver Island University Web site: http://records.viu.ca/~media113/innis.htm

Innis, Harold. (1951). The Bias of Communication. Toronto: U of Toronto. As quoted in Dobson, T., Lamb, B., & Miller, J. (2009). Prefatory Materials. Retrieved from https://www.vista.ubc.ca/webct/urw/lc5116011.tp0/cobaltMainFrame.dowebct

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