“If you are no longer a child, you are already past your peak of technological understanding, and heading for the digital scrapheap.”
That's according to a recent Wall Street Journal article about age and technology.
It’s Silicon Valley’s dirty little secret and the premature nail in the career coffins of a generation of baby boomers. And it’s quickly becoming common doctrine: If you’re older than 30, you’re over the hill because 6-year-olds know technology better than you do.
If you can’t simultaneously download and configure an app, watch a YouTube video, play a game and text, it’s the modern day equivalent of not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. You are just plain digitally handicapped.
The WSJ article continued to say: “Six-year-olds show more knowledge of technology than a 45-year-old, and after our teenage years digital confidence begins a long decline."
The article cites an annual study by U.K. communications regulator Ofcom. Near as I can tell, there’s nothing fundamentally flawed in the research. The problem is the broad misinterpretation and misreporting of the data by the media. Sensational sound bites are being taken out of context and generalized all over Facebook and Twitter.
The unfortunate result is reinforcement of yet another generational stereotype gone wild. And besides being so not cool, it’s reportedly led to widespread age discrimination in the hiring process, especially in the heart of high-tech America where the median age at companies like Facebook and Google is in the upper 20s.
Let me explain something about aging. Yes, you may lose some dexterity with age. Your muscles lose elasticity, your joints lose flexibility and your brain loses plasticity. But that does not mean you cannot be as good with technology as someone half your age.
Yes, I know that millennials grew up with technology, but you know what? So did a lot of baby boomers … sort of. Those like me who spent their entire careers in the high-tech industry may be turning a little gray, but that does not mean we fit this ludicrous stereotype.
The research is based on a “digital quotient” or DQ test that Ofcom devised. According to the study, the peak average score of 113 was achieved by 14 and 15 year olds. Well, I took an abbreviated version of the test and scored 123. Want to know what that means? Not a thing. The test was essentially meaningless.
Is it good that I know about Snapchat or Google Glass? Is it earth shattering that I prefer to text than to talk on the phone? Does it matter that I’ve always been my family’s IT manager? Is it important that I know about 4G and broadband technology? Is it an epiphany that I’d be lost without technology … for probably two weeks until I’d adapt as we all would?
I may not have literally grown up with digital technology, but my generation and my industry brought microprocessors, software, personal computers, the internet, and email to the masses. The extension to smartphones, messaging, and social media is almost trivial.
And get this: Apps didn’t start with iPhones and Android. I’ve been using, configuring and troubleshooting apps since before millennials were born. Not only that, but once upon a time I could code. I designed chips. I managed computer systems – real minicomputers based on Unix and VMS.
Not only am I not digitally handicapped, I’ve got a huge advantage over the proverbial kids of today. Let’s compare generational stereotype to generational stereotype, shall we? I know when to disconnect and shut down. I actually have a life. I don’t have a personal brand or persona, but a real reputation and a real personality.
And you know what else? I still have what’s left of an attention span. I can still read a book. I still show people respect by not using my phone during a conversation, a meeting or a meal. I have real relationships because I grew up socializing with real people in the real world.
Whew. Let’s take a deep breath and bring this back down to Earth.
Look, I’ve been espousing the evils of generational stereotypes for years. I’m just going a little over-the-top here to make a point. Each one of us is a unique individual with distinct differences and capabilities. And judging people any other way – for personal or professional reasons – is simply ludicrous.
The problems with the U.K. study and the way it’s being communicated are simple.
First, the questions that make up the DQ are highly superficial. They don’t measure anything but knowledge of phrases and how you use certain popular and consumer technology. It says nothing about your capability with respect to that technology or anything else, for that matter.
Second, the study is of a snapshot in time. The whole idea of technological knowledge and understanding peaking at a certain age is purely situational because the age of digital technology began during the baby boomer generation and came of age with millennials.
Sure, if you’re older and just now starting to use a PC or a smartphone for the first time, it will be challenging. But then, you have the knowledge, hands-on experience, common sense, reasoning ability and wisdom of a lifetime. And that value is incalculable.
Of course children easily adapt to new things. It’s the same with technology as it is with languages. It’s what their brains do. And you know what? Just as I never lost my facility and fascination with technology as I aged, neither will they.
So let me just say this once and for all: There is no real correlation between age and technological capability. It’s just a myth. What is real, however, is the damage that myth does to real people’s careers and lives, all in the name of chasing page views and Twitter followers.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, executive coach, columnist, and former senior executive. He runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting where he advises executives and business leaders on anything and everything. Contact Tobak.