Why Digital Immigrants Need to Get Over the Labels


There is a growing divide in society, especially felt in the workplace – the so called digital immigrants versus the digital natives.  Earlier this week I took a look at Why Digital Natives Should Not Be Feared.  In short, digital natives do not necessarily have the technology skills they are assumed to have; using and understanding are very different things.  

This is only half of the damage these labels are doing.  For the over 30 crowd, and especially those over 40, there is a mistaken impression that they are too old to be useful when around technology, digital and social media, just because they aren’t “natives.”

A recent article in Forbes Magazine questioned the validity the digital native versus digital immigrant divide in “Digital Smackdown: “digital dinosaurs vs. digital natives” and being too old to be digital.  In an overheard conversation, a Global Vice Chair said, “…As a soon-to-be 50-year-old dinosaur, I’m not going to be able to understand this world in the way that the youngest generation understands it today…”

I’ve heard very tech savvy individuals utter the same fear.  “What do I have to offer at my age?  The young ones know better.”  Worse still, the first image that comes up in a Google Images search for “digital immigrant” is the one above; grey hair versus the kid.

In all technicality, anyone over the age of 30 is a digital immigrant.  They didn’t start out with a personal computer from the cradle.  What we do need to remember is proficiency with technology are skills to be learned.  The 30+ crowd are the ones who developed and implemented these technologies.  As Jamye Harrison says on his blog, “I haven’t grown up with Facebook and Twitter so I may not be a Digital Native. However I’m not afraid to embrace innovations and disruptive technology – I’m not a Digital Immigrant. Digital Pioneer seems a reasonable enough label for now.”

Distancing ourselves from the labels is a great idea.

The “digital immigrant” label, as widely perceived, doesn’t take into account perspective and experience – granted, these are things our youth worshipping society generally undervalues.  But, both of these qualities must be developed over time.  They are key elements in problem solving, leadership and seeing the big picture.  A business, organization or society will not grow as quickly and as stably without experienced individuals to advise and lead.

In fact, there is some evidence indicating that a social media presence by the top executives of a company may be beneficial to the workforce and customers.

In a recent survey titled “CEO, Social Media and Leadership” by brandfog.com, respondents felt overwhelmingly that executives should be on social media.

  • 94% said that CEO’s and an organization’s executive leadership team enhance the brand image by participating on social media.
  • 82% of respondents trust a company whose CEO and leadership team communicate via social media
  • 77% were more likely or much more likely to buy from a company whose values and mission are defined though CEO on social media

We are doing ourselves a disservice by lending credence to labels such as “digital  native” or “digital immigrant.”  Social media is not difficult to learn how to use.  These websites are built specifically with the ease of the end user in mind; if it’s too complex, it probably won’t catch on.

As Forbes writer Rhonda Hurwitz relates, “If you had asked me what I knew about social media 5 years ago, I probably would have said… ‘Nothing!’  Now, I happily learn something new about social media practically every day, and this has become a large part of my job.”

Let’s be honest, anything in this world can be learned with some concentration, determination and sometimes a little help.  If we start believing we’re “over the technological hill” just because a younger group has been labelled as more proficient, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Technology is ever changing, faster and faster, but as it changes both the older AND younger crowd must adapt.

I suggest, we do away with all the labels and realize it should be the goal of ALL people to continue learning for the good of their jobs and themselves, to innovate in all parts of life.

As Tom Clancy says, “Life is about learning; when you stop learning, you die.”  I’m sure the 50 year old dinosaur is not ready to “pass-on”, digitally or otherwise, so get learning.  The internet is a big place – all the resources are there to be discovered.



Image Source: ashleighgraham