Generational Approaches to Technology

On Sunday night I was enjoying a meal with my father, bonus mom, and several friends of theirs when I made the “mistake” of checking my phone because it vibrated, indicating that I had an email. Soon thereafter, I was treated to an extended discussion (grilling?) about how “your generation” uses technology. It was a bit like listening to an older version of my lecture to Millennials about what is and is not appropriate to share on social media, and while the conversation was civil, it did lead me to think enough to write a blog about it.

Generations in the workplace

To refresh your memory, here are what is generally meant by generations in the U.S. based on birth year (note: years may vary depending on which historians you believe):

Silent Generation: 1925-1945
Baby Boomer: 1946-1964
Generation X: 1965-1981
Millennials (Gen Y): 1982-1995
Generation Z: 1995+

The gentleman I was talking with was from the Silent Generation, I’m a Gen Xer, so our outlooks on social behavior and technology were–no surprise–markedly different. Individuals born in that generation had access to technologies, to be sure, but some of them don’t exist anymore and, obviously, many things that I grew up with didn’t exist in their 20s and 30s. So for the Silent Generation, their basis of experience included the telephone, telegraph/telegram, telex, black-and-white television, and punch-card computers. Meanwhile, when I was growing up (say, ages 5 to 30), I was working with the land-line telephone (later the mobile phone–I was 38 when the first iPhone came out), fax machine, mainframe and desktop computer (later the laptop), green-screen and early graphic-based software, the first “dot-com” boom, and the beginnings of the Internet.

From his perspective…

From my father’s friend’s perspective, I was, first of all, being rude by checking my phone at all at the dinner table. In his mind, there was nothing that couldn’t wait a couple hours for a response. He also admitted, however, that he was at a different point in life–retired for the most part, his type of expertise was seldom an “emergency.” And unlike me, he wasn’t in the process of growing a business, as I am. His biggest gripe about taking a call or email at the dinner table was that I was missing out on personal interactions (what my generation would call “face time”).

He also wanted to know, if he were currently employing someone 30 or under, whether he would need to check their social media usage as part of a background check.

From my perspective…

I have received calls, texts, and emails that have requested, required, or yes, demanded my immediate attention or action. I consider it polite to keep my phone on “silent” (vibrate) mode at all times because I consider ring tones distracting. Given that I am, as he put it, growing a business, it’s to my advantage to be as responsive as possible. And quite frankly, thanks to the tools at my (and my customers’) disposal, that type of 24/7 responsiveness has become expected.

My father’s friend wanted to know if I ever felt out of control of my life or if I ever push back against the relentless demands of the electronic machine in my pocket. I explained that, yes, I do turn the bloody thing off every night before I go to sleep. I had found that keeping the phone on (and buzzing) while I slept increased my level of stress and decreased my likelihood of getting a decent night’s rest. My responses might differ from others–even among fellow Gen Xers–but I have found a happy medium that works for me. And while I have been known to resent it a bit, I have taken business calls or emails while on vacation–again, because it’s expected. Unless I’m going somewhere where cellular coverage is unavailable or spotty, I expect that I’ll get at least one or two calls from clients that it behooves me to take.

The technology has conditioned people to respond to it simply because it’s possible.

Mind you, I would have had a completely different conversation with a Baby Boomer or a Millennial about the appropriateness of technology use–and it’s worth considering those differences when operating in a mixed-generation workplace. For example, when working with customers above a certain age, I know that it is easier to reach them by voice (phone) or personal presence. They grew up at a time when personal presence was more valued because it was more reliable and considered the “gold standard” for business interactions. Now, I’d say a couple of Gen Xers could have a verbal conversation, but odds are that one or the other would email the other and summarize/confirm the main points of that talk so that it was on the record as we understand it.

Bottom line: It is entirely possible that tensions over how people use instantaneous mobile technologies will diminish once everyone grows up with them. However, as a couple people pointed out to me when I brought up this topic, succeeding generations (say, Gen Y/Z) might have to cope with chip-in-the-brain technologies that don’t even require external devices. Regardless, our technologies exist to facilitate communication between people; how individuals–especially people who have grown up at different periods in history using differing levels of reliable technology–might have very different ideas about what they mean by communicating, and those differing perspectives must be taken into account as we develop communication products or simply interact in the workplace.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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