This piece was first published on May 28 in Social Media Today.
The last of the Baby Boomers turns 50 next year. A generation that once exhorted its contemporaries to not trust anyone over the age of 30 passed that milestone a long time ago. Now they find themselves targets of doubt and skepticism, especially with respect to their ability to handle advanced technologies. But like so many other stereotypes, this one is based on at least two misconceptions. The first is that older workers are largely incapable of effectively adopting and managing new systems such as social media. The second is that social media is, in fact, new.
Older Minds Still Work Fine
During the past several years, numerous studies have challenged the conventional wisdom about the performance of older employees. Work by the Stanford University-based Scientific Research Network on Decision Neuroscience and Aging, for example, has found that older people often make better decisions than younger ones. It seems that when persons age they selectively remember more meaningful information and are more inclined to distinguish between what is important and what is not.
Moreover, according to Barbara Strauch, the New York Time’s deputy science director and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, the middle-aged mind, though slower to assimilate new information, can nonetheless recognize patterns more quickly and reach conclusions more efficiently than can its less mature counterpart. Plus many Baby Boomers have been witness to a seemingly unprecedented explosion of technology since their mid-30s, says Dr. Karen Riggs, a media studies professor at Ohio University and author of Granny @Work: Age and Technology on the Job in America. So they are often more technologically adept than they are given credit for; which gets at the heart of the second myth.
Social is Middle-Aged
Despite various claims that social media is still too new to be fully understood, it has already crossed the half-century mark, having been conceived in 1962 by JCR Licklider in a paper entitled On-Line Man Computer Communication. As head of the Information Processing Techniques Office at the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Licklider was 47 when he championed the principle of social interaction across a network of computers. Seven years later, a team of scientists and engineers took his idea and produced the ARPANET, the precursor of the global Internet.
Its first participants comprised a smattering of individuals at four universities – Stanford, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. But as new networks were added, hundreds and then thousands of users followed and began tinkering with the notion of interactivity. In 1972, the first computer-to-computer chat took place at UCLA. A year later the first public bulletin board system (BBS) was established upstate in Berkeley. And the first dial-up BBS appeared in Chicago during the Great Blizzard of 1978, about the same time CompuServe launched its consumer information service featuring online forums.
The following decade saw the creation of Usenet, the global discussion system; the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), a popular online hangout for “Deadheads” who were avid fans of the jam band the Grateful Dead; and America Online, which by the turn-of-the-century surpassed all other forms of “virtual communities” to become the Internet’s first 800 pound gorilla with more than 30 million paying subscribers worldwide. By the time Friendster, MySpace, Facebook et al. came along, their founders simply did what innovators have been doing since the origin of invention – extending and building on the work of others.
Innovation is Integration
Innovation is an ongoing process, and augmentation is one of its fundamental principles. It can be decades “between the birth of an idea and when its implications are broadly understood and acted upon,” says Tom Agan, co-founder of the innovation and brand consulting firm Rivia. Hence, Millennials didn’t invent social media any more than Baby Boomers invented sex, drugs or rock and roll. Yet they have significantly advanced and enhanced it; and they will continue to drive future variations.
It would be a mistake however to deny a role for their elders. Granted, those with extensive social media expertise may be relatively few and far between, but their knowledge and experience can be extremely valuable. Just as important, there are nearly 100 million Americans over the age of 50 and their numbers are growing, as is their use of social media, particularly on Facebook, which younger users are apparently abandoning. In addition, Boomers control 70 percent of the nation’s total net worth and have more discretionary income than any other age group. Who better then to interact with them across social networks than their peers?
Developing and managing a successful social media strategy is not an either/or competition between generations. Not every 50- or even 60-year old is an antiquated technophobe. Nor is every 25-year-old a savvy digital native. Indeed, some studies have shown that many college students are far too trusting of what appears online, fostering the cliché that “if it’s on the Internet it must be true.” Other research suggests that the real differentiator is not age but income and education.
Thus, organizations will be best served if they look beyond age – or gender, race and ethnicity for that matter – for the most capable individuals. After all, diversity is another fundamental principle of innovation, because the best ideas usually don’t come from any single person or position, but where people and possibilities intersect.