Tensions Around Experience, Formal Knowledge and Innovation

While actually working, the chief divisions between the generations relate, on the one hand, to the real or supposed differences in aptitude for using ICTs, and on the other to the paradoxical character of experience in relation to formal knowledge on the one hand and the imperative of innovation on the other.

Aptitudes for ICT

In the six countries investigated, the interviewees tend to agree in seeing older workers as having limited skills in the field of ICT. Young workers see themselves as more competent in ICT, and are also so described by older workers, while older workers see themselves as less competent and reluctant to engage with new technologies. A young Belgian manager in his 30s offers his ambivalent view:

I used to work with older people when I started ... real stickers for procedure. What age is it for “older people”? Fifty ... My mother is a teacher. Imagine her office, it’s full of papers. I don’t have a hundredth of all that, unbelievable, isn’t it? Except it’s not. These days, there’s less paper everywhere, there’s no need to make little drawings to understand each other, things like that. On the other hand, the older ones are perhaps better than us at concretising things at meetings. Perhaps because we stay too much behind our computers, we’re just fifteen feet apart and we never even say “Hey, what d’you think of this?” Why? Because we don’t see each other any longer. I’ve noticed, I’ve got colleagues just opposite me, and it’s very rare that we speak to each other. Everyone has an iPod in their ears, and we send each other e-mails. It’s sad, it’s sad.

The question of ICT is very often brought up by both younger and older workers, very rarely by the middle generation. Nonetheless, numerous national and European surveys have shown that the age-related digital divide largely disappears with time, especially at work.[1] The recent EWCS 2010 data show that for the six countries under investigation (except for Portugal), but also for the European workforce as a whole, that there is little difference between the under-30s and the 50-and-overs in the regular use of ICT at work.[2] For Europe as a whole, 33.5 % of under-30s are regular users of ICT at work, 38 % of 30-49-year-olds, and 33 % for the 50-and-overs, that is, only 1 percentage point less than the youngest. In France and Belgium, there are even more regular users of ICT among older workers than among the younger. In Germany, Hungary and Italy, young regular users outnumber the old by between 1 and 4 percentage points. Portugal is however distinctive in having more than twice as high a percentage of regular users among the under-30s as among the 50-and-overs (36 % as opposed to 17 %).

The same goes for regular use of the internet and e-mail in the course of work. For Europe as a whole, 24 % of under-30s regularly use the internet at work, 29 % of 30-49s, and 24 % of the 50-and-overs, very nearly the same percentage for younger as for older workers. Portugal again stands out among the six countries studied.

Given the proportions of users of ICTs and the internet in each age group revealed in the results of the EWCS 2010 survey, one may hypothesise that the perception of differences in aptitude rests in part on stereotype or prejudice. This is a matter worth spending a little time over, because the relationship to ICT is seen as a clear distinguishing factor between generations, especially between youngest and oldest. A number of studies have looked at the use of ICT by different groups and at the skills mobilised by users.[3] The demarcation between young and old is not as clear as is implied by the stereotypes current in society generally and in the world of work more particularly. A typology proposed by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research in 2001,[4] since utilised and elaborated upon by other authors/[5] distinguishes three kinds of digital skills: the instrumental skills involved in the operation of hardware and software; the structural or informational skills required to exploit online content (finding, selecting, understanding, evaluating and processing information); and the strategic skills to make active use of the information, judging its significance to one’s own situation and using it to inform decision-making at work or in private life. The same authors have shown that if the young do indeed have better instrumental skills, their elders had an even greater advantage over them in strategic skills. Furthermore, the successive surveys conducted by Eurostat show that the key factor in the digital divide today is no longer age but income and level of education.[1]

Older workers (the 50-and-overs) belong to the last generation to have spent a significant part of its working life without encountering ICT. They were not trained in the use of these technologies when they were young, nor did ICTs have any place in their home life. Their first experience of them then came at a time when interfaces were not very

Diversite et vulnerabilite dans les usages des TIC. La fracture numerique au second degre (Gent: Academia Press, 2011); Neil Selwyn, Stephen Gorard and John Furlong, Adult Learning in the Digital Age: Information, Technologies and the Learning Society (London: Routledge, 2005); Luc Mertens et al., Digitaal over de drempel, e-book (Leuven: Linc, 2007); Neil Selwyn and Keri Facer, Beyond the Digital Divide: Rethinking Digital Inclusion for the 21st Century, (London: FutureLab, 2007); Mark Warschauer, Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2003).

user-friendly and the new technologies were suspected of being responsible for mass redundancies in certain industries or large organisations. They formed part of a context characterised by increased unemployment and lay-offs. For the younger generation, ICTs are an integral part of everyday life. They encounter them first in their leisure-time activities, and the technologies are already familiar tools when they later embark on their working lives. They are expert in the use of many different kinds.

They play video games, visit forums, stay in touch with friends using instant messaging, mobile phones, and web sites such as Facebook; they turn to the internet (rather than the library) for their school work; they watch TV, take photos with digital cameras or mobile phones; they are often users of multiple virtual environments on the web.[7]

This overgeneralising vision of young people however obscures the significant differences between then in respect of their relationships to ICT and the skills they possess. A Belgian study of young people of 16 to 25 showed that far from being the homogeneous group suggested by talk of digital natives, the young were a highly diverse group and that some among them found themselves in a position of “digital marginalisation”, explained in most cases by family structure, cultural milieu and level or type of education rather than economic circumstances.[8] This study also shows that there is a mismatch between young people’s actual use of the internet and the expectations of them in terms of the use of ICT at work. In brief, all these studies tend to qualify the somewhat caricatural though widespread understanding of the difference in ICT skills between young and old.

For the over-50s, the ICTs represent one of the great changes to have happened at work over the last 20 years. They arrived alongside changes in modes of corporate organisation, with the emergence of business networks, the expansion of sub-contracting, the growth of services, the automation of informal tasks, the codification of tasks and skills, multiskilling and flexibility. In this sense, ICTs serve as an emblem for 20 years of transformation, even if their precise role in this remains debatable.[9] ICTs at work are the concrete, everyday expression of the shift from the industrial to the information society, from collective to neo-liberal principles of organisation. One corollary of this vision of the distribution of ICT skills is the belief that to be old is to be attached to bygone times, to be reluctant to change. We may hypothesise that differences of skill in the field of ICT reflect the opposition between two ages of capitalism and two historical contexts that differ in many respects.

  • [1] Eurostat Information Society Database.
  • [2] Eurofound, EWCS 2010.
  • [3] Perine Brotcorne, Lotte Damhuis, Veronique Laurent, Gerard Valenduc and Patricia Vendramin,
  • [4] Jan Steyaert and Jos De Haan, Geleidelijk digital: een nuchtere kijk op de sociale gevolgen van ICT(The Hague: Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, 2001).
  • [5] Patricia Vendramin and Gerard Valenduc, Internetetinegalites. Une radiographie de lafracturenumerique (Brussels: Labor, 2003), and “Fractures numeriques, inegalites sociales et processusd’appropriation des innovations”, Terminal 95-6 (2006), pp. 137—154; Jan A.G.M. Van Dijk, TheDeepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society (London: Sage Publications, 2005).
  • [6] Eurostat Information Society Database.
  • [7] Meyers, “Millennial workers”.
  • [8] Perine Brotcorne, Luc Mertens and Gerard Valenduc, “Les jeunes offline et la fracture numeri-que. Les risques d’inegalites dans la generation des ‘natifs numeriques’”, report published by theBelgian Federal Ministry for Social Integration, Brussels, October 2009.
  • [9] 2 Gerard Valenduc, La Technologic, unjeu desociete (Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia-Bruylant, 2005).
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