Digital Natives & Age Discrimination


Increasingly employers are being scrutinized for trying to hide age discrimination practices behind a seemingly innocuous search for “digital natives,” younger candidates considered more tech-aware.

In recruiter-speak, according to journalist Vivian Giang, writing in Fortune, the term is no longer just a glib demographic reference to kids who grew up playing video games. It is code for excluding older candidates from applying for jobs deemed so dependent on their use of technology, that older generations — Boomers, and likely even older GenXers — couldn’t possibly qualify or keep up. Employers want Digital Natives on the mistaken and debunked assumption that having been born during the internet age automatically makes one more capable of using technology than someone born earlier.

Marc Prensky, the man credited with coining the term in 2001, initially wrote that Digital Natives: …”today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.” Those born earlier, and brought up before these technological conventions he called “Digital Immigrants,” who “learn — like all immigrants, some better than others — to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their ‘accent,’ that is, their foot in the past.”

There is an intrinsic flaw in Prenksy’s analogy, an unseemly bias that reveals either a careless choice of metaphor, or a wacky misreading of the history of American business. A good deal of the innovation and cultural enrichment in this country has always been, and continues to be driven by, immigrants. Let’s look at the tech industry itself, which includes innovators like Andy Grove, the Hungarian born former Chair and co-founder of Intel, Vinod Khosla, the Indian-born co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and Sergey Brin, the Russian-born co-founder of Google.

These guys are the real Digital Immigrants.

It makes no business sense that smart young entrepreneurs, looking to infuse their companies with the obvious synergies found in a diverse workforce would undermine their success by limiting their hiring to people who are their own age. Unless it is because they are biased against workers over 50 (and likely over 40 as well).

In the intervening years, Prensky has modified his view on Natives vs. Immigrants, and now prefers to address the need for Digital Wisdom. And while I think we can all admit that the cliche of technologically clueless adults has a kernel of truth to it, the digital gap between Boomers, GenXers, Millennials, and even the upcoming GenZers, has been eroding steadily over the last fifteen years. We now take for granted that teenagers are leaving Facebook in droves (down 25% in 2014) because their parents and grandparents are adopting it (GenXers aged 35-54 jumped 41 percent, while Boomers aged 55+ jumped 80 percent). True digital competence includes far more than the ability to consume digital media.

Nevertheless, according to Giang’s investigation, younger recruiting managers appear to be willfully overlooking the fact that younger workers don’t necessarily mean more technologically savvy workers, just because they have been raised as consumers of technology products.

As the Dublin-based technology certification foundation ECDL found in their 2014 study, The Fallacy of the Digital Native: Why Young People Need to Develop their Digital Skills, exposure to technology is no guarantee that they know how to use it. Across multiple studies of current students, ECDL found that:

  • Students were lacking in critical abilities to analyze and respond to information.
  • “Lifestyle” skills (social interaction, information browsing) do not equate to “Workplace” skills (creating/manipulating documents and communications within project-based, software-linked teams).
  • Young people tend to overestimate their digital skills, which do not hold up when they are tested.

In addition to being wrong, excluding older workers is illegal. Giang points out that specifically excluding Boomers from job opportunities is prohibited by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. This hasn’t prevented recruiters and hiring managers (even within Giang’s own Time, Inc. HR department) from knowingly or unknowingly flouting the law and openly posting jobs that call for Digital Natives. While many of the job postings have been changed or taken down, Giang’s investigation turns up a slew of other examples. When confronted, recruiters and hiring managers talk like kids caught with a fistful of cookies. They know that they can’t defend the practice, and certainly aren’t going to cop to it in print.

Unfortunately, enforcement is not easy. Despite over 20,000 claims filed for age discrimination in 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission only filed charges in 121 of those claims — but 111 of them were for discrimination against older applicants. While use of the term “Digital Native” is not yet recognized as discriminatory by the EEOC, it is only because no one has yet filed a claim that specifically references its usage.

Employment attorneys contacted in the article say that while a negative job posting may indicate discrimination, it is tough to make it stick in court. There needs to be a greater preponderance of evidence than just that one element.

While this is all being sorted out, Boomers can continue to do their part by embracing technology skills and applying our old-school critical thinking skills to remind everyone at work that technology is only a means to an end. Managing it can be learned. Because guess what? It’s all going to turn over and change again by the time today’s GenZ teenagers are hitting the job market in the next five to ten years. Adaptability and openness to change are far more important than any single learn-able skill.

Remember: we are the Digital Founders, the Boomers who invented the technological world of software (Bill Gates/Microsoft), devices (Steve Jobs/Apple), the World Wide Web (Tim Berners-Lee/C.E.R.N.) and eCommerce (Jeff Bezos/Amazon) that binds the planet together and, for better or worse, makes it tick.

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John Tarnoff is a career transition coach, speaker and best-selling author who helps late-career professionals transition to meaningful second-act careers beyond traditional retirement.

Following a successful career as a Hollywood film executive and tech entrepreneur, he reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology to focus on professional development and training.

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