What is the difference between digital natives and digital immigrants in the workplace? - Preparing you for the future of work.

What is the difference between digital natives and digital immigrants in the workplace?

We’re all familiar with the term Baby Boomer (1946 – 1964), Gen X (1965 – 1976) and Gen Y (1977 – 1995) - with the latter more commonly known as the Millennial - and we have a basic understanding of each, but what happens when you group these generations together under one corporate roof in a world predominately ruled by technology?

At the risk of generalising, computers have been and remain to be foreign to Baby Boomers. The adoption of technology seems to be more out of sufferance than passion or desire. I suspect that not having the advantage of being part of this revolution during the peak learning years (19-20 years old) has been a big setback. The converse is true for Millennials. They have grown up being surrounded by technology and digital devices from birth. I call this group “digital natives” because the learning curve has been through absorption rather than learning.

When referring to my own generation (Gen X) and Baby Boomers, I describe this group as ‘digital immigrants’ because, the introduction of technology meant having to learn something completely new and foreign. When I was in school computer class was often used as a chance to catch up on unfinished homework (or sleep). It was only after school that I really started to enjoy and understand the power of computers.

The natural progression of technology for personal and home use was only made easy after the launch of Apple’s iLife suite (iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, iWeb and GarageBand) in 2002 touted the “Microsoft Office” for your home. This followed the introduction of smartphones. These handheld computers were revolutionised in January 2007 as Apple introduced iPhone and iOS (Apple’s operating system), catalysing an entirely new digital transition for digital immigrants to come to terms with.

In addition to a shift in personal use, this also leads to a new way of working. Today, the workplace consists of individuals from all walks of life. As a business owner, you need to know the possible pros and cons of each generation in terms of working style, and ease of technological adoption.

digital table

There are many factors to consider when operating a business with a multi-generational staff contingent.

The direct link between access to information and ability to learn is having a significant and unique impact. Millennials are constantly bombarded with information and coupled with the retention and understanding of this information results in an increase in the pace of change. This increase in the pace of change is becoming increasingly difficult for Baby Boomers and Gen X to be able to keep up with. The net result of this is that the world is becoming a Millennial world at an increasing rate – a transition which is faster than we have ever experienced before.

Below are guidelines as to how one should go about managing a diverse generational workforce:

1. There is no one-size-fits-all approach

Traditionally, Baby Boomers have shown a tendency to stay with a company for most of their working life. However, as the years progress, individuals are exposed to different upbringings and, Millennials in particular, tend to be more focused on making career moves that will accelerate their career growth at a more rapid pace. This often leads to what many term ‘job hopping.’

There is no longer a traditional career path, “and in order to retain young talent, managers need to adjust development and training programmes to ensure there is regular growth and continuous career challenges.”

2. Difference in learning styles

Millennials are constantly looking for clear, continuous feedback and structured reviews. This differs when it comes to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who are more familiar with a traditional work structure and work scope – often not requiring praise for a job well done. Leaders in a business need to recognise that different review structures and management styles are necessary when introducing younger talent to the business. 

3. Be aware of the differences and embrace them

While Millennials are providing a fresh injection of ideas, creativity and technological solutions, it does not mean that previous generations are no longer contributing to the company. It needs to be made clear to employees where their strengths and weaknesses lie. A Millennial will not have the industry knowledge compared to that of a Baby Boomer or Gen X individual, whereas a Baby Boomer might be lacking in technological adoption. It is our job as leaders to ensure strengths and weaknesses are acknowledged and can be leveraged off one another.

The only way that businesses will survive is to adapt to this new way of working and be flexible enough to respond to the inevitable rapid changes ahead.

Robin Olivier is the Managing Director at Digicape.

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