Since the early 2000s after the release of Marc Prensky’s article On the Horizon, many businesses have used the categories of ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ to refer to people born after or before 1980.
While a digital native grew up immersed in technology and is therefore assumed to be naturally proficient with new digital technologies, digital immigrants came of age in the analogue era and had to migrate to the digital world1. As a result, it was thought that digital immigrants would always be one step behind digital natives.
However, research published in 2017 has found that the idea of a digital native is a myth and there is no significant difference between millennials and older generations regarding their skill in using technology2.
According to the study’s authors, there is no evidence to back up the assumption that an individual will be better with technology simply because of their age3. Young people’s exposure, experience and comfort in using technology is anything but uniform4 and factors such as socio-economic status are much more likely to impact digital skills5.
Even Marc Prenksy, who coined the terms digital native and digital immigrant, thinks people have taken them too literally, telling Huffington Post they’re actually metaphors.
“It’s a metaphor for people moving into a new culture and a new society and things changing. [It’s] not about age, but about profound shifts in cultural attitudes. Young people today are part of a new ‘digitally enabled’ culture, which has given them very different perspectives ― on technology, sharing, privacy, ways to meet people, ways to communicate, ways to get work, ways to travel, and a great deal more ― than the generation(s) that came before.”6
However, this view still reduces the complexity and diversity of both the individuals and the technology they use7. It plays into the stereotype that older workers see new technology and work systems as a threat to the way of life they’re accustomed to and will therefore be resistant to them.
The Australian HR Institute says these sorts of views can also mistake taste for talent, meaning that although younger generations may prefer to communicate digitally, it doesn’t mean that they’re better at it than their older peers8.
Assuming younger workers will be ‘digital natives’ who are adept at picking up new technology or work systems is also harmful for these workers, who may need someone with more experience to show them how to use technology in the workplace9.
Multiple studies have shown that even though younger generations are early adopters of digital tools and are more familiar with lifestyle technology, they have serious gaps in their knowledge of workplace technology10.
So how does this impact your business?
According to Huffington Post, the digital native myth has been used by many businesses to shape their corporate environments, particularly in this digitally-connected era that has seen digital literacy become one of the most valuable skills to organisations.
This means that many business leaders are assuming that ‘digital native’ young people will have these skills because of their immersion in digital technologies and social media.
However, digital literacy isn’t just about navigating various technologies, it’s also about having the digital competence to:
Extract implicit and explicit ideas from digital media
Stay safe online
Collaborate and communicate across media
Be creative with the tools at hand or conclusions drawn11
These are not skills that young people will automatically have by virtue of their competence in the use of social media, apps and smart devices.
That’s why training providers around the country are starting to embed digital literacy skills into courses so that workers are not only aware of emerging technologies in their industry but also how they might be applied within a business. It’s also why a growing number of businesses are investing in upskilling for staff to ensure they recognise how emerging technologies will impact business operations.
The take-away message?
Don’t assume your employees have or don’t have digital skills simply because of their age. This might seem like common sense to some but a national survey by the ABC found people as young as 45 were being subject to patronising attitudes where employers or colleagues assumed they would struggle to pick up new technology quickly due to their age12. The opposite is the case, according to a survey of IT workers in the US and Europe, which found older workers experience less trouble working with multiple devices than their younger colleagues and are less likely to find using technology in the workplace stressful13.
As Tilted Chair Media Director Jake Rector writes, “because of the ‘digital native’ hype, it’s easy to forget that Baby Boomers were the ones who made the personal computer a common household appliance and email a normal means of communication.”14
Author: Adelle King
1 Stillman, J 2017, 'The Idea of the 'Digital Native' is a Total Myth, Science Says', Inc., viewed 30 May, <https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/science-digital-natives-are-no-better-at-tech-than.html>.
2 Kirschner, P & De Bruyckere, P 2017, 'The myths of the digital native and the multitasker', Teaching and Teacher Education, vol. 67, pp. 135-142.
5 Thomas, J, Barraket, J, Wilson, CK, Cook, K, Louie, YM, Holcombe-James, I & Ewing, S 2018, Measuring Australia's Digital Divide: The Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2018, RMIT University for Telstra.
6 Brenoff, A 2017, 'There's No Such Thing As 'Digital Natives'', Huffington Post, viewed 30 May, <https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/digital-natives-dont-actually-exist_n_599c985de4b0a296083a9e8a>.
7 Frawley, J 2017, 'The myth of the 'digital native'', The University of Sydney, , viewed 30 May, <https://sydney.edu.au/education-portfolio/ei/teaching@sydney/digital-native-myth/>.
8 Dorney, G 2017, 'Digital natives, and the death of another millennial myth', Australian HR Institute, viewed 30 May, <https://www.hrmonline.com.au/recruitment/digital-natives-death-another-myth/>.
9 Brenoff, A 2017, 'There's No Such Thing As 'Digital Natives'', Huffington Post, viewed 30 May, <https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/digital-natives-dont-actually-exist_n_599c985de4b0a296083a9e8a>.
10 ECDL Foundation 2014, The Fallacy of the 'Digital Native': Why Young People Need to Develop their Digital Skills.
11 Levy, LA 2018, '11 Digital Literacy Myths, Debunked', USCRossier, viewed 30 May, <https://rossieronline.usc.edu/blog/digital-literacy-myths/>.
12 Irving, J 2017, 'Age discrimination in the workplace happening to people as young as 45: study', ABC News,, viewed 30 May, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-28/age-discrimination-at-work-starts-at-45-study/8480992>.
13 Patrizio, A 2016, 'Think older workers struggle with technology? Think again', CIO, viewed 30 May, <https://www.cio.com/article/3103893/think-older-workers-struggle-with-technology-think-again.html>.
14 Rector, J 2017, 'The 3 myths about digital immigrants', Tilted Chair, viewed 30 May, <https://tiltedchair.co/2017/08/03/3-myths-about-digital-immigrants/>.