About six months ago, I stood with my father in my parents’ kitchen and confessed to him that I had done what no other in my family had done: switched from cable TV to internet TV. I explained to him, in rigorous detail, the gist of the deal: “I’ve got all these channels, and my bill is now less than half what it used to be.” My father nodded and affirmed that it had been a shrewd decision on my behalf, but he also reflected on his own entertainment situation and the generation gap between us, and offered this:
“It makes sense, but, I don’t know. I think that I’m of a generation that largely is used to, and couldn’t do away with, three, five, and eight.”
Three, five, and eight are the NBC, ABC, and CBS affiliates in the Cleveland area. I let him know that he could still get broadcast channels through an alternate method, a suggestion that he politely shrugged off, and silently reaffirmed his commitment to cable television.
A couple of things about my father: This is a man that traded our Atari 5200 for a brand-new Nintendo NES console with a gold-plated, special edition Legend of Zelda cartridge to go with it. This is a man who has no less than seven devices on which he could watch video from his Netflix or Amazon Prime Video accounts. This is a man that switched his Sirius Radio account to a paid Spotify account because Sirius’ product and billing model had become too antiquated for him. This is also a man who’s considered at the very tail-end of the Baby Boomer generation.
Now, I’m not saying that my father was wrong in saying that he’s of a generation that’s used to cable TV, but I think that his example illuminates the fact that generational-gap thinking is a totally-imagined construct for today’s workforce. Unless you’re Jeremiah Johnson, growing your beard, making your own shoes, communicating with squirrels, and living your life in a self-imposed, mountainous exile from today’s workforce, you’re going to be experienced in societal changes and technological changes, whether it be blatantly obvious or not. You might not use Twitter, but if you’re reading this article, chances are you know what it is, or have heard a news story that used Twitter as a reference. That’s not necessarily a symptom of age, but more so one of exposure and understanding.
Imagined generational-constructs can separate our workforce when it comes to adult learning, and (of course), they tend to bleed into our learning design. As content creators and designers, we’re susceptible to the stereotypes and ageism that seem to seep into our (or our clients’) subconscious, and manifest them in development pitfalls and project roadblocks. In this article, I’m going to look at five of the biggest myths that contribute to imagined generation gaps in adult learning. In response to each of those five myths, I’ll review statistics that contradict and disprove those myths. I’ll also explore five ways to combat those restraining generational constructs in our own learning design.
Also, as a quick note, although age ranges on generation labels are sometimes disputed, for the purpose of this article, I consider the following: Baby Boomers were born between 1944 and 1964 (54 – 74 years old), Gen Xers were born between 1965 and 1979 (39 – 53 years old), and Millennials were born between 1980 and 1994 (38 – 24 years old).
Generational learning myths
- Modern work environments are a Millennial “thing.”
The term “modern work environment” generally conjures up images of Google, Lego, or Amazon workspaces. According to a recent study (see References at the end of this article), 51 percent of Millennials preferred this type of modern work environment, 42 percent of Gen Xers enjoyed the same, and 49 percent of Baby Boomers preferred a modern work environment, opposed to the standard, cubicle-driven silos. With each generation demographic split nearly 50-50, it could be assumed that the workplace preference correlates to learning environments and is why classroom learning is still existent in the age of virtual learning environments.
- Millennials are more likely to adopt new technology.
Baby Boomers (and to a lesser-extent, Gen Xers) have a bad rap for being overly technology-resistant. On the flip side, early tech adopters are always stereotypically thought of as Millennials connected to tech devices. But consider this: In a study (see References) on interest regarding virtual reality and augmented reality, Millennials only made up 44 percent of people interested in buying virtual reality and/or augmented reality equipment. So, when considering using appropriate tech in your learning pieces or events, keep in mind that resistance might not be based on the participants’ ages.
- Baby Boomers are more resistant to alternative learning mediums.
For new and alternative learning mediums, like technology, adoption isn’t dependent on age. For example, let’s look at gaming: The largest growing gaming demographic is women ages 50 – 65, and that includes a year-to-year increase of 32 percent. No other age demographic comes remotely close to that growth (including teens).
- Millennials have short attention spans.
Seen as the group that was most impressionable during the advent of YouTube, smartphones, and iTunes, Millennials are often categorized as having short attention spans, and helping push the proliferation of microlearning. However, it appears that attention spans have more to do with the presentation of the content, and not the consumers’ age: Of monthly podcast listeners, 44 percent were Millennials, as opposed to 33 percent Gen Xers. The average podcast duration is 22 minutes.
- Millennials are more adept at social media.
Often listed as a concern in implementing virtual, social-learning environments, Millennials are often seen as the main consumer and engaging audience of social media. In reality, Baby Boomers are 19 percent more likely to share content on social media sites than any other generation demographic. Baby Boomers who participate in social media were also found to have an average of 4.6 social media accounts.
Tips on avoiding generational biases
- Use the Design Thinking process.
Specifically, the empathize (or understanding) phase of the process. In getting to understand your learner deeper than face-value, it helps if you create solutions for your actual learner, not for a stereotype.
- Think day-to-day.
This refers to thinking about your learners’ day-to-day activities: What kind of learning do they currently take part in? What tech are they used to interacting with (and not particularly in the learning-space)? In mirroring the methods learners gather outside the workplace, the learning and adoption curves level out.
- Focus on the best vehicle for the material.
Often, when clients are opposed to using a specific medium or technology, they’ll use their users’ age as a basis for the opposition (“It’s not going to work for this group”), when in reality, they’ve had prior failures with buzzworthy learning tech or methods that sought out the new, fun thing rather than the appropriate medium.
- User testing.
Seek brutally honest feedback from a sampling of the learner base. If the feedback’s coming directly from your intended audience, there’s no room for bias.
- Consider tenure instead of age.
Many of the roadblocks that we encounter for learners are attributed to their age, when truthfully, factors that create that roadblock usually have more to do with their tenure in a particular position. Learners who have been entrenched in their current way of doing things are more apt to keeping things the way they are, including learning. This doesn’t mean that we need to halt our design for those roadblocks, we just need to find a way to engage these learners.
Ill-adoption to a new, well-crafted style or type of learning isn’t often due to a generation gap, or more specifically, to those characteristics we project onto a particular generation. As designers, we have to dig deeper in understanding our learning audience, and we have to marry their needs and wants with those of the client’s. When you’re pitching a project, keep in mind that these projections don’t always come from the designer: they can come from our clients as well. They are just as susceptible to generational stereotypes and ageism, as these pitfalls can provide easy exits from “risky” (see: innovative) learning. We must create meaningful, impactful learning solutions for our specific learners, regardless of age … or strict adherence to cable television subscriptions.
Cole, Samantha. “Debunking The Workplace Generation Gap Myth Once And For All.” Fast Company. 14 November 2014.
Edison Research. “The Podcast Consumer 2017.” 18 April 2017.
Harwell, Drew. “More women play video games than boys, and other surprising facts lost in the mess of Gamergate.” The Washington Post. 17 October 2014.
Jafrey, Irfan. “Social Media Matters For Baby Boomers.” Forbes. 6 March 2018.
Nielsen. “Virtual Reality Has Real Appeal Among U.S. Gamers.” 8 June 2017.