Twitter. Reddit. Pinterest. Instagram. For workers who are under 35, these brand names are just air they breathe. For those of us over 40, they’re likely to cause heartburn.
In fact, there’s a reason fat-fingered midlifers have turned into their own Internet clichés. (Seriously, stupid parent texts are the meme of the moment.) It’s because there is so much truth in the digital divide. “Boomers see technology as a tool that helps them do things,” says Erin Read Ruddick, client services director at Creating Results, a marketing company that specializes in this demographic. “For Gen Y, it’s just something that they do.”
Unfortunately, reversing public perception is probably not an option. (Blondes have been fighting those jokes for years, too.) But experts say there are five ways you can bridge the tech gap and work better with your younger colleagues:
Quit grumbling. Not only does it make you sound older than an eight-track tape player, it’s futile. “Whatever new technology your company uses, it’s going to prevail,” says Kathy Caprino, a career coach at Ellia Communications. “You balking over how hard it is to add a row to your spreadsheets in the new software just wastes your time.” Younger coworkers have pet peeves too, she points out, and may prefer Firefox to Chrome or Word over Pages. The difference is they don’t make a fuss about changing.
Get a tech mentor. Seriously. “You should create reverse mentoring situations where you learn about new technology from Gen Y, while helping mold Gen Y into the future leaders,” says Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and author of Me 2.0. You’ll get an edge, and your younger co-workers want to help: A recent MTV survey found that 76 percent of Millennials think their boss could learn a lot from them.
Make it personal. While most midlifers came of age believing that it’s more professional to keep work and personal lives separate, younger workers strongly disagree. They’d rather be pals than professional—93 percent in the MTV study say it’s important that they can be themselves on the job, 88 percent expect to be friends with coworkers, and 89 percent want their workplaces to be fun and social. And that absolutely drives their tech uses, from group texts to social networking: Not only do they want to “friend” coworkers, MTV found, the majority want a Facebook connection with their boss. By not joining in their social sharing, you send the message that you don’t want to have the kind of collegial relationship they crave.
Join the crowd . Younger workers are far more collaborative, which explains why so much technology has moved toward shared documents and files, including crowdsourcing. And Ruddick says understanding what’s behind the technology is more important than the tech itself. “Take Google docs. It’s an open document, and there may be 20 people piling on, blurring and sharing.” By bridling at the technology, she says, you convey that you don’t want to collaborate, and don’t value their input.
When you share information with coworkers for projects, she says, “make sure it is always scannable and skimmable. Remember, many of your coworkers will read it on their phones, not computers.” And nothing says “I grew up before the Internet” like a 1,500 word memo.
Finally, relax. Caprino had a breakthrough when, in frustration, she recently handed her new phone to her teen-age son for help. “He didn’t know how to work it either. But here I’m thinking, `I’m going to wreck it somehow,’ and he’s just randomly pushing buttons, saying, `I can figure it out.’ I took it back and said, `I can figure it out, too.’”