Digital equity for all ages? Not while ageism rules (Part 2) - Work

Digital equity for all ages? Not while ageism rules (Part 2) - Work

Ageism is interwoven in the story of the digital divide.  Many older jobseekers and employees tell stories of negative assumptions made about their digital literacy simply because of their age.  Others tell of their desire to improve their digital skills, but being overlooked for or denied training opportunities, or finding the training courses not designed to cater for them. 

Research and commentary around the world backs up these experiences with findings that recruiters and employers often hold attitudes that older people are incapable with digital technology and are unwilling and unable to learn.  Those holding these views also often interpret this as older people signalling other negatives such as inflexibility or general incompetence.

This is having a devastating effect on the employment security, employability and career development of many older workers.  It is also creating a dysfunctional barrier to continued workforce participation by older workers with enormous skills and talent to offer – and who are increasingly needed in our economy as our population ages. 

While it is true that statistically, overall, the older a person, the less digitally connected, confident and capable.  This makes sense.  The introduction of digital devices and the internet began when most of us who are now in our 60s and beyond were well into our adult lives – a so-called ‘cohort effect’.  Our cohort sits right at the momentous tipping point between the mechanical/analogue age and the digital age.   

But high level, overall statistics do not tell the full story.  Let’s start with a more considered and accurate picture of the diversity of older people’s digital engagement; especially when it comes to work.

Many of us in paid work or volunteering at older ages clearly do connect with the digital world, to greater or lesser extents.  Some of us have embraced digital culture and some of us have just steadily built our resilience and abilities to manage the changes throughout our working life.  

After all, it’s often pointed out that older adults invented much of today’s technology including the internet.  And over the past 30 years or so, many of us have participated in the development of, or at least kept up with multiple iterations of digital technology.

However, there is also a very real challenge facing those of us who have worked in jobs that historically have not involved computing.  Many of these occupations or industries have recently changed around us – either digitising or disappearing altogether and pushing us out to find work in other sectors, often with limited or no support to develop our digital literacy.   

Still others of us may have been using digital technology at work, but have found our mindset, skills and knowledge slip behind the pace of change, especially if we have been excluded from or opted out of training, or we are in insecure employment.

Clearly there is a complex digital divide among older people, as well as between older and younger, with both divides depending on factors such as specific age; gender; economic circumstances; education levels; employment status; and the type of work and work patterns we have had for most of our life.  No wonder so many of us are shocked and offended when we are tagged as digitally illiterate simply because of our age and with no reference to our individual situation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, in turn, added more layers to this picture.  It seems that the digital literacy of older people in general has taken a great leap forward during lockdowns.  Many older people have advanced their skills and willingness to engage with the digital world as remote working and the accelerated move online of public and consumer services has provided a huge boost in motivation and necessity. 

On the other hand, as we know, older jobseekers take much longer to find work than their younger counterparts at any time, and especially after an economic crisis.  Therefore, it remains to be seen whether the old bias and generalisations about our digital literacy will continue to be a barrier to employment during the post-pandemic recovery. 

To overcome the contribution of ageism to the digital divide, we will need change on several fronts.

Research repeatedly shows lower rates of training in general and in digital skills in particular offered to older employees, often based on ideas that the ROI isn’t there for employers.  Older workers are often viewed as too expensive to train or not sticking around long enough to warrant the investment.  It is easy to see how this approach can turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy, while an attitude adjustment and a more inclusive approach to older workers could reap great rewards for businesses.

Australia’s Willing to Work Inquiry also reported that older workers face barriers to participation in skills development including employer attitudes, lack of information about options, work and family commitments, financial difficulties and their own attitudes to participation — including doubts about their ability to succeed. 

Ageism plays a role in feeding these doubts, encouraging some older individuals to internalise self-negativity and a lack of confidence in our own competence.  It is hard to avoid being impacted by the common narrative that the digital divide affecting older adults is due to our own internal characteristics and failings, such as technophobia, inability to learn, resistance to new things and even physical and cognitive deficits.  

It can become a vicious cycle – ageist attitudes tell us we are not capable of learning digital skills; some of us internalise these repeated messages; and then become less likely to try to learn, to avoid failure or embarrassment.  This in turn can lead some of us to turn our backs on the digital world, lower our motivation to participate in it or even reduce our employment ambitions.

All of this adds up to a massive waste – a waste of human potential and opportunity, and a careless squandering of a critical labour force for the coming years. 

But there are many powerful institutions and grassroots initiatives recognising this and lining up to challenge the exclusion of older people from the digital world and work.

The United Nations designated the theme for 2021 UN International Day of Older Persons, “Digital Equity for All Ages”.  It’s first objective for this theme is to raise awareness of ageism in digital exclusion and assert older people’s digital inclusion as a human right.

The OECD has recently tackled the issues around older people and work (including digital inclusion) head-on in its important work on multi-generational workplaces and promoting an age-inclusive workforce, acknowledging ageism as a major barrier to age inclusive workforces. 

Among the many important recommendations from the OECD is that employment and training should be tailored to different individual circumstances and contexts – an individual capability model – as much more effective and accurate than assuming and designing by age.  

Along with many others (such as the World Economic Forum) the OECD continues to push for governments and companies to radically change their approach to training and skills development – to take more responsibility for delivering much more of it; to include workers of all ages across the life course; and to embed an employment culture of life-long learning, which will be critical if older workers of the future are not still having to play catch-up with the technological changes they face.   

A key point also made by the OECD, the World Economic Forum, the UN and so many others is that high level digital skills are not the only capabilities required for economic and business success.  Excluding the experience and talent of older people from work because of stereotyped views about our perceived lower digital ability or an absence of skill development options means that everyone loses out.

Australia’s CSIRO understands that current older people (and those in the future) have both the most to gain and the most to lose in work and beyond, from the digital revolution and subsequent developments.  According to CSIRO, the impacts of digital technology are potentially so profound that they could change our preconceptions about ageing, work and participation altogether.  But CSIRO also acknowledges that the ability to access and use digital technology will be a basic requirement for social and economic participation in the future.  

The Australian Government also recognises the need to support digital inclusion of older people in work and incorporates this into its Skills Checkpoint Program for older workers, among other initiatives.

These are just a few of the key national and international institutions that are weighing in on the issue of digital inclusion of older people in work and beyond and recognising the barrier of ageism.  

At a more grassroots level, Learning and Development professionals everywhere are challenging the myth that older adults are "not able to learn technology" and are creating (often alongside older people themselves) effective learning models tailored to the diverse needs of this group of people. 

And then there is EveryAGE Counts and other campaigns and organisations (many of them our members) who are advocating for the rights and needs of older people in the workplace and beyond, including digital inclusion. 

Be part of the campaign to end ageism.  Let us know your thoughts on digital inclusion and work, at [email protected] or comment below. 

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