Memo to older workers: Don't be a tech fossil

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)December 9, 2013 

20090323 Elderly tech

Research has shown that age doesn’t determine the ability to learn tech skills. A recent Northwestern University study of an internal social network at a large credit card company found that more experienced workers were more willing to embrace the technology than younger employees were.

RICK NEASE — MCT

— Ruthe Batulis saw her younger co-workers texting, tweeting and posting videos online. Rather than getting intimidated, she decided to join them in chatting on Twitter and sharing videos through Tout.

“You’re not just sitting there saying ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” said Batulis, 62, executive director of the Minnesota Recruiting and Staffing Association. “You say, ‘Can you show me how to do this?’ Then you’ll be able to do that the next time.”

Amid a tech revolution unmatched in scope and speed, more older workers are delaying retirement – and finding themselves racing to keep their skills updated. Careers that may have started with typewriters have stretched beyond punch cards and clunky desktops with dial-up Internet to the era of Wi-Fi, tablets and smartphones.

Technology in the workplace changes so fast that hardly anyone can keep up, and those on the far side of 40 are often assumed to be the farthest behind.

But Batulis and others who approach new tools with a mix of confidence and curiosity have found good reasons to tap into the latest technology.

Be plugged-in

Industry updates spill out daily on Twitter. LinkedIn exponentially expands the opportunities for networking. Presentations go beyond tired PowerPoint slides. Perhaps more than anything, dabbling in new technology demonstrates that experienced employees aren’t coasting into retirement.

“Age discrimination is real,” said Mary Schmidt, area manager for Minnesota Workforce Centers in Ramsey and Washington counties. “If you are an older worker, you want to be careful about how you are perceived.”

Experts say that something as simple as carrying a smartphone goes a long way toward conveying that someone is savvy and reachable via email, text and maybe even Twitter. It also implies that employees are plugged in beyond the traditional 9-to-5 workday, as is often required in the modern workforce.

“A few years back, I didn’t have email on my phone and a client said, ‘Are you serious? Get with the program,’” said Catherine Byers Breet, a career coach who advocates that anyone serious about their career have a smartphone and a social media presence. “In the old days, you had to go to the company parties to stay relevant. Now you have to get connected and tech-savvy to be considered relevant.”

Just dive in

But where to start? Social networks are ever-multiplying. There are thousands of apps that do everything from taking voice memos and calendar management to booking a hotel or calling a cab. No matter the industry, it seems software updates come just as people adjust to the older version, demanding a new routine. It can be tricky to understand which media would best serve you in your career.

“There’s a fear of failure and fear of technology in general,” said Sunny Ainley, associate dean for continuing education at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minn. “You’re overwhelmed with the lightning speed at which everything is developing and changing.”

Often, Ainley said, adjusting to technology comes easiest by diving in without worrying about mastery right away. She suggests identifying a goal – say compiling and analyzing data for a presentation – and then focusing on learning the tools that will allow you to accomplish that task.

“You have to make it relevant,” she said. “A hammer is just a hammer until you learn how to use it in whatever effective and creative way you want to.”

Ainley and others say there are many ways to pick up new tricks: Ask tech-savvy co-workers, check out free classes through libraries and community organizations, connect with professional associations for training online or in-person.

Be open to change

It may seem like the younger generations pick up new tools more quickly, but research has shown that age doesn’t determine the ability to learn tech skills. Indeed, a recent Northwestern University study of an internal social network at a large credit card company found that more experienced workers were more willing to embrace the technology than younger employees were.

Alicia Nesvacil, 48, built her career by continuing to acquire new skills, starting as a clerk at a hospital and now working as a program manager for health information technology at HealthPartners.

She went back to school, completing a health information technology certificate program at Normandale Community College a couple of years ago to pick up more information on electronic health records.

“I could have just sat idle, but I knew that there were some enhancements that I wanted to add to my toolbox,” she said. “You have to be open to the change.”

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