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Human Resources

Technology is not only for the young  

Published 27 June 2024 in Human Resources • 4 min read

Too many organizations assume late-career workers can’t keep up with new technology. In doing so, they are ignoring a hugely important labor pool.

Something curious is happening in Europe’s labor markets. On the one hand, employers continue to report skills shortages: according to the European Commission, two-thirds can’t find the talent they need. On the other, the supply of labor has actually increased, with rising retirement ages and economic pressures prompting people to work for longer. The percentage of Europe’s working population who are aged 60 or over has more than doubled over the past 20 years.

One significant part of the explanation for this contradiction is anxiety about the technology skills of this late-career workforce. As digital transformation accelerates, employers are keen to ensure they have sufficient numbers of technology-literate employees. But one recent US study found that as many as 2.5m workers over 50 were thinking about leaving their current roles – or even quitting work altogether – because they felt that they lacked the technology skills required in the modern working environment. This represents a significant loss of talent.

Stereotype or a reflection of reality?

It’s only fair to point out that there is a large body of evidence that shows changes in people’s cognitive abilities as they age, some of which can make adapting to new technologies problematic.

For example, a recently published study showed that perceptual speed – the speed at which people can complete tasks using office technologies – tends to decline with age. Older workers often lose some of their spatial abilities, making it harder to work with applications that organize information into folders.

It doesn’t help that employers routinely think little about the needs and abilities of their staff when making decisions about which new technologies to acquire. Technology designers – almost always young – rarely consider the user experience of older workers as they develop new tools and applications.

Training on the job

How, then, can employers better support technology upskilling for older workers?

Our work on digital transformation emphasizes the need for organizations to monitor closely the development of digital skills among their workforce. Upskilling existing talent, including older workers, requires a variety of approaches.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, older employees seem to benefit from a different type of training experience to their younger colleagues.

For example, older workers often seem to learn best from hands-on, in-person training, rather than virtual sessions. This does not have to take the form of a conventional training course. Pairing older workers with colleagues who are already expert technology users, in a reverse mentorship dynamic, can be highly effective.

“Working with older workers to develop and implement new technologies may be a good way to deliver a superior experience for all. Their ability to articulate their requirements, for example, may translate into user interfaces that work much more effectively for all.”

Allowing for sufficient repetition and time for lessons to sink in is also important. While one-off training sessions for a new technology or functionality may be sufficient for younger, tech-savvy workers, older staff often benefit from incremental or iterative training, allowing them to absorb and revisit instructions with guided practice sessions.

Designing and implementing for success

Usability is an important aspect of any purchasing decision for new technology. Those responsible for IT procurement should be aware of the needs of all staff. That may require consultation with older workers to understand what they find difficult.

Equally, most technology implementations, even packaged software installations, offer at least some freedom to tailor the final solution to the requirements of the individual business. Those requirements should include making it as easy as possible for all staff to use the technology effectively.

The same applies to businesses that are designing and developing applications and tools in-house as opposed to buying them in. Designers and developers are disproportionately younger – and naturally tech-savvy – but simply talking to less confident users of technology may help them shape a more inclusive approach.

In addition, working with older workers to develop and implement new technologies may be a good way to deliver a superior experience for all. Their ability to articulate their requirements, for example, may translate into user interfaces that work much more effectively for all. Similarly, their business understanding may deliver an end product that more closely aligns with the organization’s objectives.

If they can successfully manage an inclusive digital transformation, organizations have a real opportunity to boost both employee retention and recruitment as they reopen a labor pipeline that may have been closing. Solving the skills shortages that have dogged them in recent years may not be such a challenge, after all.

One final word of advice. Organizations that fall into the trap of assuming all their older workers struggle with technology are making a big mistake. While this might be true of the cohort in aggregate, individuals will have very different levels of ability and confidence. Patronizing tech-savvy older workers is likely to be just as damaging as ignoring their tech-phobic co-workers. Managers should evaluate each individual based on their skills, experience, and aptitude with technology.

Authors

Tomoko Yokoi

Tomoko Yokoi

Researcher, Global Center for Digital Business Transformation, IMD

Tomoko Yokoi is an IMD researcher and senior business executive with expertise in digital business transformations, women in tech, and digital innovation. With 20 years of experience in B2B and B2C industries, her insights are regularly published in outlets such as Forbes and MIT Sloan Management Review.

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