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A Digital Divide Grows Between Baby Boomers...and Other Boomers?

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Rarely does a day pass without some expert extolling the problems or opportunities arising from generational differences between baby boomers and millennials. But as an older boomer, I'm finding generational clash points aren't exclusively intergenerational. I'm wondering if I'm alone when I suggest there is a growing digital divide within the baby boomer generation.

It's not that baby boomers aren't connected more than ever. According to an August 2011 Pew Internet survey, three out of four boomers between 50 and 64 years old use the Internet. Even more compelling is that for the first time in history more than half (53 percent) of American adults age 65 and older are going online.

But not all baby boomers are connected. More recent research by the Pew Internet Project has shown that among current Internet non-users, about half say the main reason they don't go online now is because they don't think the Internet is relevant to them. They also believe they don't need it to get the information they want to communicate about. To a lesser but still significant degree, I hear the same excuses from my neighbors, peers, customers, and just in general conversation. When I pull out my smartphone, I can feel the "I just don't get it" look. "What's so important that it can't wait?"

And that is where I feel the divide begins and two camps build.

Mark Prensky, in a two-part series titled "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," described a generation gap between today's students (digital natives) and their teachers (digital immigrants). His analogy holds true for baby boomers too. The digital divide along this native/immigrant fault line exists and is widening for several reasons.

First and possibly foremost, baby boomers are the most active senior generation in history. Many boomers are determined to defy the inevitable -- aging. To stay relevant at work and connected with their friends and families, they use the Internet often. From news and weather to grandkids and childhood friends, online access isn't a luxury -- it's a necessity.

But then we have the laggard boomers, lamenting the decline of print media, longing for the good old days, and struggling to stay current. They are resisting digital technology like the plague. Unfortunately they are finding fewer and fewer viable options.

Within a few years, a lack of Internet access and technology ignorance will doom these non-conformists to old news and hearsay. They will become like the old uncle who can't hear and can't see because he refuses to wear his glasses and hearing aid. He's fine but the rest of the world starts to move ahead without him. The lack of connectivity for boomers who don't find relevance in social networks and other online interactivity will be deafening and dark.

Comfort with and proficiency using technology is not natural to boomers. They are, by the mere fact of their age, digital immigrants. They live in a foreign environment, forced to learn new languages for communication, new tools to keep informed and in touch. Try as they might to act young, digital communication is not their native language.

But many are giving it a shot. Others, not so much. While email usage and cell phone ownership by nearly all adults is relatively high, smartphone ownership of older boomers (age 57 to 65) is two-thirds of that younger boomers (47 to 56) and one-third that of millennials. The same goes for iPod and tablet (iPad) usage.

That gap reflects how technology and the Internet is being used differently by different Baby Boomers. And that gap is what is starting to affect Boomer communication with other Boomers as well as other generations.

Owning a cell phone and checking emails used to be enough to stay chic and connected and feel you were keeping up with change. Heck, at one time the ability to use email was an advanced skill, a competitive edge for working adults. And cell phones were luxury items.

Today many boomers and the majority of the Silent and GI Generation still use their cell phone to make phones calls and leave voice messages. But the "flip" cell phone today is the equivalent of the wall rotary phone. And to young adults, phone calls, voice mail and even email are anachronisms from another century.

Many boomers still check emails once or twice a day -- on their PC at home. At most, they are connected intermittently throughout the day. If they aren't within arm's reach of their landline phone, they are unavailable. Instant messaging is viewed as an inconvenience and one more form of silly interruption.

For all intents and purposes, smartphones and other mobile devices are the new normal for tele- and digital communication. For many boomers, that technology is just too much to handle. Digital natives text, chat, video, search, listen to music, and play games on their "phone." They do everything but use the phone to talk. They make calls as the last resort and rarely pick up voice mail. Even for those boomers who own smartphones, it's still a just phone.

Personally, I find myself losing touch with peers, colleagues, customers, former classmates and friends who refuse to text, message, or at least check email frequently. It is increasingly difficult to communicate when the response time is often days or weeks. Heck, several of the boomers I know only turn on their phone when they want to make a call and then turn it off again. Sure, there is always the landline phone but that's just so... old-fashioned. Besides, there is no way I'm printing and mailing photos and documents when I can just attach and send.

So what is going to happen? To paraphrase Prensky: "Smart adult immigrants (aka baby boomers) will accept that they don't know about their new world and take advantage of their kids and younger adults to help them learn and integrate. Not-so-smart (or not-so-flexible) immigrants will spend most of their time grousing about how good things were in the "old country."

One thing is for sure. The Internet and technology is not going away and the pace of change won't slow. The digital divide between native and immigrant boomers will widen.

What do you think? Are you experiencing a baby boomer digital divide, too? Please share your comments and experiences.

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