‘Put away the cozy image of the little old lady knitting a sweater for the grandkids’

Work with us

By Alexandra Reid

This is a story about a 70-year-old woman who wants nothing to do with social media but is doing it anyway, inspired by an article I read on ReadWriteWeb last week, “Why boomers won’t release their grip on technology.”

Please let me first point out that I know she is not of the Boomer generation. I’ll get to that later.

According to the article’s author, Brian Proffitt, we need to “Put away the cozy image of the little old lady knitting a sweater for the grandkids, or the distinguished gentlemen playing chess in a park, because the newest elder generation is not going to sit quietly in a rocking chair.”

What he means is that many Boomers are not as traditionally minded as many of us have come to expect, but are, in fact, technologically savvy early adopters. Citing Dr. Karen Riggs who wrote, “Granny @ work: Age and technology on the job in America,” Proffitt explained that Boomers saw “the exploding rise of technology in the workplace just as they were entering their mid-30s and -40s. This is why so many Boomers are technologically adept despite not having grown up with technology.”

According to Proffitt, this technical aptitude distinguishes Boomers, defined as anyone born between 1946 and 1964, from their ancestors of the Silent Generation (1927-1945) and the Greatest Generation (1900-1926).

As for their motivation, “Their adoption of technology tends to be of necessity, especially now that Boomers find themselves competing with Generation X (1965-1983) and Millennials (1984-2002) in the workplace,” said Proffitt.

“We are expected to at least learn some of the basics of computers at the office,” said Riggs. But for the older generations, “a lot of people were left behind.”

Those of you who did the calculation will know that our 70-year-old, let’s call her Sarah (she prefers that her real name not be used), is of the Silent Generation. (Yes, I asked her about her age. Shame on me, I know.) Her story adds something that was not revealed in the RWW article – regardless that she may not have had to use technology as much in her personal life and the workforce as subsequent generations, especially early on in her career, she is feeling the pressure to compete with Gen X and Millenials today, just like the Boomers. And although she doesn’t want anything at all to do with it, she has been teaching herself about digital media for the last 11 years out of necessity, just like the Boomers.

The story

I’ve been regularly offering digital media counsel as part of my volunteer duties at The Well, a gathering place for women. After a recent meeting, fellow volunteer and IT veteran, Sarah, pulled me aside and asked if I could share some basic knowledge of social media that she could then apply to help her son run his small business.

“Veteran” has become a loose term to describe someone with senior expertise in a vocation. Indeed, this woman has been working with computers for more than 40 years. Now retired, she continues to provide computer support in various volunteer positions around the city.

She explained that she began her programming training in the early 70’s but, having spent 70 hours per week focusing solely on national mainframe computers, admitted that she didn’t have much time to learn much else until she retired. As a result, she had no real exposure to the Internet or personal computers until 2001.

“When [my son] came to me for help, I didn’t know what I could offer at first,” said Sarah. “I sat down with him and asked what the heck this Internet thing is all about. He said, ‘Ask me anything,’ and I asked him about Komodo Dragons. Don’t ask me why. Within a few seconds and keystrokes he brought up all kinds of information. It was like a ton of bricks fell on my lap and I realized there was no turning back after that. I saw the potential and began teaching myself.”

While still reluctant to learn any of this “stuff,” she knew she would have to dig her teeth into digital media sooner or later for her son’s sake, who’s strapped for time as the sole owner/employee of a full-time business.

She explained that her son’s role at a former company was downsized some years ago, just at the start of the recession. And, like so many others in their 40′s, he was unable to find work. So, like many others, he decided to start his own small business. But it’s tough being a “solopreneur” and he quickly found that being a one-man company is a two-person job, and he was caught in the familiar trap of desperately needing an extra body but not having the money to pay for one. So, Mom stepped in to help.

She knows how to set up a blog and website, but social media continues to baffle her. Upon her request, I agreed to sit down with her for a long chat one Sunday afternoon to go over some core concepts.

“I have zero interest in tweeting and facebooking and all that. I have no interest in any of this. I really, really don’t,” she said. “I’m doing this because I see business value in it, and I think it will help my son.”

The learning curve was steep despite her technical background and that she had spent a great deal of her own time going over the basics. But she listened intently and tried very hard to make sense of and retain the necessary information.

“I realize this is the norm for today’s generation, and for those to come it will be as natural as breathing. I get the point, but it’s a steep climb for me.”

That she is doing it is inspirational. Despite the learning curve and that she has absolutely no personal interest whatsoever in these channels, she sees the business value in them and is gritting her teeth to learn how to use them to help her son build his small business.

And she’s not alone. The Pew Internet & American Life project (cited by Social Media Today) found that:

  • One in three online seniors uses social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.
  • From April 2009 to May 2011, social networking site use among Internet users ages 65 and older grew 150 percent, from 13 percent in 2009 to 33 percent in 2011.
  • Half of adults ages 65 and older are online.

I think this story is quite revealing of a generation coming to grips with this new form of communications, and the point is this:

Many aren’t letting themselves get left behind; many, like Sarah, are working their buns off to keep up.

Image: ariionkathleenbrindley

/// COMMENTS

8 Comments »
  • Les

    October 24, 2012 11:44 am

    Good writeup Ally. It will be interesting to see what people your age will be doing when they reach the ripe old age of 70 years. And what technologies will be available. Boggles the mind!

    Also wondering if your data points are Canadian or US based?

  • Alexandra Reid

    October 24, 2012 1:13 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, Les.

    Indeed, the world will be a crazy place when/if I get there in 70 years. The data was taken from the Pew Internet & American Life project, and is therefore US-based. You have raised an interesting question, though. I’m going to take a dive into Canadian statistics.

  • Melanie

    October 25, 2012 12:46 pm

    Yes, a very good piece indeed. The photo is not necessarily representative of today’s 70-year-old (I know because I’m over 70 myself), but her facial expression does reflect that today’s technology can indeed be a challenge.

    An octogenarian friend, whose single-mom daughter died of cancer, is raising her grandchild alone. She needs the income, so out of necessity she taught herself website building, something she can do at home and for profit. It was NOT easy – it takes many more times the work and than it does for a younger person, but it can be done. And by this means, my friend is able to augment her pension and provide for her grandchild. Bravo to her, I say.

    I’m a snowbird and while in Florida I teach other seniors who want to learn about computers. A new class for iPads and Smartphones has recently started, and the website (www.cvcomputerclub.com) includes a page on social media. There are more of these classes to come.

    We oldsters are perhaps a little slower catching up, but we are actively working on it. Don’t count us out yet.

  • Alexandra Reid

    October 26, 2012 11:25 am

    Bravo to your friend indeed! That’s a real accomplishment, and I commend you both for taking on the challenge of teaching yourselves new tech. I’ll be sure to pass the message along about your new class in Florida (my aunt who travels to Florida every year could really benefit from it, I think). Keep up the great work, and please don’t ever hesitate to contact me if you have any questions moving forward.

  • Antoin

    October 26, 2012 5:52 pm

    Great article Alex. I’m almost 50 and often feel like a technological laggard, just keeping my head above the water. After reading about “Sarah” though, I feel positively inspired.

  • Alexandra Reid

    October 29, 2012 11:49 am

    Thanks for the comment, Antoin :) Keep working at it – we’re all cheering for you! What would you say is your biggest challenge today?

  • Antoin

    November 19, 2012 6:45 am

    Staying on top of responses to my comments for starters. But really, knowing when to jump onto the technological band wagon concerns me. I work from home and demands for my attention while I am on the road are not so high that I feel I need anything more than a cell phone. I worry that when it claps out on me technology will have advanced so much that the standard cell phone will be obsolete and I won’t know where to begin with finding (and using) its replacement.

  • Alexandra Reid

    November 19, 2012 9:20 am

    I know of this brick cell phone you speak of … it’s practically obsolete ;) I’m surprised you can still connect to the network!

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