Understanding the Technological Generation Gap

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

March-April 2004

We are living in a time of incredible technological changes.  Technologies that took dozens of years to become mainstream, now emerge within a period of 3-5 years.  Radio took 38 years to reach an audience of 50,000,000.  Television took 13 years.  The personal computer took 16 years.  The Internet took a mere 5 years!  According to Alvin Toffler in his groundbreaking book The Third Wave, as of the mid-1970’s we had lived through three waves of technological innovation.  The Agricultural Era lasted 3,000 years.  The Industrial Wave lasted 300 years.  The Computer Era rose and fell in 30 years.  Extrapolating and updating Toffler’s view of the world of technology, we can guess that in the past 30 years we have seen several more waves with each one breaking faster than the one before.

We are in that time when rising waves meet falling waves and the changes are so rapid that we can barely tread water let alone get ahead of technology.  New technologies seem to appear from nowhere and take over our lives.  Think back to just 5 years ago.  How many people did you see talking on cell phones?  Now look around you.  All of that happened within 5 years. 

We are in the midst of four generations.  Those born before 1946 make up the “silent generation.”  Baby Boomers were born between 1945 and 1964 followed by Generation X (1965-1980) and the Net Generation (born after 1980).  Each generation has approached technology and life quite differently.

The Silent Generation was raised without what we would call modern technology.  Baby Boomers formed the first technological generation with computers on the horizon. Gen Xers were the first to be computer literate.  And the Net Generation cut their teeth on computers, video games and the Internet.

To understand the differences it is important to note how each generation approaches life and change.  In general Baby Boomers have a single job throughout their working career, are fiercely loyal to their job, work to live and avoid making waves.  In contrast, Generation Xers will hold multiple jobs with most working for upwards of 7 different companies.  Because of their mobility they tend to challenge authority rather than simply follow company directives.  Work is not the most important part of their lives and they value their personal time.

Boomers learned technology after their schooling and prefer face-to-face, process-oriented meetings.  Gen Xers are results oriented and since they grew up with technology, they prefer electronic communication.  Boomers like routines; Xers like spontaneity.

 They differ in the way they use technology, the questions they ask and the choices they make.  They even navigate the web in very different ways.  Time holds a very different meaning for each.  Xers have little tolerance for time-intensive activities and feel strongly that meetings are a waste of time.  They want their boss to give them a job and stand back and let them do their work.

 The Silent Generation is even more enmeshed in their profession if they have not yet retired.  Technology is foreign to them and they have had to learn a whole new language and skill late in their careers.  They defined themselves by their career and family often took a back seat to work.

 The Net Generation is going to be interesting.  They have been entangled with technology from birth.  The average age that they started using a computer is 3 and most sent their first e-mail before they entered kindergarten.  They live on instant messaging and communicate with friends more on IM than any other way.  They multi-task constantly with the average teen talking to 3 people at once on IM plus doing several other tasks at the same time.  They get bored easily and change jobs and careers often.  My nephew who just graduated college last year has had three jobs in three different companies.  He liked each but wanted more challenges.

 The generations also differ in learning styles.  Boomers are auditory and visual learners while Xers and Net Geners are tactile learners.  When Boomers get a new gadget their first step is to read the manual.  The younger generations just start hooking up wires and pressing buttons.  Manuals?  They are for “old folks.”  When we got a new DVD player a few years back for Christmas I sat down and read the manual.  When I looked up my son had already popped a DVD in and was watching a movie.

 Obviously these are very gross generalities.  But they do provide good guidelines for the impact of technology and lifestyles on your practice. If you have Gen Xer or Net Gener clients they may prefer to communicate technologically.  They will want to see your web site before they have their initial session.  If you don’t have one they may feel that you cannot possibly connect on their level.  They will ask you immediately for your e-mail address and if encouraged at all will send e-mail messages between sessions.  One therapist I know put his e-mail address on his business card and proudly gave one to each client.  Within a week most of his technologically literate younger patients had sent him at least one e-mail and he was starting to get overwhelmed dealing with the onslaught.

 Relationship issues may depend on the level of technological literacy.  As you read in my November/December column, many people are now trying to establish relationships online.  Services like match.com are primarily peopled by the under 30 crowd.  Issues surrounding their love lives may take on a unique perspective.  And Boomers are also gravitating toward online matchmaking services.  After a lifetime of face-to-face dating they may have difficulty establishing a relationship online. 

 Add to that mix the fact that sexuality becomes a different ballgame when you consider the Internet and electronic communication.  Online relationships become sexual much faster than offline ones.  And sexually explicit material is easier than ever to access.  No longer do you need to hide the Playboy magazine.  It is all there for you to download. Online affairs are now a reality and happen more often than you might guess.

Anybody who spends time using technology is a potential addict in the making.  The statistics show that a surprisingly large percent of kids and adults spend upwards of 5 hours a day using computer technology.  This includes games, the web and, of course, e-mail and instant messaging.

Technology has changed the way we live.  Make sure that you are aware of the vast differences in how each generation approaches it and uses it. It may help understand issues that arise.


Copyright, 2004, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.