Thursday, July 13, 2017

Are You a “Digital Immigrant”?

In a white collar world, with throngs of young, educated and technically savvy applicants banging down the doors of the Silicon Valley and its clones across the country, with start-ups flowing out of college dorms and angel and venture capitalists silently writing off tech-start-ups from folks over 30 – sssshhhh! Don’t talk about this! – the ways of age discrimination have gotten downright subtle. But very strong. For those who started in their 20s, and became serial entrepreneurs, they could stretch that success indefinitely. For those 30+ just starting out, well, no so much. It’s illegal, but there are ways….
I am still convinced that Hillary Clinton’s total email screw-ups are the product of a woman raised on handwriting, then manual type-writers, upgrading to an IBM Selectric, tolerating and feeling uncomfortable with emails and slowly squirming into a world of Tweetstgramsnaptexting. She was no match for uber(yup)-tech/social media entrepreneur, marketing manipulator, Donald Trump and his tech-sophisticated “younger” minions. There appears to be a difference to those who hire and invest in the start-up tech sector whether someone came to digital skills later in life – a so-called “digital immigrant” – and someone who grew up in the world from the get-go – a “digital native.” More on the significance of these terms later.
But there is an equal lapse in senior management, operating skills among those who invent and build these tech start-ups, with little training or experience managing people and living in the world of job-place rules and regulations, and those who have worked their way up a corporate hierarchy managing and motivating their employees. You can see the struggle in just about any motion picture about Steven Jobs, and in the all-too-common replacement of the founder by professional managers, always difficult because that founder just might control the largest chunk of the company’s stock.
For example, Uber, wracked with scandals, serious sex-related problems that have escalated way out of control along with the wild rants and confrontations of co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick (pictured above), is a classic case in point. Kalanick was a classic serial entrepreneur whose tech start-up career was born during his UCLA college days.
Here’s Kalanick’s track record before Uber: “As an undergrad, Kalanick teamed up with fellow UCLA computer science students to create Scour, a peer-to-peer file sharing service that resembled Napster. It didn't last…But he had caught the entrepreneurship bug, and went four years without taking a salary at his next startup, another peer-to-peer network called Red Swoosh.
“Kalanick has said that he ate a lot of ramen noodles during those lean years. He would later wear socks emblazoned with the words ‘Blood, sweat and ramen.’… Red Swoosh was sold for about $15 million in 2007… 2008: Kalanick claims that he came up with the idea for Uber when he was unable to flag down a taxi in Paris during a tech conference.” CNN, June 21st. Uber was a $68 billion company when, even after a leave of absence, his main investors said that enough is enough and demanded that Kalanick simple resign. Don’t feel bad for Kalanick. He is a billionaire several times over and will probably be an investor in other start-ups going forward.
But in the tech-world, where engineering and math skills plus the ability to understand the complex nexus of an over-connected world, where tech skills (or better, the perception of tech skills) trump (yup) experience, older applicants are at a distinct disadvantage. Not only are the bosses, often young folks in their 20s or maybe, with a stretch, their 30s, uncomfortable managing “their parents,” but there may in fact be a touch of resentment among older workers watching those “young folks” trip over themselves with people-managing skills. Beyond the age gap, there’s even a linguistic and cultural disconnect.
But you can see the efforts to “discriminate” in recruitment policies everywhere. “In job ads, some employers have begun listing ‘digital native’ as a requirement for the position. The term, many say, is a ‘code word’ for young workers who have grown up with technology and will be able to use new systems with ease.
“This term plays into stereotypes that ‘digital immigrants’ — usually older workers who came of age before the Internet — will be slow to adapt to technology, reluctant to learn and costly to train… Older workers are sometimes labeled [perceived?] as ‘technophobic,’ said Sara Czaja, director of the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement.
“But contrary to stereotypes, research does not show a correlation between age and work performance. If tasks are based on speed and accuracy, Czaja conceded that age may play a factor in an employee’s productivity.
“A 2010 study of adults ages 65 to 85 found that the majority of participants had a positive attitude toward using technology… Of course, it is difficult to tell if companies are using the term ‘digital native’ as a subtle form of discrimination or if they simply require an applicant proficient in certain technology skills.
“Jacquelyn James, co-director of the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, said most of the time people aren’t conscious of their biases or stereotypes. ‘The acknowledgment that they are implicit, that we don’t see them, we don’t recognize them is the most important hedge against their negative effects,’ she said.
“For something like a job description, James suggested putting together a team of people of different ages to ensure phrases such as ‘digital native’ aren’t giving off the wrong idea.” Los Angeles Times, June 24th.
Meanwhile, age discrimination seems to apply to entire industries (versus people) – like coal mining and bricks-and-mortar retail sales – where technology has rendered these entire job sectors irrelevant or rapidly declining. It’s progress that simply will not stop. Factors that create geographic differences where places like NYC, DC, Boston, SF/Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and Seattle have generated economies, which, on an average earning power basis, blow the rest of the country away, even hot areas such as Austin/Dallas/Houston and even Atlanta, an earnings gap that is only growing wide. Oh, and it is increasingly the younger entrepreneurs – and their financiers – who are calling the shots. Try and stop this. I dare you. It never works. Sigh!
I’m Peter Dekom, and massive social and economic change are always massively disrupted.

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