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Youth, age and technology

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Comment There have been a few debates recently about the impact of a highly tech/internet savvy generation entering the workplace. The argument is that youngsters brought up in the PC/Web/IM/blogging/mashing culture of interactive electronic 2000’s will expect (need?) all this stuff when then eventually join the ranks of the working population. The advice we often hear is that employers need to be ready for this and should start making sure that their IT systems are not going to disappoint or hold the new generation back.

Something that came out of a conversation I was having with my Dad in the pub over the weekend, though, made me think of the other extreme.

He was making the point that as a semi-retired chap taking the odd engagement here and there, he is noticing that some employers seem to be suffering from the opposite problem, i.e. they often assume too much knowledge and familiarity with technology. We then went on to discuss the latest labour legislation introduced into the UK to prevent discrimination against older folk, along with the “baby boomer” generation reaching retirement age and realising their pensions are not going to be as strong as they thought they were – all of which means the older and often less tech-savvy generation are going to be working for longer.

Zooming out to the bigger picture, this means we are going to have critical mass of both extremes in the labour market in many developed countries that organisations are going to have to deal with for quite a few years to come.

One response to this as technology increasingly pervades the business environment is to make sure the appropriate training programmes and initiatives are in place for those who need it. However, my personal opinion is that much of the technology used in business today is far more complex and unfriendly than it needs to be from a user perspective. There has been an increasing trend towards cluttering both hardware and software with features and distractions that are only used by exception. Simplification of the person/technology interface therefore has to be an important part of the evolution of workplace technology moving forwards.

The good thing is that vendors seem to have caught onto this. If we take the simple example of desktop software, the latest version of Microsoft Office System is designed more around the idea of providing options in context, with complex tasks being “canned” as much as possible so they can be accessed via a click or two.

I also like the work IBM has been doing around activity-centric computing planned for the Lotus product line. And, of course, many would argue that Apple has been dealing with the issue of usability for many years.

While all of this is welcome, I still think we are only scratching the surface of the usability and access problem. In some areas, the industry can produce different products for my son and my Dad, but in the workplace, we need technology that is usable by both.

Against this background, it is interesting to consider the interplay between legislation, age and technology. The new UK labour laws say you can hire a younger person in preference to an older one only if you have an objective reason to justify the decision. The question is, would “Sorry mate, had to give the storeman job to the lad who could mash-up our inventory data with our suppliers’ online catalogues” qualify as objective?®

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