Technology Change May Widen the Generation Gap

My father was born in 1897 and lived to be almost 90. I often marvel at the magnitude of change to which he and his generation had to adapt in a lifetime that started when Victoria was still on the throne, involved active service in two world wars, and spanned almost a century.

Many of the changes that they faced have become an accepted part of our lives, at least for us who are fortunate to live in the richer countries. As they grew up, it became increasingly normal to be able to live in a house with constant access to clean water; with electrification, first to provide light and then to power a widening range of gadgets; and with a telephone to be in touch with far-away people. Then came the growing individual ownership of cars and so a gradual expansion of the range over which it was easy to travel independently. Somewhat later, the aeroplane was invented and, within a few decades, became a hugely popular means of travel for businessmen and holiday-makers alike.

Such advances in technology had beneficial impacts on people’s lives, making them more comfortable, enabling them to travel more easily and further, and facilitating their contacts with each other. The novelties were quite easily absorbed by those who could afford to buy them.

I suggest that one of the many factors that prompted almost two thirds of Britain’s over 65’s to vote in the recent referendum to “leave” the EU could be that the pace of technology change, its increasing complexity for users and the related adjustments in behaviour are accentuating the communications gap between young and old.

The nature of technology advances in my parents’ heydays was generally quite simple and so they were easily accessible to both old and young. By this, I mean that none required any very specialised operating skills – for instance to switch on a light, to pull the plug in a lavatory, or even to drive a car.

It struck me this morning, after I had struggled for hours to get my computer back “on line”, that I was becoming increasingly hopeless in being able to keep up with the speed of change in “modern” technology.  This is hardly surprising because Moore’s Law tells us that the pace of technology generation accelerates exponentially, while, in contrast, now that I am in my mid-70s, my mental capacity to cope with complex problems may be on a downward spiral!

The very rapid changes in communication technologies, especially those relating to mobile phones, are picked up with the greatest of ease by the young and are inducing fundamental adjustments in social relationships and values within their own age groups. But for many older people, like me, the idea of plunging into the world of Facebook and Twitter and of keeping up  with a constant flow of text messages has little appeal.

It may, therefore, be that one of the reasons for the contrasting voting behaviour of young and old during the EU Referendum, is that many of us in the older generation are excluding ourselves from the electronic dialogues amongst the young that may have contributed to most of them voting “remain”.

Hopefully, the next wave of new communication technologies will come more slowly and be so simple to use that the digital divide between young and old will narrow and they will find themselves back in easy contact and hence more likely to be on the same wavelength when it comes to deciding our common future.

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