Do older workers have high digital dexterity?

Gartner Australasia Pty Ltd

By Craig Roth*
Monday, 29 July, 2019

Do older workers have high digital dexterity?

Each generation has skills and experiences that can contribute to your digital workplace success.

I want to walk you through one of the more interesting findings from my Digital Dexterity Index (DDI) research. While aggregating an index of six questions from a larger survey of digital attitudes and experiences, I found that the youngest workers have the highest digital dexterity. That’s not the interesting part — you probably expected that. What’s interesting is that the second-highest digital dexterity was actually achieved by the oldest workers (aged 55-plus). Age groups in between scored lower.

I know what you’re thinking: what do you mean the oldest workers are almost as digitally dexterous as the youngest ones? My teenagers are so into new technology I can’t even keep up, while my grandmother can’t even figure out how to send an email.

This may seem counterintuitive at first, but let’s see if I can give your intuition a mental workout. Luckily the DDI doesn’t just give an answer, but goes one level deeper into explaining ‘why’ since we can explore the six scores it consists of. There are two twists to get your intuition pointing the right way.

First, this index is for full-time workers, not consumers. Most older people, such as that hypothetical grandmother who can’t do email, have exited the workforce. The ones who are still working are capable and want to get their jobs done as best they can. As for teenagers, their attitudes towards technology in their personal lives may change or adapt once they report to work. After all, at work they will be among a different peer group, with different expectations and requirements.

Second, we define digital dexterity as the ability and willingness to use new technologies to get work done. The DDI is meant to indicate categories of people who, while at work, are more likely to use and absorb the new ways of working (NWOW) you are trying to introduce. It isn’t an observational measure of whether they jumped early into Instagram or how often someone flits from app to app. Digital promiscuity may not lead to digital dexterity.

With that direction established, now I can explore the six elements. I decided to pick questions that looked at worker’s circumstances and attitudes. For example:

  • Have their jobs evolved to the point that they have a lot of freedom in deciding how they can do their work? Because non-routine work provides more opportunities and more need to use a wide variety of new general-purpose creation and coordination tools.
  • Do they think work gets done better in teams or alone? Because most new ways of working involve collaboration.

I also decided that I wanted to zero in on high performers — those in the top 20 points on a 0–100 self-reported score, not the average. Why not averages? Because I wanted to study the characteristics of high performers who are ready today to adopt NWOW. By comparison, if you want to study geniuses (IQ more than 140) by country you would look at what percentage of the population in each country has an IQ over 140. The average IQ in each country wouldn’t be the best metric. You wouldn’t care if one country has twice as many 110s as another. That would affect the average, but if you are just studying geniuses it is irrelevant.

So as I mentioned at the beginning, young workers garnered the highest DDI score. They had the most high performers in working away from a desk, a belief in the work value of apps and devices use from home, and a great attitude toward new workplace tech (the biggest component of the index). No surprise there — it matches the common intuition.

But older workers had different ways of racking up a DDI score. They were most likely to be respondents who believed highly in the value of working in teams and in the value of enterprise social networking, and they were doing mostly non-routine work.

We are busy crunching the numbers on a new set of survey data and it’s possible that this time around the spread may differ. But I hope this snapshot injects some perspective into the approach that technology providers and IT leaders take towards older workers when deploying NWOW. As I wrote in ‘Age: The Missing Spot on the Tech Diversity Rainbow?’, I have heard too many clients and vendors focusing exclusively on millennials as the only workers ‘worth’ focusing on. And no doubt, as our results show, the youngest workers are a critical part of your ability to introduce new and clever ways of working.

But the better approach is to be inclusive of all generations when planning changes to work practices and tools. Each generation has skills and experiences that shape their readiness and can contribute to your digital workplace success.

*Craig Roth is a Research Vice President within the Gartner for General Managers team. His research efforts focus on understanding how knowledge workers get their jobs done today and how they are likely to get them done in the future. He is the creator of Gartner’s Digital Dexterity Index.

Image credit: ©

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