Digital Literacy from an Intergenerational Perspective: Challenges and Solutions

Four years ago, my old cell phone almost ended up in a drawer, but I realized that this device would have a better use than being stored in a box. Out of a supposed digital romanticism, I decided to give it to my grandma. The following week, we met in a coffeeshop in Berlin-Mitte where I did some personal persuasion; digital first aid, so to speak, and explained why this hand-sized device was now relevant to her: better networking with the family, fast e-mail writing, and apps for public transport.

Four years and a cell phone later, my grandmother is now an avid smartphone user and has been declared a “digital expert” by her community. She can even book doctor’s appointments digitally and explain the online bus schedule to her neighbors. The last two points are representative of an elementary digitalization process that is currently taking place in system-relevant and basically all areas of life.

Holistic Digitalization

In conservative, technical terms, digitalization (or also: digitization) is described as “the digital transformation and representation of information” (Bendel, 2021). In social contexts, however, this definition is insufficient which cannot explain how humans are to be located in this context. Therefore, and due to the holistic nature of digitalization in the 21st century, a broader understanding must be applied. Experts describe the current state of affairs as a fourth industrial revolution. It “focuses on disruptive technologies and innovative business models as well as autonomization, flexibilization and individualization in digitalization” (Bendel, 2021). Result: The individual, the citizen, is confronted with information and telecommunications technologies in all areas of life.

Generational Knowledge of Digital Technologies

In order to be able to use smartphones, computers and the Internet with independence, digital literacy is required. This concept describes “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills” (American Library Association, 2022). But this knowledge is not intrinsic to all people. On closer examination, discrepant levels of knowledge about the use of digital media can be diagnosed between different age groups.

This can be exemplified by my grandmother’s generation, otherwise known as the Baby Boomers. Born between 1946 and 1964, boomers are considered consumerists and selfish (Stern, 2002) and account for almost 25% of the population in OECD countries (OECD, 2015). Having grown up with a television, digitalization is a problem for this generation. Research shows that one-third of this generation has never used the Internet and half do not even have Internet access in their home (Anderson and Perrin, 2017). The picture painted by the data portrays a generation that is finding it difficult to adapt to ongoing digitalization.

Contrast that with my generation: the Millennials. Born between 1980 and 2000, we grew up in a time of rapid change and the introduction of new technologies (Goldman Sachs, 2021). Therefore, the use of digital devices like iPhones is natural for us. However, this is not just a personal opinion, but also that of scientists: “Millennials, think you’re digitally better than us? Yes, according to science” (Florida Atlantic University, 2019).

Understanding Digital Media and Individual Self-Empowerment

As the data shows, there is an intergenerational discrepancy with regard to digital literacy. The relevance of this becomes particularly apparent when the holistic effect of digitalization described above is analyzed in relation to people and their self-determination. Existing studies show that the use of digital technologies can fulfill human needs. For example, as early as 2008, an association was found between the Internet as a communication tool and improved social interaction as well as a reduced feeling of loneliness (Sum et al., 2008). This is also perceptible in relation to my grandma. She lives alone, does not have visitors or contact with friends every day. Yet, she expressed to me last summer that she has an enormous volume of messages due to her smartphone, and often does not keep up with the replies.

Furthermore, she continues to feel an advantage over her peers without smartphones and Internet access, as she is able to book doctor’s appointments using emails and online forms. Her provocative statement: “other people have to spend hours waiting in line on the phone.” Studies of Internet-based self-empowerment show similar things, like Information and communication technologies and improved digital literacy determine access to system-relevant institutions (Gatto and Tak, 2008) and open up an important source of knowledge for those affected (Tirado-Morueta, Aguaded-Gómez and Hernando-Gómez, 2018). These examples show how accessibility and understanding of digital media determine individual self-empowerment. It can be stated that digital literacy is rarely reflected and is taken for granted by my generation, but for the generation of my parents and grandparents it represents a substantial unnoticed improvement in the quality of life. Therefore, the goal is for all generations to have a satisfactory level of digital literacy so that they can participate equally in life.

Solution-Oriented Approaches for an Inclusive, Digital Future

The further education of generations and the goal of increased digital literacy require approaches at various levels. A wide variety of parameters and prerequisites must be in place, as shown by Gigler’s ICT Impact Chain (2014). Among other things, existing basic education, infrastructural access to information and communication technologies, and basic as well as extended user competence are required to achieve the targeted self-empowerment. Due to the complexity of this challenge, I would like to formulate two approaches at the political and business level that do not claim to be a universal solution, but do outline future flanks for an intergenerational improvement in digital literacy.

Young and Old in Institutionalized Exchange

The existing knowledge gap between the generations provides fertile ground for a proposed solution at the political level. For example, my generation has been accustomed to using digital media since childhood (“digital natives”) and should use this knowledge advantage to give something back to the Baby Boomers. That’s why I propose an institutionalized exchange on the use of ICTs between the generations that is based on existing solutions and can thus be considered for realistic implementation.

For example, since 1996 the European Union offers the European Voluntary Service, through which young citizens can get involved. Transferred to the problem of intergenerational digital literacy, a combination with existing programs for the education of older people is conceivable (e.g. with ICT 4 the Elderly (2019)). In concrete terms, this means that young people can get involved for around a year and implement educational programs for digital technologies at the community level. Millennials can thus not only meet their demand for work (“work that has meaning” (Stern, 2002)) but also enter into an intergenerational exchange. Teaching in public spaces would be realistic, because local offerings from municipalities, in particular, would lower the barrier to entry for the older target group (Stenberg and Fryk, 2012).

Digital Literacy and the Enterprise as a Medium

Apart from the political dimension, the problem must be addressed at the workplace. Especially for Baby Boomers, work is very important, and the literature even describes this generation as Workaholics (Stern, 2002). Consequently, digital literacy can be conveyed as relevant via companies as a medium of transportation and presented all the more tangibly for the older generation. I therefore propose an incentive program for companies, the goal being to improve the digital literacy of Baby Boomers both at work and at home. Comparable approaches can be identified in OECD countries. In Germany, for example, the legal entitlement to educational leave is five days per year. In terms of digital literacy, this means that companies have access to statutory tax breaks or subsidies if they provide educational opportunities for their employees. The Enterprise Europe Network, for example, comes into question as an executive body (Enterprise Europe Network, 2021). This network already receives nine billion euros in funding from the European Union under the COSME program (2022) and could be expanded to include an education component for employees. In sum, it can be said that generations, young and old, must learn to understand each other better. A narrative of blame is not sustainable if the goal is an inclusive (digital) society. What is needed, therefore, are not only approaches to solutions at the political and business level, but also practical options that can be integrated into existing programs.

Political Decision-Makers under Obligation

With regard to the initial problem, the proposed solutions show that programs exist that can be considered for improving digital literacy among the Baby Boomer generation, but they must be properly combined, expanded and applied at the community access level.

In addition to this it also needs practical, institutionalized problem accessibility. Thus, intergenerational collaboration would leave the conceptual level and initiate a real-world cultural change process. For this, political decision-makers must take the first steps. For example, the European Commission could steer the solutions described through legislative proposals and incentive programs. But the generations, especially mine, must also demand it. Millennials have known about the advantages of digital literacy for years, and it is necessary to open a public discourse to demand these precise advantages throughout society.

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Pepe Bellin

Pepe Bellin

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