Age or Environment?

April 15, 2014
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

The “nature versus nurture” debate regarding what we end up doing in life has been going on for years. Are particular talents the product of Mother Nature, or do they require nurturing to develop them? It’s a pretty short discussion when it comes to true geniuses or children who demonstrate an extraordinary talent in music, for example, by age 3. Put simply, no explanation is possible. But by adulthood, is excellence in public speaking or chemistry or even writing an inborn talent or the result of having opportunities to learn and practice a skill? Researchers who find cures for all types of diseases, for example: Were they born with the talent to connect the dots and see the patterns or did they receive chemistry kits as gifts when they were 5 years old?

We’ve been having a similar discussion around AFCEA recently, but for us, it’s been with regard to current and potential association members and, in particular, SIGNAL Media readers. While numerous studies have been conducted to determine the hot topics of interest or how people prefer to network, today the preference percentages are all over the charts. As for penchants for news delivery, the variety of preferences is just as unpredictable, perhaps because the options are so abundant today. In fact, recently Robert K. Ackerman, senior director, SIGNAL Media, and editor in chief, conducted a SIGNAL Media Preferences survey. Although some members of the staff expected certain results, others felt the preferences seemed to contradict their own gut feelings.

This led to the discussion about age versus environment when it comes to technology usage and comfort level. It’s a no-brainer when we talk about digital natives—those people under the age of 30 or so. They rely on technology for just about everything and are not quite sure how people acquired information when they didn’t have a search engine, a mouse or a tablet computer. This probably explains why, after 244 years, Encyclopædia Britannica stopped the presses.

But what about the rest of us? Around the AFCEA offices, some staff members in their 50s still shy away from new ways to automate processes, while others not only embrace them but are eager to learn about the next new solution. Many closer to retirement age use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to keep track of family members and can thumb-type faster than their kids. However, some AFCEANs in the same age bracket are still trying to figure out what’s so social about media. Concurrently, we know about AFCEANs in their 80s who have seen technologies used broadly since well before the Internet age and are able to predict—quite accurately—the twists and turns that will result as technology moves forward.

So what is it—age or environment? Are people more comfortable with evolutions in technology because they’re young, used to change, eager to learn and searching for an easier way to get a job done well? Have Baby Boomers learned the latest technologies because they were raising video gamers during the days of the Super Mario Bros. who then turned into digital natives? Have others acquiesced because they’ve accepted the fact that change is inevitable?

The bottom line is that today the choice is yours, and you have many more choices than in the past. Take part in Facebook, or don’t. Take pride in knowing how to fold a newspaper or SIGNAL Magazine in just the right way to fit your reading environment or swipe your way through the digital versions on your tablet Surprise your kids by sending texts to their phones or call them from your landline (if you have one). How you’ve arrived at the information age isn’t important. What is important is that you stay up to date with the options, because at the current rate of technological changes, the old ways of communicating will begin to disappear, and you want to be at least aware of the new ones as they rage—not ramble—down the road.

Which way do you lean in the age versus environment debate? Can you keep up with the college grads who will soon be walking through the doors at your company or command? How do you keep up?

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Environment has a lot to do with how we pick up things. For example, Koreans are very advanced in information technology. I am sure receiving their primary school homework by e-mail 20 years ago had something to do with it. Around the same time, I had to book weeks in advance to have half an hour on the computer at my university. However, does this stop me? No. The only thing I see in myself is that I am learning selectively. I know I cannot catch up with the youngsters who were born with a laptop in their hand. However, I don't have to know everything. I learn the things that I need well and I can compete with anyone in that area.

...of signing up for computer time in college! I didn't even bother, but my husband signed up to reserve HOURS of time!! I think growing up with technology helps a lot, but I agree with you that having the perspective to know you don't need to learn EVERYTHING, just the techs that are useful to you, is a valuable skill, too! Thanks for the comment! ml

As a sexagenarian (no jokes please), I can assure you it is more environment.

Age will tell you the general environments which affected the person. Older people tend to have more experience in less digital intense environments than younger people. If an older person stopped evolving their technology environment and its use somewhere along the way, then I'm sure that might lead to the conclusion that age is the cause.

However, corrolation is not causality. I believe the real cause is in that case is familiarity which can lead to not adopting newer environments for some people. For other people who adopt new technology easily and adapt to constant change, they will continue to be right there with the best of their younger peers and, perhaps, their additional experience in other less technological environments may be valuable.

In my IT career, I have undergone four major evolutions in the technology base for my knowledge and skill set. Having started with assembler, FORTRAN, COBOL and mainframes, distributed and client-server C/C++ and UNIX/Linux became dominant in active and new software development. Tha was shift one. With distributed systems, networking, especially TCP/IP and Ethernet became dominant and HTTP/HTML with dynamic page content via CGI (common gateway interface) and Perl, C/C++, or, eventually Java, to create web--browser based human interfaces to systems. That was shift two. Java became a dominant with platform agnostic portability (unlike the libraries C/C++ used) and displaced C/C++ for distributed systems and dynamic web interfaces. In addition, Java SE/EE became the dominant means for advanced web services and web-browser interfaces. That was shift three. The LAMP stack has made significant inroads into web services and dynamic web page content -- so much so that PHP and JavaScript are as ubiquitous in advanced web services and web-browser interfaces as Java systems have been. That has been shift three. Handheld and mobile technology has begun to dominate how humans interface with systems and cellular digital data connectivity has become ubiquitous for connecting humans to systems. Android and iOS are about equal in dominance with Blackberry a major player. That was shift four. I am now surrounded by notebooks, mobile USB displays as small as the notebooks, Android tablets. Android smart phones, high-speed N600 WiFi, and high-speed cellular LTE and actively develop software to run on them and on servers for their back-end services. On top of that, I also evloved into project management and team management roles along the way.

The major determining factors I see are not age, they are the personality of the person and the environment. The willingness to adopt quickly emerging and rapidly dominating technologies, adapt to the new paradigms they present, and engage in the environments in which they operate are what I see as the determining factors. As far as I can tell, age itself has little, if anything, to do with it. Age only means there is a history which creates an opportunity for a person to stop evolving along the way.

In the meantime, I'll challenge any person half my age to keep up with me. I have twice their experience at adopting, adapting, and evolving my environment plus significant experience at project and management levels.

...because the willingness to challenge yourself and the experience to adopt to change shows that age is just a number...and an unimportant one at that! ;-) ml

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