Work, Older Workers, and Technology

By Charness, Neil | Generations, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Work, Older Workers, and Technology


Charness, Neil, Generations


Better training and design can help level the playing field for older workers.

Though for the readers of this article, it is summer, as I write it we are approaching the Christmas season, with replays of classic movies like Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

CURRENT TECHNOLOGIES: THE GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST AND PRESENT

One of the scenes in that film shows a replica of a nineteenth-century Victorian office where Bob Cratchit and his fellow clerks sit on stools at high desks using paper, quills, and inkwells to run the business of the day. Should Bob Cratchit walk into the typical twenty-first-century office he would no doubt be amazed by the changes in technology for those engaged in present-day commerce. Modern desks, at least those designed according to ergonomic principles, have adjustable chairs as well as keyboard trays housing a keyboard and mouse. The latter two tools have not only banished quills and inkwells, but have also largely usurped the role of the 20th century's pencils and ballpoint pens. Although paper is still in abundance in offices, more and more the computer monitor has become the platform for reading and writing. Finally, a huge array of cables snakes between a desktop or laptop computer and peripheral devices like printers, scanners, and speakers. Most important of all are the cables linking the worker to internal and external networks. And, increasingly, wireless connections are replacing wires.

The techniques for managing small-firm accounts have been well defined since the four-teenth-century creation of double-entry ledger systems. However, the technology for employing these systems has changed radically. Paper, quill, and inkwell have been replaced by keyboard, mouse, and spreadsheet program (or database). The process of exchanging information has changed from the use of a physical courier to electronic transmission. Likewise, the physical and cognitive demands on today's Bob Cratchit have changed accordingly.

Life expectancy in Victorian England was something less than twenty years given high infant mortality and unsanitary living and working conditions (e.g., the infamous London smogs). Bob Cratchit might not have labored under Ebenezer Scrooge all that long though even then there was a marked gradient in life expectancy between rich and poor (http://www. manchester20002-uk.com/history/victorian/Victorian1.html). Today's Cratchit can expect to work until his or her late 6os (e.g., 67 is the age of full eligibility for a Social Security pension in the United States for those born after 1960). Cratchit probably will want some part-time employment post retirement to support a better standard of living.

The modern work era is affected by two important trends: population aging and rapid influx of technology. Evidence for the latter can be seen in the diminishing time span for adoption of communication devices like the fax, the phone, and the Internet. The patent for the fax machine was given to Bain in 1843, but its widespread adoption did not occur for almost 150 years. The telephone (patented by Bell in 1876) made a much quicker entry into workplaces and households, but still probably took fifty years to achieve widespread use(Charness and Czaja, 2005). In contrast, adoption of the Internet was extremely rapid, Figure 1 shows.

Businesses quickly saw the advantage of Internet access, particularly e-mail, and were perhaps the driving force behind the rapid build-out of the infrastructure that supports both commercial and private use of the Internet today. Many surveys of computer use and Internet access point to the important role that workplaces play in transfer of technology to households. For instance, businesses were early adopters of highspeed connections, and those who use them at work are more likely to adopt broadband at home. Similarly, it seems likely that those not employed, including retired older adults, are less likely to be in contact with technology and hence less likely to adopt it at home. …

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