The Baby Boomers are still one of the largest demographic segments in the United States. Are they being overlooked by online educators?
In fact, it would be fair to say that the Boomer generation is the raison d’être for all our discussions about generational demographics.
Not only has the baby boom itself had a profound impact on Western culture, but much of modern marketing was created for and defined by that demographic.
It’s important to acknowledge that there is a danger in over-relying on marketing segments, in that by doing so you can overlook niche areas and subcultures that don’t conform to the general mold. But the danger of ignoring them entirely is that you could end up with a massive blind spot—like overlooking the largest generation in history because you think they aren’t good with computers.
Not every misconception about Baby Boomers is relevant to online learning. However, there are three myths that I believe are relevant, because they directly affect how online educators create and market their courses. So, if you’ve designed a course for this generation—and perhaps especially if you’ve never even thought of doing so—this list is for you.
1. Boomers don’t know how to use technology.
It’s true that the Baby Boomer generation is, on average less technologically proficient than succeeding generations. In fact, while Millennials are often referred to as “tech natives,” Boomers have been described as “tech immigrants.”
The situation becomes more complicated when you realize that this generation hasn’t just encountered one technology later in life, they’ve encountered every succeeding innovation later in life. For Boomers, the great technological revolution that hit in their college years or shortly thereafter was the personal computer. For Gen X, it was the Internet. For Millennials, it was smartphones.
So yes, Boomers have had a lot to adapt to, and it hasn’t come naturally. At the same time, however, Boomers have been working with this technology for decades—including at the peak of their careers. If they have chosen to disengage more than other generations, it says more about preference than ability.
And this has some loud and clear implications for your online course. First, you shouldn’t discount this demographic when you design your course. If you build a course that matches their needs and interests, they will sign up. And second, while you should provide some tutorials on how to use your course (engage in the discussion boards, submit assignments, etc.), you shouldn’t underestimate their ability to figure it out.
2. Boomers are set in their ways and aren’t interested in learning.
I’ve never been fond of the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” While I’m happy to concede that old habits die hard, acknowledging difficulties is not the same as writing them off as impossibilities.
More importantly, it ignores the fact that many people continue learning skills throughout their lives. In fact, some people have worked their whole careers looking forward to a day when they could finally refocus their energy toward pursuits that bring them fulfillment. So, far from being uninterested in learning, Boomers are especially keen to expand their horizons.
However, they do have preferences in terms of how their education is presented. First and foremost, Boomers are more inclined to view their instructors as peers than as authority figures. No one likes feeling condescended to, but Boomers are especially likely to be put off by material that disregards their experience and treats their age as a handicap.
On the contrary, Boomers view their life experience as an aid to the learning course—something of value that they want to share. Incorporating their life experience explicitly into the course through writing assignments or discussion topics not only builds engagement and helps with learning retention (as it would for any demographic), it may also be of added value to your discussion board community.
3. Boomers are heading into retirement.
Yes and no. The story behind Boomers and retirement is complex, with many members of this generation staying on because they don’t want to quit their job, others changing careers to invest more time in a passion project, and still others retiring but devoting more time to volunteer work with non-profits.
Each of these life choices has a different implication for online educators. Those who are staying in their current jobs have just as much need for ongoing education to stay at the leading edge of their career field. Meanwhile, those transitioning to new jobs are taking up volunteer work will have much to learn about the new field, but will also be bringing with them a career’s worth of experiences. Far from retiring, this generation is eager to stay engaged.
What do we know about Baby Boomers?
So, what should you focus on when creating a course and marketing it to Baby Boomers? A few things.
For one, Boomers have more discretionary income than prior generations, and they’re happy to invest it in their interests. For another, Boomers bring a lot to the table in terms of education, skill, and experience. They want their experience to be recognized, but they also want to be able to draw on it to enhance their learning program.
Boomers tend to be more technically literate than they are given credit for. Most maintain at least one social media account, own smartphones, and regularly access the internet from their personal computer. However, they do have some preferences on this front as well. Of any social platform, they are most likely to be on Facebook—but they prefer email communication over most messaging applications.
Clearly, there’s a lot to generational demographics that online educators can draw on to build a better course. And as any good educator knows, taking time to review prejudices and rethink assumptions is essential to learning. That applies to all of us—not just our learners.