3 Misconceptions about Boomers that Are Damaging Your Online Course

The Baby Boomers are still one of the largest demographic segments in the United States. Are they being overlooked by online educators?

Despite the current media craze about Millennials (what will they kill next?), Baby Boomers have long been the most discussed and analyzed generation.

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.

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

8 Responses

  1. As usual, Laura, your publications contain great educational value. Thank you.

    As a “baby boomer” (70 and getting worse;)) I thank you for the topic you have focused on this opportunity. You clarify important points, especially for me you provide a valuable reflection on “retirement”. I do not plan to retire. A few days ago, in Spain, art personalities such as Woody Allen or Donald Sutherland have said the same (each for their reasons).

    For a few years I have been worried about the issue of aging and its relations with the so-called “secular stagnation”, or the statements of the former IMF director Mrs Lagarde, who claims that demographic poisoning is incompatible with a sustainable society model.

    I am sorry to have a terrible knowledge of the English language. My content about it is in Spanish language; I am creating a course on competitions for professional teaching and the empowerment of workers over 55 years of age who do not want or cannot retire to a “passive life”. For example: https://youtu.be/3BL0uGmHOOs

    All “baby boomers agree on something: While we cannot change demographic trends, we can change the way we respond to them. By adapting the workplace to intergenerational coexistence, we can turn “alarming demographic data” into “beneficial productive possibilities” for the whole of society in the long term.

    Thank you for your excellent work.

    Regars,

    Mario Dehter

    1. Hi Mario,

      “While we cannot change demographic trends, we can change the way we respond to them. By adapting the workplace to intergenerational coexistence, we can turn “alarming demographic data” into “beneficial productive possibilities” for the whole of society in the long term.”

      This is a great perspective, and a much more positive way to look at generational differences than the typical “us vs. them” mindset. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for this needed article, Laura.
    An enormous problem in our society is stereotypes. If someone is a certain age or nationality, we often tend to make blanket assumptions about them – and so very often these are radically far from the truth. Taking myself as a case in point – I am a 65 year-old grandmother of 6 – so what picture is now forming in your mind?
    I happen to know people in their 80’s who are not only adept at using their computers but some of them still program!

    So this is my reality – I of course did not grow up with any technology. When around 30, I got my first computer, a Commodore 64bit machine where the OS was loaded off a cassette..To keep this story short, lets jump to 2019 – I currently design websites, run my own server, engineer audio visual productions, and have created several online courses for spiritual teachers using various platforms including LearnDash.

    I have noticed that the majority of Students signing up for the courses are over 50 and into their 70s. None of them report haveing any difficulties using the online learning platform, in fact sometimes it is the younger students experiencing problems…possibly because they do not take the time to read instructions?!

    Having taken many online courses on various subjects, I have also noted a vast difference in the courses developed by older teachers which usually have less video, more downloadable text content with discussions as opposed to courses developed by millennial teachers…seems that the younger students like video heavy content delivered in very short video bursts, very often in a ‘dumbed down’ style…some of them are heavily reliant on falsely ‘bright and overly loud’ teachers, music and little in the way of more ‘in-depth’ content. Is this a reflection on what the younger generation needs, do they have such a short attention span and require to be entertained in order to learn?

    In short, the potential Boomer student market, in my experience, is absolutely huge. Just because you hit so-called ‘retirement age’ does not mean you shut down from life…on the contrary, this is when you have the time, money and interest to learn new skills. So my suggestion is not to worry about someone’s age and will they be able to manage the platform, but rather, focus on their interest in learning and growing – and unless you are specifically targeting very young folk, work on developing courses delivering valuable content with a downloadable text component, not just flashy videos!

    Thank you for your blog posts!
    Trish

    1. Hi Trish!

      “I currently design websites, run my own server, engineer audio visual productions, and have created several online courses for spiritual teachers using various platforms including LearnDash.”

      That’s awesome! I have noticed an interesting trend where the Boomers I have met who are more technologically adept tend to understand it from an IT-heavy perspective, whereas Millennials tend to understand it from a user interface perspective. I think that is a reflection of how we first come in contact with the technology.

  3. Laura,
    Thank you for this article! It is “spot on”! Whenever I engage with technical help I start with: “Now, before we begin, I just want you to know that when I went to high school, we didn’t have calculators.” We also had one telephone on the kitchen wall, and dinosaurs roamed the earth.

    However, cell phones are fantastic for convenience and safety, and the internet has opened up many new opportunities to connect with people around the world. I do my best to keep up.

    I really hope younger generations don’t lose the value of connecting in person and speaking with people. That has been the focus of my 30 years of training. Now I can reach more people with my expertise by training online. We’ll see how it goes!

    Thanks again Trish.

    Sincerely,

    Christina (young boomer)

    1. Thanks, Christina!

      “However, cell phones are fantastic for convenience and safety, and the internet has opened up many new opportunities to connect with people around the world. I do my best to keep up.”

      This is so true. Despite the down sides, I’ve personally found that I’ve been better able to keep up with friends and family around the country—and the world—because of mobile technology. Kudos for keeping up with it, and I hope you’re able to put it to use in your course as well!

  4. Correction !!!!!!! That should read “Thanks again Laura”.

    (Trish’s name was right above the text box and I accidentally typed it.)

    Thanks!
    Christina

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