The New Language Barrier: The Relationship Between Technology & Demographics

When we usually think of language barriers, we think about different cultures and different people. We think about countries where we would probably have a hard time ordering from a menu.

That’s not the language barrier I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the language barrier of technology. What you’re using right now to read this otherwise intangible article. Sure, it seems like everyone has the internet these days. After all, nearly every job seems to require at least some fluency with computers.

But, according to Pew research from April, 48% of Americans making under $30,000, 59% of Americans 65+ and 57% of Americans with no high school diploma don’t use the internet.

To make things worse, we should consider that about half of American children will grow up living on foodstamps at some point, which (roughly) means they are growing up in a household that doesn’t have ready available access to the internet.

Race against the machine

I started thinking about these statistics when I read Race Against the Machine, a book about how, thanks to Moore’s Law of exponential increases, computers are advancing into new frontiers at a speed that is increasingly leaving more and more people behind.

Since the book is written by two members of the MIT faculty, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, there is a somewhat forced splash of rose-colored paint on this predicament.

They argue that each new technological development adds to “the set of building blocks available to the next entrepreneur.” After all, they recall that “a student in one of our classes at MIT created a simple Facebook application for sharing photos… within a year he had over one million users.”

They predict that these kinds of “superstars,” the savvy entrepreneurs who can shoot off an app or a new website in less than a week, will hire the less-than-savvy among us.

But that’s ignoring the important fact here: sure, about half of us will eventually tumble our way into burgeoning technologies as fumbling shepherds and promoters and wranglers and gurus, but if half of Americans aren’t fluent in the internet at all, then these advancements will leave them far, far behind.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee claim that the key to not losing the race against the machine is to keep adapting your own skill set, but I think any of us would be hard-pressed to tell our grandmothers to learn Twitter, because otherwise they risk becoming obsolete.

The demographics of the race

That, of course, isn’t a problem yet. Older generations benefited from frugal lifestyles, an economic boom, and uninflated college tuition prices for their offspring. But 53% of baby boomers don’t think they’ll be able to afford retirement and 73% plan to work past 65.

On the flip side of those statistics, only about 63% of baby boomers have broadband access at home. That puts them at an extreme risk for being left behind in the race against the machine when they don’t have the resources to keep adapting.

So, a good number of boomers never saw the need to become adept at technology and about half of American families have trouble affording it in the first place.

That’s where I see the problem – it’s not just that technology is outpacing our ability to adapt, forcing us to hop onto different trains of thought at ever faster rates, technology is outpacing American incomes.

When skills cost money

The higher education bubble has already successfully monetized soft skills. If you don’t have enough money to afford a college degree, employers will hardly look at you.

My generation knows this, so we went to college in record numbers… and, consequently, incurred student debt to afford inflated tuition prices in record numbers. (Ironically, our determination to go to college ended up marginalizing what a degree means).

Now, if you don’t have a college degree, because the price tag was too high, you could be in trouble. If you aren’t able to use the internet, because your family isn’t ever able to afford it, then the problem is compounded.

And, better yet, haven’t you heard that the future of the industry is mobile?

After all, we’ve got successful-looking, well-dressed families and dogs looking misty-eyed, surrounded by floating devices and absolutely enraptured by the possibilities of “sharing everything.”

This may be the next hurdle in the race (like that one?) agaisnt the machine: a smartphone.

Unfortunately, Verizon’s new “Share Everything” plan is expected to hurt lower-income consumers, and even eliminate some of the “lower-tiered plans.”

These kinds of industry development are effectively phasing out any American who can’t afford consistent internet or mobile access by ignoring the fact that Americans who don’t own smartphones (or, gasp, don’t want or need one!) even exist.

The American Dream, gone digital

One lesson from Race Against the Machine is certain: the ability to adapt to technology is going to be the number one job skill to have in the coming decades.

Yet a New York Times article shed light on this predicament in dreadful detail: More than 15% of Americans and 22% of American children are living in poverty. Half of all Americans age 25-34 who moved back home are considered to be living in poverty if their parents’ household incomes are excluded.

People are not going to have to pivot their careers once or twice, but endlessly, always accruing new skills to stay relevant to a job market that is moving with the ramping, fast-forward speed of one of those things people used to have to fast forward something else.

We can see these trends when we look at some other statistics. Pew research showed that older workers are less likely to lose their jobs, but those who do are three times as likely to become chronically unemployed. In fact, since 2011, long-term unemployment has become less of a burden for many demographics. But, for boomers, things have gotten worse, not better.

Younger Americans without access to technology don’t have it easier – there’s a growing sentiment among employers that young people without Facebook accounts are “suspicious.”

The real truth is that the chasm between rich and poor is widening, as usual, but the tools that impoverished Americans need the most to bridge that divide are increasingly expensive.

Perversely, there’s a growing concern among marketers to move onto the next big thing before everyone else, even as each new technological advancement is thinning the herd more and more. First it was the internet, soon it will be mobile technology.

This language barrier, too, is following the law of exponential increases: first, you need to learn how to use a computer. Then, the internet. Then, the lexicon of social media. Now, a smartphone.

If this problem stays on the sidelines of this race against the machine and the middle class keeps struggling just to afford to stay in it, then there is a very real risk that the only participants left will be the people who conduct the races and the machines themselves.

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