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Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Fear the ‘Digital Divide’ at Work

There are some things you just shouldn't say at the workplace. Like discussing a "carriage return" with a co-worker.

"I was showing a millennial how to use a computer application. I told him to hit the carriage return," said Kevin Jones, 55. "He had no idea what that was. I suddenly felt as if I had been born during the gaslight era."

Language like that is sure to attract unwanted giggles in the office. But over-the-hill smirks aren't reserved for references that are several decades old. Tell a 20-something you want to connect on Facebook, and you might get the same odd look.

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If a young co-worker offers to pay you back for lunch with Venmo, and you hesitate, you'll immediately be declared "above the Venmo line," and might as well be demanding payment with a Diners Club card.

Venmo is a payment app owned by PayPal that's virtually ubiquitous among 20-somethings and virtually invisible to anyone older. Hence, the Venmo line.

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You can say the same about almost every new thing that arrives in the workplace these days. There's a Snapchat line. A Slack line. A Bumble line. Above, you are old. Below, you are young.

Workplace generation gaps used to pit veterans in their 60s against rookies in their 20s, or even baby boomers vs. millennials. Now, it's the Facebook generation vs. the Snapchat generation.

In digital time, generation gaps can occur within just a couple of years, giving a lot of people the sense that they are falling behind and must struggle to avoid being left out.

Jordan Koschei is director of user experience at Fusion Media, which works with Fortune 500 firms to improve their workplace tools. He calls these communication breakdowns "micro-generation gaps," and says the struggle is real — particularly for "older" workers in their 30s and 40s who might not know how to use every new technology that arrives.

"When you start at an office, you are just expected to have proficiency in these tools, like Slack. If you ask how Slack works, you'll get strange looks," Koschei said. "It's a shame than everyone has to feel stupid."

Things are already hard enough for older workers, who get fewer job interviews when trying to re-enter the workforce and generally lower pay when then do. At least they might get some empathy from an unexpected source: over-the-hill 20-somethings.

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More is at risk than some office humor at your expense, however.

Micro-generations who use different communication tools risk talking right past each other, creating a Tower of Babel. Snaps vanish in the time it takes to reboot a PC and send an email. When teams from different companies try to get organized, the problem is magnified — think about your worst video-conference failure and multiply that maddening interaction.

"It makes it hard to do the real work and hard because you are just having the meta-conversation about how to talk," Koschei says.

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So far, workers don't seem to see this as a career-threatening issue.

In a recent Pew study, only 13 percent of workers said they worried about losing their jobs "because they can't keep up with the technical requirements." Surprisingly, there was no difference among age groups — 18-year-olds and 64-year-olds are equally unconcerned about becoming digital dinosaurs, the survey found. That's despite recent dire predictions about robots eliminating the need for human workers during the next decade.

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"People are much more worried about their employer managing their company better, both near-term and long-term, than they are about growing automation," said Aaron Smith, who conducted Pew's research. On the other hand, he conceded, many workers aren't fond of admitting they don't know what they're doing. "Measuring inadequacy is tough."

While Koschei observes the problem every day, he sees light at the end of the smartphone. Instead of asking an embarrassing question about Bumble, for example, workers can just Google what they need to know, and learn to live in a world where "generations" change as fast as software does.