“I’m too old for this stuff,” we say with a laugh when yet another new technological device comes along. And so the digital divide gets broader. New technologies are mainly designed for people under the age of fifty, and it is easy to start thinking we will never truly master this stuff. But is it really so?
In actual fact there is nothing in the older brain to stop us learning new skills.
The problem is that the older we are the more stuff we have knocking around in our brains. Neuroscientists at MIT have found that the brain must maintain a balance between plasticity – the forming of new connections – and stability – maintaining old ones. A study at George Regents University shows that the human brain does not necessarily decrease in its ability to make the strong synaptic connections that allow us to learn as we get older. Rather, as the brain ages, it finds it harder to weaken older memories and solidify new ones. We may be amazed at how much of an old skill we remember – a board game, a sport like skiing – and after all, although young people can find their way around an iPad in nanoseconds, faced with a record player or an old Polaroid camera they might be flummoxed. Actually, apart from the documented evidence that the middle-aged brain is better at processing negative emotions, it is also capable of rewiring itself and in many cases actually demonstrates improved cognitive abilities. In a study published in 2007 in Neurology, older pilots took longer to learn to use the simulators but did a better job than their younger colleagues at achieving their objective: avoiding collisions.
Much of the problem is due to experience of other skills that have come and gone. How much time do we really want to spend on learning how to use a new gadget when we know the skill may be obsolete within a few years? Older people have the perspective on inventions and technological developments that younger people have not had the chance to gain, and we are sceptical about anything new until it has proven itself indispensable. In addition to that, the lives of older people are often far more complex, involving work, care for older parents and for children, and many social and professional responsibilities which mean we must choose carefully how to spend our time. “My son tried to teach me how to use the PlayStation,” said Moira a 48 year old lawyer, “and I think eventually I could have done it. But I just couldn’t be bothered. It didn’t interest me, and anyway, I had to get the dinner on.”
Our children may laugh at our inability to tell the difference between a browser and a search engine, but many of us don’t have the time to learn and to be honest, many of us don’t care.
However, saying we are too old to learn is condemning ourselves to obsolescence. This attitude also comes from resentment that the world is passing us by, and that the skills we honed earlier – shorthand, filing, faxing – are turning out to be useless. The other weird thing about modern technology is that sometimes it breaks down and no one knows why. Why does turning it off and on again work? And even if you get your website back online, how come no one – not even the Indian wizz kids on the chat line! – have the foggiest idea why it crashed in the first place?
Feeling tried and tested skills are outdated when new technology obviously has a mind of its own over which we have no control is why we feel irritation when we suddenly have to change the way we’ve always done things at work because some nerd in jeans with a pony tail who spends hours in his room being fed bacon sandwiches by his mum has rendered a system obsolete.
However, aligning to some degree with the young will have an immediate effect not only on our outlook, but on the preservation of our cognitive skills. It may also have an effect on how fast we age. And some of this new-fangled junk is actually quite useful – those old episodes of Star Trek have come true with the advent of the webcam, which is a great way to talk to our loved ones across the oceans. Learning how to set up a website is now quite straightforward since there are lots of free videos on YouTube that take us through all the steps, without skipping any that might seem obvious to those who grew up with the internet, and the sense of achievement is exhilarating. Within days it becomes second nature.
Music is another area which scores a deep dividing line between the generations. The kind of music we listened to in our teens is closely knit together with our identity. Music is an area which binds people together, and relationships between people of different generations sometimes falter over the kind of music we remember and like. It may be true that there is more difference between the stuff our grandparents used to appreciate and what we jitterbugged and boogied to than between our music and that of the youth today, but we still often think it’s totally awful. “Why do the young listen to so much crap?” people so often say. “At least when I was young there was a tune!” Rap music? Hip hop? Who in their right mind would listen to that? However, if we do ask young people if they know anything modern we might like, chances are they’ll be flattered, nay delighted to give us a whirlwind tour of modern-day pop (though white-knuckle cringing is likely if we try and use their slang). And if we are honest, if we take a minute to absorb the beat, we can perhaps remember the kind of energy and consciousness of youth which causes people of different generations to prefer different music. Remembering this energy is a step towards recapturing it.
The goalposts are not going to stop moving, so we have to consider whether we must move with them if we are not going to align with the elderly and infirm. We often hear people say, “I’m through with travel,” or “Do I really have to try new food?”, but if we think of it as an exercise in staying ageless, it is worth, at least occasionally, taking that step to try something new.
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