April 17, 2024

Grand Depart

Experienced In Technology

Are Gen Z Really Afraid of Printers and What Is “Tech Shame”?

12 min read
Are Gen Z Really Afraid of Printers and What Is “Tech Shame”?

Zoomers, often referred to as “digital natives,” were born into a world where technology was already woven into the fabric of daily life. Some of them started using mobile devices before they even learned how to walk and talk. Able to edit a video on their mobile phone faster than you can decide what kind of coffee you want — their lives often seem to revolve around an online presence.

However, paradoxically, when these digital natives step into the workplace, they often have a surprisingly tough time using basic office equipment like a printer or scanner. As it turns out, Gen Z is plagued by technological issues much more than their older peers.

A recent report by LaSalle Network revealed that nearly half of all the 2022 graduates who entered the workforce that year admitted to feeling technologically unprepared and inadequate in their new work environments. These individuals, who seem to master technology effortlessly in their personal lives, now find themselves struggling to adapt to job-related tech demands.

Adding to the dilemma, an HP survey found that 20{76cecface0748ddeecd9e742a6b04748a479068b020f881d389c6d6775b6c823} of Gen Z workers feel judged by their older colleagues whenever they encounter a technical problem. This issue has become so prevalent that it has earned a particular term: tech shame. This feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment when grappling with technical challenges has become a significant concern among the young workforce.

Now, a question arises: what lies at the core of this paradox? As I see it, this hydra has multiple heads, but to start with, let’s look into what tech shame is and what kind of problems it poses for businesses.

What Is Tech Shame?

Tech shame has become a workplace buzzword very recently, mainly thanks to this article from The Guardian and the HP survey referenced above. The term itself has been coined by the computer giant HP to define the difficulties the younger generation faces in using basic office tools.

However, this doesn’t make it a new phenomenon. Tech shame has been around for as long as people have used technology at work, has many faces, and is not specific to young workers. In a general sense, people get a feeling of personal inadequacy when facing technical issues in a new, challenging situation. Everyone has likely experienced it at least once when using new technology in an unfamiliar environment.

Is Tech Shame a Big Deal?

Because tech shame in the workplace has only recently become a subject of public scrutiny, there’s not yet much data on how it impacts employee performance and companies in general. However, judging by what Gen Z has been saying in multiple interviews and the few surveys conducted, tech shaming poses a serious problem for businesses, and here’s why.

For starters, it creates a toxic environment for younger workers, which should cause alarm for any company. It’s no secret that a hostile environment hampers employee productivity, creativity, and retention.

Additionally, it has been observed that tech shame prevents younger workers from speaking their minds or, as this article puts it, keeps them silent at meetings. This contradicts what any experienced manager would hope for from their employees. When employees are reluctant to share their ideas, a team’s potential remains untapped.

As a manager, the priority should be to create a nurturing environment where everyone feels comfortable asking questions, expressing themselves, and seeking solutions collaboratively. A team can thrive only if ideas flow freely and mutual respect abounds, which is unlikely to happen when some team members are ridiculed (however innocent the jokes might seem to those who make them).

The key takeaway here is that tech shame is a real problem that requires the attention of company management if they are hoping to tap into their team’s full potential and keep their young employees long enough for that magical moment to happen. This much is clear. What’s puzzling, though, is if tech shame has been around forever, why is it so much harder on younger workers?

Why Is Tech Shame Harder on Young Workers?

1) Unjustified Expectations

There’s a common misconception among the older generation that Gen Z is highly tech-savvy and has an innate understanding of how technology works. Therefore, they’re more often than not expected to navigate any kind of technology without much support. This misconception has two fundamental flaws.

First, it’s not the best idea to assume that just because someone’s in their twenties, they know how every type of technology works. It’s generally a bad idea to assume anything about a person based on their age, race, or gender, for that matter. However, even though equality has become the new norm in the workplace, Gen Z seems to get a different treatment.

Second, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the term digital natives. Yes, Gen Z is very comfortable with technology and learns on the fly. However, it’s crucial to understand that they’re fluent with the technology they grew up with, meaning smartphones, mobile apps, and internet services. With technology they’ve never been exposed to and are encountering for the first time, Gen Z will be just as confused and clueless as the average Joe.

The assumption that Gen Z should know how to work any device and the heightened expectations put pressure on them and make it even harder for them to settle in in the new workplace. As a result, as that same HP survey shows, Gen Z are ten (!) times more likely to feel embarrassed and inadequate when facing tech issues at work compared to any other generation.

1.1) There Is a Difference Between Being Tech Savvy and Being Dependent on Technology

As this article explains with a wealth of detail, merely doing everything with the help of technology or, in some cases, being unable to do something without it doesn’t make one technologically savvy.

Gen Z might be very savvy with certain types of tech. For instance, in mobile apps, Gen Z is definitely a cut above the rest. What they’re not particularly good at is dinosaur technology like old photocopiers, scanners, printers, and (for heaven’s sake) fax machines. And seriously, who can blame them?

Do you recall your emotions when you first saw that beige monstrosity? Did you find it intuitive and easy to operate? Probably not. Because as far as printer and scanner machines go (especially true of those on the enterprise and corporate level), user-friendliness becomes nothing less than user-intimidation.

2) TV Has Contributed to the Normalization of Tech Shaming

Over the years, tech shaming has become something of a recreational activity, with TV shows contributing to its normalization. Take, for example, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which featured a particular segment. In this segment, a young person, typically a teenager, was invited on stage. Ellen would present them with an obsolete object, like a paper map or a mechanical alarm clock, and challenge them to perform a task using the outdated item while racing against a timer. The audience erupted in laughter as they watched the unfortunate youngster struggling with the unfamiliar technology.

Although this segment may seem harmless fun, it might not be as innocent if you think about what it does exactly. And what it does is literally encourage one group of people to ridicule another group of people for differences they have by birth. It sounds like a slippery slope if you ask me.

The Ellen DeGeneres Show wasn’t alone in thinking it was fair game to make fun of young people for being clueless about outdated technology. Thus, tech shaming has become a meme with the older generation and a bit of a sore spot with the younger one.

3) Entry-level Jobs Have Changed

Another reason tech shame might be more challenging for young workers is that entry-level jobs are generally much more complex now than they were some 30–40 years ago. Many tasks that used to be entry-level responsibilities, like certain types of data entry, presentations, scheduling meetings, organizing physical documents, etc., have been fully automated.

Plus, companies are increasingly taking advantage of the broader spread of internships (where they underpay or exploit privileged students who can afford to do unpaid work in exchange for relevant experience, which leaves less privileged students lagging behind—a huge problem in itself but a topic for another article).

As a result, the roles that remain at the entry-level are often those requiring higher-level responsibilities, interpersonal communication, and consumer-facing skills. So, compared to boomers or Gen X, Gen Z is having it much more complicated when entering the workforce and is experiencing more stress and pressure.

4) The Global Pandemic

It’s also important to remember that many Gen Z’s started work during the lockdown. Their student-to-worker transition phase, which is highly confusing and unsettling in and of itself, happened during times of turmoil that were extremely challenging for the workforce. Normal work processes were disrupted, and companies were too busy trying to pull themselves together to spare much thought for the onboarding of the newcomers.

What’s more, those young workers who joined the workforce in 2020–2021 and were forced to start their professional lives from a home office didn’t have the opportunity to learn from exposure and observation and didn’t have face-to-face time with their colleagues, which provides much more opportunities to ask questions and learn.

5) First-job Jitters and Imposter Syndrome

To better understand why the problem is more challenging for younger workers, it’s worth reminding ourselves that navigating a new work environment is always stressful. A thousand things can make us nervous and insecure. Will I fit in with the new colleagues? Am I qualified enough to do well? What if I make a mistake because I don’t know all the company policies and procedures? Questions like that can badger new employees for weeks and cause severe anxiety. However, this feeling can be ten times worse if this is your first-ever job.

For those who joined the workforce so long ago that they have a hard time remembering what it feels like, here’s a useful mental exercise that might help recreate the mindset of a first-time jobber.

Bright-eyed and Bushy-tailed

Imagine you’ve finally decided to get into shape and got yourself a gym membership. Good for you! However, you’ve never been to a gym before and are unsure what to expect. You’ve gained a few pounds to add to your nervousness, which doesn’t exactly boost your confidence. Nevertheless, you’ve packed your gym bag and bravely headed for your first-ever gym session.

As you walk through the gym doors, the knot in your stomach tightens as you see that the place is packed with people who look like they could easily grace the cover of a fitness magazine. They all seem to know each other and share inside jokes, making you feel like you’re in high school again.

Undeterred, you change into your gym clothes and try to put on an I know what I’m doing face as you approach the nearest machine you think you know how to use. However, you can’t help knowing everyone’s watching your every move. You catch a glimpse of someone whispering to their friend, and they burst into laughter, making you wonder if it’s you they’re laughing at.

Just when you start to feel overwhelmed, a gym instructor shows up. Relieved, you think, “Here’s my safety net!” The instructor gives you a reassuring smile, says, “Looks like you’re doing great. I knew you’d be a natural!” and disappears into thin air, leaving you to navigate the gym alone.

This is roughly how young workers might feel on the first day of their first-ever job, except you’re free to leave the gym whenever you feel like it. On top of that, they might feel that their entire future and financial security hinge on how well they perform. Now, how does it make you feel if you can mentally put yourself in their shoes? Would you feel comfortable asking one of the locals for help with the machines? How would you feel if they made a joke about your inability to use them and everyone else laughed in your face?

But Is It Just Gen Z’s Who Face Tech Shame at Work?

Although Gen Z is more susceptible to tech shaming and takes it personally, this is no longer a younger workers’ problem exclusively. People of all generations sometimes feel inadequate when facing tech issues, especially when others are keen to have fun at their expense.

Funnily enough, a survey of 1,000 young working Americans shows that 25{76cecface0748ddeecd9e742a6b04748a479068b020f881d389c6d6775b6c823} feel like they can’t get their work done because they’ve become an unofficial tech-support representative for their older colleagues. This shows that all age groups could do with some training on tech their companies use and maybe with a friendlier, more accessible tech-support department. According to Salesforce, 76{76cecface0748ddeecd9e742a6b04748a479068b020f881d389c6d6775b6c823} of people currently in the workforce report that their job doesn’t provide any kind of training that would allow them to improve their technical skills.

What Can We Do to Fix the Problem?

Gen Z’s Bring the Game to Your Own Turf!

We strongly recommend two things if you feel like a square peg in a round hole when using old office machines. First, let’s get one thing straight—you have no reason to feel embarrassed. You must realize that no one was born knowing how to work fax and scanner machines or any machines for that matter. We all had to learn and ask for help at some point, and that’s just how it goes.

If this realization doesn’t come easily to you, talk to the oldest member of your IT department. Anyone who’s worked at an IT department of a big company long enough will tell you that it’s not exclusively Gen Z’s who can’t work printers—all generations can’t work printers. Old printer-scanner machines might be the worst pieces of equipment on God’s green Earth. Being inept with this equipment is much more common than you might think.

Next, consider this—is it your fault that your company clings to technology older than your parents? They’re likely just reluctant to shell out big bucks for upgrades of their dated systems. You know the drill—if it ain’t broken, why fix it? If your colleagues absolutely insist on tech-shaming someone, they might find somebody (not to point fingers at anyone, companies with fax machines) who actually deserves it.

Play to Your Strengths

On a more practical note, in many cases, you don’t have to use office machines if you don’t want to because there are alternatives. Play the game by your own rules! If there’s one area you’re head and shoulders above older generations, it’s mobile apps, and they make a very simple alternative to clunky scanner, fax, and printer machines. In addition to being user-friendly, they offer a more sustainable workflow. You can efficiently process paperwork and send faxes worldwide from your phone with a simple fax and scanner app without harming the environment. You could even teach your older colleagues a few tricks on how to work around the limitations of office machines.

If You’re Managing Gen Z Professionals

First of all, congrats. As someone who has lots of Gen Z’s on the team — I know from experience that this lot has a great deal to bring to the table and is fun to work with. Furthermore, whether older colleagues and managers like it or not, Gen Z is the future of the workforce. There are roughly seventy million Gen Z’s in the US, and the oldest of the bunch have already joined the workforce. In fact, by 2030, Gen Z will constitute one-third of the working population. The sooner management and older colleagues learn how to gel with them, the better.

Empathize, Don’t Judge

Sophie Wade, a well-deserved reputation for being a workforce Visionaire and whose Embracing Progress: Next Steps for the Future of Work became an executive MBA Program textbook, says that the new generation entering the workforce has changed it forever. Only those companies can succeed that acknowledge the changes and adapt to them. At the core of this change lies the focus on people through empathy, be that employees or clients.

Managers should keep a close eye on the dynamics in cross-generational teams, especially those where any age group of workers is outnumbered. It’s crucial to recognize tech shaming for what it is—nothing less than a type of harassment, and there has been enough said about why we should discourage it. Jokes that seem lighthearted and innocent to someone can damage someone else’s confidence and self-worth, and you definitely don’t want that on your team.

Assessing your company’s digital skill gap might also be a very good idea. This could be done through surveys or interviews, and there are a lot of ways to leverage technology in this pursuit. Consistent communication is the key to understanding areas where your employees might be struggling and lacking knowledge. Regular check-ins, open-door policies, and a safe space for employees to ask questions are essential if you want them to perform at the peak of their abilities.

Featured Image Credit: RDNE Stock Project; Pexels; Thank you!

Are Gen Z Really Afraid of Printers and What Is “Tech Shame”?

Alexandra Cassell

Medical graduate turned IT copywriter and empathy officer. A neurobiology nerd with an obsession for tech that enhances lives.

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