The age to learn: conditions for digital learning in companies

The capacity of young people and seniors to learn using digital technologies at work would be characterized by strong inequalities... but this would be without taking into account the importance of socio-organisational conditions.

“Preconceptions surrounding the links between age and digital technology are therefore just one variable among many influencing the success of the learning process.”

In current discourse about digital divides, age emerges as one of the main explanatory factors. The idea that young people are very comfortable with digital technology, and that seniors are much less at ease with it, is deeply rooted, including in the world of work. Based on an analysis of experimental digital training techniques, we show that age is not (by a long way) the only variable that influences learning. We highlight the unequal distribution of individual learning capacities in the context of digital training and the importance of socio-organisational conditions (training policies, exchanges within collectives, etc.) in addressing those inequalities.

This analysis was based on two studies, one an Orange internal survey involving around twenty learners who had followed a COOC [1] aimed primarily at people working in the training field, and the other with around ten managers within a French mail distribution group which is also developing banking activities [2]. The second group followed e-learning modules to acquire a “banking culture” and better understand the changes occurring in their Group in order to be able to take on a post with banking responsibilities.

Training and age 

Many studies ([3], for example) show that, all other job characteristics being equal, employees beyond the age of 55 follow significantly less corporate training than their younger colleagues. 

At the same time, since 2014-2015, we have seen a growing number of experiments to digitalise training systems. This trend has affected both initial and ongoing training, be it in education institutions or companies. 

We might be tempted, on combining these two observations, to think that the significant decrease in access to training for seniors (people aged over 55) is amplified by the recent trends in training. 

While stereotypes are omnipresent in the discourse of training designers (who associate age with memorisation and concentration difficulties and lack of familiarity with digital tools), our studies have shown us that they also seem to be “internalised” by participants. However, while some young people said during their interviews that they were “not proper young people” because they were not familiar with digital technology, seniors develop individual strategies (organising their time, taking notes, printing documents, etc.) or collective ones (working in a pair with a “younger person”, organising revision groups, etc.) to compensate for their perception of digital technology as difficult, a feeling largely created by a discourse that presents them as finding it difficult. Ultimately, then, age could not be seen here as an element differentiating participants, be it in their perception of training or in their use of its content in a work situation. Seniors are no less likely than any other group to obtain the badges marking progression through and completion of the COOC, or to use the tools discovered in the COOC in a work situation. 

Strong preconceptions about the link between age and digital usage practices 

Young people are often associated with familiarity with digital technology, creativity and innovation, while seniors are seen as having experience of the “trade”, but finding it difficult to adapt to new technology1. Nevertheless, several research projects have shown that the digital divide related to age has largely been bridged over time, particularly in a work context [4]. At the same time, digital inequalities come in different kinds: there are not only socio-economic inequalities linked to access, but also inequalities of use, linked to specific social and cultural contexts. The studies conducted in the Orange Labs social sciences department [5] have also shown the performative effect of such preconceptions on young people in a work environment: it is also because people say they are at ease with digital technology that they become so. Even if they do not have the information (about the use of digital tools) that colleagues ask them for, they will make sure they get it so that they can “swap their digital knowledge for the professional expertise of their more experienced colleagues. Thus, having entered the working world with a limited professional network, young employees use their supposed mastery of digital tools to facilitate their integration in the company, by trading their digital skills for “trade” knowledge. 

We might wonder to what extent the supposed digital incompetence of employees over the age of 55 could, when proved to be accurate, cause a reverse performativity effect. This is what emerges from the in-depth interviews we conducted during the two experiments: while senior employees seem to accept the role assigned to them by the dominant discourse (“past the age of 55, you are less at ease with digital technology”), they put these preconceptions into context and develop individual strategies that allow them to make progress in their learning. Rather than allowing themselves to be limited by the discourse surrounding them, they seek solutions that will allow them to go further. 

Another preconception that reinforces seniors’ feelings towards digital tools is the impression that, no matter how much effort they make, the ever-changing nature of software and equipment means they will never be able to keep up; they will always be lagging behind. More accurately, while many employees of all ages express this feeling of “never being enough of a geek”, it is felt all the more acutely among seniors, precisely due to the generalisations made about them. Furthermore, the term “digitalisation” is so vague and encompasses such different realities that it is bound to make people feel that they do not have a sufficient command of digital tools. We should note that, according to our empirical study, these two types of preconceptions are shared by top management and training managers. 

Age is just one individual factor among a host of other factors, be they individual, social or organisational

As we have already shown, when using a “capability-based” approach [6], it is not enough for people to know how to learn (capacity); they must be able to learn (capability). In other words, in a work situation, where environments change rapidly, the possibility of learning and being able to use this new knowledge properly depends not only on the aptitudes the employees have acquired beforehand and their motivations for learning (e.g. for their professional development), but also on the conditions put in place for this learning within organisational structures and working collectives [7]. 

Organisational conditions 

From an organisational point of view, training policies that take precautions to support the least qualified or least self-sufficient employees play a major role in the success of learning processes. Training paths that combine digital and face-to-face training make it possible, for example, to maintain the social ties that are so necessary for learning and to add an extra dimension to knowledge acquired online. Clearly identified paths with clear links between different training courses or with other internal systems (e.g. cross-cutting networks) also increase participants’ motivation for a training course and their will to see it through to the end, by providing elements of recognition and validation within a chosen career path. In the absence of such institutional measures, the knowledge dispensed is considered as general information without a precise operational application and without any real “value” in terms of professional development. 

The role of managers is also essential in allocating time to train using digital means (particularly for those who have considerable operational constraints, who have little autonomy in their work and who have difficulty freeing up time for online training), in legitimising interest in the training courses followed, and in organising collective discussions within the team about the knowledge dispensed in training courses followed individually online, in order to be able to provide the necessary help in terms of transformation. 

The social dimension 

Among the social factors, preconceptions about the cognitive abilities of seniors and their supposed capacity to make effective use of digital tools play an important role. Observation of practices shows a tendency to internalise these preconceptions and to lend them a certain truth, which results in a performative effect. 

In the mail distribution company, stereotypes about young people and, in particular, their ease with digital technology, are passed on by top management and trainers alike: 

“We can see the difference between the digital natives and the people who have been promoted internally: some of them are there and some of them aren’t, even if they want to learn…” (innovation department of a training entity). 

“In training, we can clearly see the difference: young people have an intuitive approach, while older people seek to understand before they use.” (training designer).

Furthermore, one result common to both experiments is the positive role played by belonging to a collective (for seniors, as well as all other learners), prior to beginning a training programme, but also in the implementation of the knowledge acquired (mutual assistance between colleagues who are used to working together, belonging to cross-cutting networks in which they can discuss the concrete implementation of the knowledge acquired from training in a real-life work situation, etc.). 

The background of individual attitudes and aptitudes 

At individual level, the cumulative effect of three factors – initial level of education, prior experience and position occupied – determines the degree of autonomy an employee has in their work, as well as their habits in terms of following online training, looking for information themselves, planning their professional future, etc. All these factors influence, for example, their perception of company policy, which may manifest itself in a fear of being excluded once they reach a certain age, making individuals feel more vulnerable and adversely affecting their self-confidence: 

“I don’t fit the profile the company is looking for. Everyone has felt that. From the age of 45, you feel it (…): we knew that some people were going to be left by the wayside and I didn’t know if I was going to [be promoted]. If I had had a different boss, I wouldn’t have got it… It’s thanks to him. He definitely saved my bacon. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have got it.” (senior manager). 

These individual attitudes to digital training are moderated or accentuated by socio-organisational conditions


All in all, the relationships between age and digital training, far from being based on purely cognitive considerations (deterioration in learning ability, technical incompetence), are both muddied by the strong presence of preconceptions, and mediated by the complexity of socio-organisational configurations. The trend towards digitising in-company training (distance learning, 100% digital training, etc.) may therefore have an indirect influence on the access of seniors to professional training. 

Preconceptions surrounding the links between age and digital technology (which present seniors as being ill-at-ease with digital tools) are therefore just one variable among many influencing the success of the learning process. Renewed interest in learning company approaches can be explained by the possibility they offer to place renewed emphasis on the socio-organisational conditions of learning: people do not learn solely because they have the right training (digital or otherwise), but also because all the conditions enabling learning (training path, exchanges with peers, manager involvement) are in place. Thus, young people and seniors can learn just as well in a work situation, by giving meaning to and implementing the knowledge they have been given.

[1] BOBOC A., METZGER J.-L., « La formation continue à l’épreuve de sa numérisation – le cas d’un COOC », Lettre Usages et Valeur, n°56, mai 2017. 

[2] BENEDETTO-MEYER M., BOUQUIN S., CHOQUET J., METZGER J.-L., « Entre dispositifs de politiques publiques, stratégie d’entreprises et représentations : l’importance des facteurs capacitants dans l’accès des salariés seniors à la formation professionnelle. Le cas des formations numériques », Rapport de recherche DARES, février 2018. 

[3] DEMAILLY, D., « Formation professionnelle : quels facteurs limitent l’accès des salariés seniors ? », DARES Analyses, n°031, juin 2016, p. 1-10. 

[4] MÉDA D., VENDRAMIN P., Réinventer le travail, Paris : PUF, 2013. 

[5] BOBOC A., FARHAT M., MALLARD A., « La Génération Y va-t-elle bouleverser les pratiques de communication dans l’entreprise ? », Lettre Usages et Valeur, n°37, janvier 2010. 

[6] BOBOC A., METZGER J.-L., « Numérique et formation professionnelle à la lumière des organisations capacitantes », Lettre Usages et Valeur, n°56, mai 2017. 

[7] BENEDETTO-MEYER M., BOBOC A., METZGER J.-L., « Seniors et formations numérisées : Les conditions socio-organisationnelles de l’apprentissage en entreprise », revue Transformations, n°19, décembre 2019.

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