digital workforce: Digital Natives versus Digital Immigrants understanding the differences that contribute to the digital knowledge gap at work

Introduction to the concept of digital natives versus digital immigrants

We are living in the digital era, where many of the old methods of doing things have drastically changed from analogous to digital. In this process, changes happen exponentially, and people are constantly trying to keep up with these changes, but one of the things that have changed with internet and technology is the way people’s brains are wired and this phenomenon requires special attention when analyzing changes in education and workforce of the digital era.

Technology can influence people’s level of attention, interpersonal relationships and even influence the expression of personality and identity (Colbert et al, 2016) setting the group of people who have been exposed to internet and technology since birth, in a different category than those who were born before that.

With those differences in mind, American author Marc Prensky in his paper “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” has introduced these two categories of people and their relation to technology. Prensky is well known for his research on education and his idea is that we cannot dismiss the fact that people who are born after internet express different preferences in learning than the people born before. In his paper he categorizes digital natives as the people born after 1980, who have been exposed to technology and internet their entire lives and therefore show a higher level of technological maturity that is a product of many hours spent in front of screens (Cabanero-Johnson & Berge, 2009). On the other side of the spectrum are the digital immigrants, the group that, according to Prensky, were born before the internet and digital era and are currently leaning to navigate this new world like they were learning a second language, experiencing some difficulties and challenges and retaining a certain level of “accent” when it comes to how they interact with technology.

Digital natives demonstrate a higher level of comfort when dealing with new digital platforms and rapid technological changes, but the differences are not only related on how they interact with such channels and how technology is in intrinsic part of their lives. They also demonstrate some fundamental differences when it comes to learning, socializing and working. Understanding these differences is essential to creating better working environments that can accommodate both the demands of digital immigrants and digital natives.

Who they are

This group present differences in learning that are due to the connection with digital channels and the ability to process large sets of information, but another important characteristic from this group, that can be a real asset at work, is that they have the ability to process large amounts of information and also use technology to manipulate information in a way to make processes and methodologies more efficient (Colbert et al, 2016).

Digital natives are more interested in collective intelligence (Unesco Policy Brief, 2011) rather than individual knowledge and will often choose to work in collaborative environments, even when they are focusing on individual goals. They will use a group environment where each individual contributes with their knowledge to achieve individual goals, while digital immigrants when working in groups tend to focus in one group goal at a time (Pinzaru & Mitan, 2016).

In terms of learning, digital natives have the ability to multitask and leap around concepts and ideas in a non-linear way, also known as hypertext learning (Cabanero-Johnson & Berge, 2009) which is fundamentally different than digital immigrants that prefer to focus on individual tasks and when in management positions at work, tend to look at the ability of younger generations to work while accessing social networks or texting during meetings as lack of concentration when in reality, millennials and Gen Z employees are capable of absorbing a lot more information at a faster pace. Because digital natives process information faster, they also prefer quicker visual communications methods than heavy, scientific language or long lectures (Ochola Kwenda, 2017) and at work they demonstrate preference to companies that provide their employees continues learning opportunities, access to online classes and virtual learning environments.

Infographic: Understanding the differences between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.
Digital Workforce

Digital immigrants face challenges understanding the characteristics of digital natives and their approach to work. But besides the challenges involving the fundamental characteristics between these two groups, digital immigrants need to adapt to changes at the workforce that are not familiar and the feeling of "not fitting in" is eminent.

The group of digital immigrants joined the workforce prior to internet and established systems, methodologies and processes with foundation on the analogous era. Habits from such era are still ingrained in the way digital immigrants see work and relationships, causing this groups to show lack of trust in methodologies related to digital information and therefore clashing with essential believes from digital natives.

Although the internet has made it easier for people to do their jobs, offering a world of information at one's finger tip (Colbert et al, 2016), certain work structures remain the same, maybe due to the resistance from digital immigrants to change.

The amount of hours spent at work, the lack of training opportunities and old training and onboarding structures, and finally the lack of interest from companies to their employees' personal growth are principles established mostly during the Industrial Revolution and are still used, but as the world and he new generations start dominating the workforce - digital natives will represent 75% of the workforce by 2025 (Pinzaru & Mitan, 2016) we will need to think about alternative solutions that can create a better balance between digital natives and digital immigrants preferences at work.

Digital natives value their personal time and a healthy work-life balance more than digital immigrants. Companies are now adopting more flexible rules about remote work opportunities than they ever were before, but there's still a long way to go. In order for employee's to do their job efficiently in remote settings, the companies need to invest in technology that allows for that.

In terms of training opportunities, digital natives prefer to work in environments where the demarcation between work and learning is blurred (Cabanero-Johnson & Berge, 2009) and learning activities that are more multidimensional and require a certain level of problem solving.

Interest in problem solving skills as part of the learning approach is something both groups, digital natives and digital immigrants, have in common (Ochola Kwenda, 2017) and that can be an area where companies can focus their training efforts for the future. Creating virtual environments that allow employees to continuously learn, while solving problems can be the key to healthier connections between digital natives and digital immigrants. A place where both group can collaborate in learning soft and hard skills that can improve their work and offer a safe virtual channel where people can make mistakes before applying concepts to real life situations.

Concerns about the future of work and technology

One of the main concerns of the future of work and technology is the amount of time spent using devices and digital channels as part of the job in the digital era. Work domains and personal domains are blended due to technology and the ability of always staying connected.

Now more than ever and in the future, employees can benefit from skills created outside the technological realm and companies that pay special attention to that, will be able to offer employees a healthy balance between personal connections and technology interactivity.

Perception of younger generation behavior at work in Romania

Interested in the digital knowledge gab between digital natives and digital immigrants, authors Pinzaru and Mitan conducted a research in Romania attempting to understand how managers dealt of digital natives at work.

The main drive for this research was the issue Romania faces with hiring young people for positions that are available, because often their skill sets do not match the profiles of the jobs currently available, which leads to gaps in employment.

A few of the issues taken into consideration before the research, based on general knowledge in the European Union were that digital natives had a hard time respecting authorities that were less versed in technologies than themselves and digital natives want to have the freedom to curate their own job positions.

After interviewing several managers, ranging from digital natives and digital immigrants, holding different levels of management positions in companies in Romania, Pinzaru and Mitan concluded leaders are more willing to understand what drives digital natives to become successful at work, despite the prejudice facing their unique working preferences, and provide better working conditions to meet those needs.

A few thoughts that seemed to be recurring for different managers were: digital natives prefer speed of information instead of depth, they look for freedom and flexibility at work, and finally digital natives are not as good with in-person communications as digital immigrants.

The struggle with establishing personal connections could be due to the amount spent using technologies, but digital natives use digital channels to stay socially engaged and therefore don’t always see the issue with the same perspective as digital immigrants.

Another point raised by the managers interviewed was that digital natives can get impatient if their ideas are not well received by management and they show frustration when managers do not give them the freedom in decision making processes that are related to their area of expertise.

One manager added that showing support and leading by example is the best way to keep digital natives engaged, as they show appreciation for mentorship. In environments where their ideas are welcomed, and they are embraced by superiors, digital natives show more creativity and tend to give more to their work without being asked to.

In conclusion, the study shows there are more pros of working with digital natives than cons, if management is willing to adapt their style to meet their needs. In general, they are more dedicated to work, when offered an environment where they can continuously learn and feel supported to implementing their ideas.

Digital Natives: How do they learn?

In 2011 UNESCO released a policy brief entitled “Digital Natives: How do they learn? How to teach them?” with interesting perspective about the nature of education in the digital era and suggestions and recommendations relating to how to approach education for digital natives, information that can be important in work settings as well.

First, they offered a brief overview about what makes digital natives so different than digital immigrants, focusing on the fact that the first group has a different way of thinking that is structured around the use of technologies. Digital natives process information very fast, like how digital channels process information. Because they grew up with internet and most of them with web 2.0, this generation is much more interested in interactivity and collaboration.

This group represent three essential core qualities, their interest in lifelong learning opportunities and more complex forms of knowledge, networks and creating connections between people, technology and the environment, and collective intelligence, especially at work, they believe the success of a group is more valuable than individual success.

Given these qualities, the UNESCO policy brief suggests that it is essential we create learning and work opportunities that consider such characteristics, because digital natives are not only different in the way they approach technology, they also show differences in social behavior, economical influence and human characteristics.

Digital natives are the future of the digital societies, and digital societies lead to information and knowledge societies (Unesco Policy Brief, 2011).


Understanding digital natives is key to creating a more balanced workforce. Digital immigrants having to adapt to new technologies and rapid changes might have made them feel threatened by the digital era, which causes resistance in accepting the workforce is mostly digital native predominant, but there is an opportunity to learn from both groups.

Mangers are slowly invested in understanding their preferences and that the goal of work has shifted from financial gain (digital immigrants) to a much more multidimensional approach that involved continuous knowledge opportunity, connecting with other with a deeper purpose, working in more collaborative environments and leveraging technology to control the future of information are the goals of this new generation.

Digital natives' ability to learn, work in groups and innovate is highly dependent upon the support they receive from management feeling supported in their ideas of innovations and areas of expertise can lead to a more committed employees, with a more complex ability to solve problems for that company and collaborate with coworkers.

Video Interview

Watch the video interview to see what digital natives think about their work.

Created By
Bruna Siloto

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