Gen Z to CEOs: help us help you close the digital divide
People often think of the digital divide as just about broadband access, but it is also about understanding the needs and tech literacy levels across roughly six generations. As a Gen Z teenager, it's frustrating to know the potential of a tech product and still see people in my community struggling. If we just were given a voice, we could help companies develop products and apps that better serve the needs of our communities, our country and our world.
Gen Z is poised to help everyone - from a rural small business to a tech giant - rethink how their business operations can help alleviate the digital divide. According to a survey by the National 4-H Council, 73% of teens agreed that digital skills are the key to getting the best jobs for their generation, even when 1 in 10 American teens don’t have access to broadband. It’s time to have a seat at the table for the generation that sees how tech can be a benefit but often is the barrier for advancement.
If we just were given a voice, we could help companies develop products and apps that better serve the needs of our communities, our country and our world."
My advice for companies that want to help close the digital divide:
- When creating or adopting new digital tools, people need simple support. How many restaurants went to digital payment methods or QR codes, but don’t have signs showing you how to use them? These small barriers to daily activities compound the feeling of exclusion for those without digital skills. As more places digitize their services, there is more need for access and education, particularly for those in rural and underserved communities. People without broadband access or with limited digital skills just have fewer options. The faster things change the fewer and fewer options they have unless companies and communities help them keep up. I want more companies to realize that tech changes come at a cost and could expand the digital divide.
- Give Gen Z a reason to be excited to be in tech and a way to get there - Some of the early excitement of the tech industry was being able to innovate and be creative and be elevated to a pop culture icon. Gen Z are creatives, but we are also the most diverse generation ever and we want to feel represented and have the opportunity for recognition when choosing our future careers. Where are the faces behind the latest phone, earbuds or sneakers? Imagine every masterpiece of Italian artwork only signed with the Medici name. Every company needs a Musk, Zuckerberg, or Gates to be the lead, but I want to see the whole cast. Or what’s the point of being in the show? We have ideas about how digital tools and devices can be customized to work for all people from all walks of life and with unique personalities of their own. We don’t just want to teach adults about existing technology; we want our ideas incorporated into developing technology that reflects our true selves, our strengths, and even our limitations and we want to be seen alongside our contributions.
- For traditional industries, like fashion, use tech data and tools to make products speak to people. For many people, including Gen Z, self-expression is an important part of someone’s identity. It does not feel like anyone is being listened to about what's trendy anymore. For example, getting stylish clothing that is both sustainably sourced and reflective of my body type can feel like a Herculean task. It feels like the things I like online from music to TikTok followers don’t get reflected in the products I see. Some tools make it harder to find the information and products I’m actually looking for. For people with fewer digital skills this can be even more frustrating and turn them away from using tech all together. Some industries like, fashion, feel overdue for a digital transformation but it needs to happen in a way that makes it easy for those with limited skills to participate. Gen Z can bring new light to how companies create, market, and sell across generations.
- For those who work in tech, create customizable options. Like clothing, tech shouldn’t be one size fits all. People need more customizable options at a price point that would encourage greater adoption of tech. So much of our lives are on our phones or devices to the point where it feels like a staple more important than a car. For the elderly, the product may not even work for them - conditions like reduced fingerprints, carpal tunnel, and oil output all affect their ability to successfully use their devices. Why invest in an expensive piece of technology when you can’t use all its features or don’t know how to learn? As a tech native Gen Z-er who volunteers her time to teach adults how to use ordinary online tools, it feels like marketing tech like data analytics should be used to pair people and products without being scammy, unsafe, or unreflective of ethical brand values.
- Sustainability means just as much as cost to Gen Z. You see people nowadays talking about thrift shopping, composting and overall an increased focus on finding more sustainable ways to live and I think that demand is only going to increase as more of Gen Z joins the workforce and can start purchasing more. Technology changes quickly and new products are constantly being created to adapt to new needs and make our lives easier. But how do we balance this with sustainability? My friends with older phones often can’t access the tools they need for school. What if your car or refrigerator was outdated within 2.5 years? No longer do people want to buy $20 jeans or a $1000 phone for them to end up in the garbage 2.5 years later. People want to do better, and Gen Z can help find the balance between the convenience of new, innovative tech and the sustainability and longevity critical to our planet.
I feel industries need to better involve Gen Z in the conversation. We understand technology — we were basically born with it and more often than not called on to teach and lead others in tech. I want Gen Z to have a voice at all levels from how the government invests in infrastructure to the way products are designed to helping companies train boomers to babies on how to use new technologies.
As a 4-H Tech Changemaker I’m trying to help some of the 20 million Americans without high-speed broadband and reduce the impact of the digital divide. I’m teaching Microsoft Office to adults to help them get new work opportunities, and I’m helping people with mobility issues or disabilities access local resources and online shopping. But the work that I and my fellow 4-Hers are doing is just one piece of the work; we also need you.
How will you help close the divide?
Learn more about the 4-H Tech Changemakers Program and its coalition of public-private partners National 4-H Council, 23 Land-Grant Universities, Land O’Lakes, Microsoft, Tractor Supply Company, and Verizon. The 4-H Tech Changemakers Program reaches over 160 communities where youth leaders like Abigail are teaching digital skills to adults. 4‑H is the youth development program of our nation’s Cooperative Extension System and USDA, and serves every county and parish in the U.S. through a network of 110 land-grant universities and more than 3,000 local Extension offices.