You hear it so often that you assume it must be true: Young “digital natives” are far better than their older counterparts at using social media, both personally and as a job skill.
But in the real world of social media, people old enough to be grandparents are finding that the skills they have developed throughout their careers make them equally adept, and sometimes even savvier, than young people.
“I love social media,” says Patti Shock, 72, who teaches online courses in hospitality management for Florida International University in Miami from her home in Las Vegas. “It helps me to keep in touch with people I lost touch with for decades. I meet new people. … I learn from it every day.”
Shock, who also teaches online courses for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, uses YouTube and Pinterest to put together webinars, online course material and other resources for her classes. Twitter helps her communicate with students and Facebook allows her to keep up with professional colleagues. “The resources for teaching are incredible,” she says.
“The amount of technology you need to use them is very minimal and very simple,” Vernon, 45, says. “If you can send email, if you can use Google, you can be on social media … If you can turn (your computer) on and type, you can use social media.”
A 2013 Pew Research study found that 73 percent of Americans are online use social networking sites, up from 8 percent in 2005. Among older people, 65 percent of those 50 to 64 use social media, as do 46 percent of those over 65. Younger, more educated and more affluent seniors report higher social media use.
“There certainly is a degree of comfort that younger people have because they’ve grown up with these sites,” Vernon says. “I think a lot of it is the comfort with how much of yourself that you’re putting out there.”
Many people start using Facebook to keep up with friends and family, but then they realize it can also be a powerful tool for business.
Linda Bernstein, 61, teaches workshops in strategic social media for Columbia Journalism School’s continuing education program and also does private consulting. When the course was started four years ago, it focused on why professionals should use social media. Today, it focuses on how.
“We’re no longer convincing people you need to be on social media,” she says. “We’re way beyond that.”
Bernstein works with midcareer journalists, authors and CEOs, among others, who realize they need to at least understand social media, if not use it well, for their careers. “There is resistance, though it’s fading a lot,” she says. “Older people don’t always see networking possibilities.”
Once they get over their initial resistance, older people often discover their previous career and life experience are assets in using social media effectively.
While the 22-year-old intern may be a technology whiz, the older manager has more knowledge of the industry, more experience dealing with people and a stronger sense of content and connections, all key social networking skills.
“Life experience can make it a little easier to deal with all these different sorts of people you deal with online,” Vernon says, including knowing when not to respond to a provocative tweet or Facebook posting. “Understanding how the business works, you can respond to people better.”
While it’s not necessary to be a master of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, Google+, Flipboard and whatever other medium came to market since you started reading this story, it is important to be knowledgeable about the various platforms to figure out which ones will work best for your needs.
“For a small business, you don’t need to be on everything,” Vernon says. “You need to find out where your customers and your audience are and go there. Be the place where it makes sense for you to be.”
Before you start using social media, you need to figure out what you are trying to accomplish because that will help determine your strategy and your platforms. Are you looking for customers? Are you seeking a new job? Do you want to interact with leaders and others in your field? Do you want to recruit employees? Do you want to sell products or position yourself as an expert?
Shock says she finds that the ease with which both students and contemporaries use social media varies considerably. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are sometimes less adept online because they have used computers less. Older adults who have been using computers since the 1970s or 1980s find it easy to transfer skills learned on CompuServe, DOS and alt-listservs to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Learning to use social media well is particularly important for people who plan to keep working beyond retirement age, start second careers in midlife or do volunteer work in retirement, Bernstein says.
Here are five tips for getting started or moving ahead in social media:
Take a targeted approach. Know that you don’t have to master all platforms. Instead, focus on one or two that you can do well and that will serve your needs.
Maintain a two-way conversation. Remember that social media is, above all, professional networking. Make it a point to be helpful and engaging rather than focusing solely on self-promotion. Listening is often more important than talking.
Know what your goals are. Your strategy will be very different if you are promoting a book than it will be if you are looking for a job. Identify your goals and the social media platforms that will best position you to achieve them.
Prepare for an evolving social landscape. Expect that the rules and best practices will change frequently, and be ready to change with them.
Learn from the best. Seek out the top social media mavens in your career fields and see what they do on social media.
A version of this post appeared previously at U.S. News & World Report.