Will Executives Over 50 Ever Get Social Media?

by Ryon Harms on October 8, 2009

Forbes Insights, in association with Google, surveyed 354 top executives at large (annual sales greater than $1 billion) corporations to understand how they use the Internet to gather information. A clear generational gap emerged, especially when it comes to social media tools like blogs and Twitter.

Here are some of the major findings:

A generational shift is occurring in the C-suite that is transforming how they use the Internet. Executives who came of business age with the rise of the personal computer—typically those between the ages of 40 and 50—are now assuming leadership positions in corporate America. These executives access information more frequently than previous executives, see greater value in emerging Internet technologies, and are willing to retrieve information in different ways, such as via video or through a mobile device.

The Internet is the C-suite’s top information resource. Executives find it more valuable for locating business related information than references from colleagues, personal networks, newspapers and magazines, TV and radio, and conferences and trade shows.

Members of the C-suite search for information themselves. While delegating research may be part of the stereotype of a C-level executive, it is not the reality. More than half of C-level respondents said they prefer to locate information themselves, making them more self-sufficient in their information gathering than non-C-suite executives.

Video and online networks are emerging as C-suite tools. While text is still the preferred format for receiving information, streaming video, webcasts, and similar formats are increasing in prevalence, especially among executives under 50. Similarly, although most executives prefer personal contacts, they are increasingly willing to network and seek advice through online communities.

Executives under 40 are the most willing to engage with emerging Internet technologies such as blogs, wikis, Twitter, mobile computing, and online social networks. According to the report, 58% of executives under 40 maintain a work-related blog daily (35%) or several times a week (21%). According to the report that figure drops to 35% among those 40-49 followed by a precipitous drop to only 5% for executives over 50.

I’d like to know what exactly is holding back executives over 50 from utilizing social media. Is it that they feel like the technology is too difficult to learn, or is it that they simply and actually don’t see the value in it?

I believe it’s a frame of mind that can be overcome, not a technological deficiency.

What do you think?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

David Flanagan October 8, 2009 at 11:11 am

My take on this question

David Flanagan



TheSocialExec October 8, 2009 at 3:34 pm

Hi David,

Thanks for your response. Very thoughtful and right on target. Thanks for answering my question. I think we are all more informed on the subject thanks to your post. I recommend that all readers click on David's link to read on.



Ted L Simon October 13, 2009 at 6:38 am

I think David has articulated a perspective not heard frequently enough, regardless of age or generation. Kudos for adding another viewpoint that enlightens all of us. I'd like to add some thoughts as well.

Based on Ryon's post about the reticence of older execs toward social media, the question is posed as: who is using social media technology and how old they are? I think the question can and should be reframed as: how is social media technology being used, by whom and to what value?

Put another way, why does or should age matter? Lord knows I don't care what Ashton had for breakfast, that Miley has dropped her Twitter account (telling us so via her YouTube rap video…yo yo yo!) or that any 20-something has just burped, watched porn, seen a "hottie" or set fire to his iPhone by mistake. There's precious little value in any of that.

Of course the social media technology and tools of today offer (and deliver) so much more than the above examples of tripe. Executives DO care about better customer service, gaining consumer insights, fast-tracking product innovation via crowdsourcing techniques, etc., etc. – all leverage social media technologies.

But let's face it…a lot of the stuff on Twitter, Facebook, et al is 'junk mail' that can go in the trash (which is what used to happen to junk mail, when there was mail). It's not worth the energy it takes to open the envelope or scan the tweetstream. Unfortunately, that “trash” gets in the way for too many people.

In a world that is busier than ever, with more demands placed on one's time and energy and less time to act/respond/react, one key factor for success (and probably sanity) is FOCUS. And, that demands that some things get less time and attention. Those items or activities that contribute less to your goals tend to get less of your time. It's human nature for survival. And, while evangelists may not like it, much of social media is contributing zilch to the organizational goals of most enterprises and executives.

When you combine these considerations with David's insights re privacy and selectivity of information sharing, it's not at all surprising that 'older execs' are not flocking to social media. If they did, who'd run the company?

Still, I don't think that the older generations of leaders are intimidated or see this technology as lacking value. I know many senior level execs, and even those who are not fully utilizing the latest in social media technology for their company's advantage today are thinking about how they can begin to turn social technologies into strategic assets. So, it's not as much a matter of "getting it" as a matter of finding time and resources to get it done (without encountering Ashton or Miley).

In the end, it’s an age-old pattern repeating itself. Not everyone is on the bandwagon for every new development at the outset. There are early adopters and there are several generations of adoption that follow over time. Eventually, it becomes ubiquitous. Think of personal computers in companies – can anyone remember the days when everyone did not have a desktop or laptop for his office or business use? It’s true…those days existed. And, how about mobile phones…used to be a rarity; today they have almost replaced land lines (and have in some countries).

So, I’m not too concerned that these seasoned executives don’t “get it.” They’ve been around a block or two…they have seen a few things in their day, so they know disruptive and game-changing technology when it’s here (and it is). Let’s see where things are in a few years…the debate on this may be well over by then. In fact, I’m betting on it…there will be something new and different to grapple with by then!


SigmundFidyke October 21, 2009 at 6:21 pm

I don't understand how the 'trash' you mentioned impacts your use of social media. You only follow/friend/etc. the people you choose and you only get the 'junk' you select!

It's like TV. I'm not interested in wrestling, I don't watch wrestling, and wrestling isn't part of my TV experience. I tell people who say there's only trivia on Twitter that they're following the wrong people. It's like saying TV is worthless because they only have weird Japanese cartoons and foreign language talk shows.

Social media provides just the focus you're asking for. It's more focused than any other broadcast medium because you choose the focus.

Finally, I think adoption of social media by older executives isn't critical – it just leaves more opportunities for young, energetic companies and executives who do 'get it'.


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