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Granny @ Work: Aging and New Technology on the Job in America

Author: Karen E. Riggs
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2003
Review Published: July 2005

 REVIEW 1: Chheng-Hong Ho
 REVIEW 2: Meredith Tromble

People over the age of 60 spend more time on the Internet than people of any other age group, announces the jacket copy for Granny @ Work: Aging and New Technology on the Job in America by Karen E. Riggs. If that claim surprises you, you're in the majority, writes Riggs, whose multi-faceted research exposes commonly held notions about older workers, technology, and the workplace as fallacies. Riggs intends the book to provide a context for dialogue about the changing role of work for older people in a high-tech economy. As an associate professor of communication and director of the School of Telecommunications at Ohio University, she has particular insight into the ways media images perpetuate stereotypes about older workers and technology.

Riggs's investigations are timely: Social conditions are converging to create an older, if not wiser, workforce. The twentieth century brought developed-world citizens longer life spans and, for the middle and upper classes, the expectation that old age would be a time of leisure. But twenty-first century American society is poised to roll back those expectations. As a large cohort of relatively hale "Baby Boom" workers approaches the retirement horizon, forecasters say their vision of leisure years is a mirage. Boomers are portrayed as being like the improvident grasshopper from Aesop's Fables, economically unprepared for the future. Most recently, a blizzard of debate about their prospects has been stirred by President Bush as he goes about the country presenting his agenda for Social Security. Older citizens who are not pushed into the workforce by economic need may be enticed to remain by economic pull. The proportion of older people in populations world-wide is increasing -- Riggs gives as an example Italy, where by 2025 people over 50 are expected to outnumber their juniors. "Companies are worried that if experienced workers start to retire en masse, there won't be enough skilled people to replace them," writes Carolyn Said (2005) in a San Francisco Chronicle report headlined "New Blueprint Needed as Boomers Begin to Retire."

"The image of the rocking chair or the Sunbelt condominium is a fleeting one for many of today's would-be retirees," (3) concludes Riggs. In the first chapter of Granny@Work, she discusses a range of factors, both negative and positive, that keep people over 60 in the workplace, including self-esteem tied to being a "productive" member of society, cutbacks in social programs, debt, and the prolonged dependence of children. As workers continue their employment through their sixth decade and beyond, they encounter social stereotypes of old people as "ugly, sickly, and unproductive" (7). And, most likely, "awkward with computers." The one-two punch of ageism combined with the assumption that elders have inferior technology skills results in discrimination. Riggs refers to a 1999 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce which found that almost half of information technology (IT) managers in their 20s and 30s -- the "gatekeepers" of the field -- had never hired a worker who was over 40.

Riggs complicates her primary discussion of age, work, and technology with reference to other cultural issues such as gender, race, and class. In order to make visible the ways people in particular cultural positions are affected by age and technology at work, she relays their stories rather than mining their narratives to create generalized statistics. A versatile investigator, Riggs devotes a chapter each to eight different research projects she has conducted over the past decade (some of them in cooperation with other researchers) and concludes with her recommendations for social policies to counteract ageist discrimination in the workplace. The research chapters fall into three rough categories: studies gathering direct reports from older workers on their experiences with technology; analysis of media images of older workers in relationship to technology; and efforts to create intergenerational dialog about age, work, and technology. The narrative arc moves from an emphasis on victims (unemployed workers who report suffering from age discrimination) to copers (workers who are negotiating the technologized workplace with at least partial success). The book concludes with Riggs's vision for the future: nine policy recommendations for increasing participation and justice for older workers.

User-forums on work-oriented Web sites provided the material for the research Riggs covers in Chapter 2, which was conducted between January and August, 2000. She reports on the "hopeful glow" (27) of the career advice for over-50s posted on sites such as that of the AARP and Careerpath.com ("Shave years off your looks. Get an evaluation from a salon and dress shop on makeup, hair, and clothing..." p. 27). But in the approximately 4000 posts to user forums devoted to aging and work that Riggs studied, the "hopeful glow" gave way to simmering depression. Riggs identified three themes common to all the groups: age was openly discussed, to the seeming relief of the participants; age discrimination was "almost unanimously claimed to be the root of most older workers' problems" (31); and the disembodied Web community was regarded as a model for a more equitable society in which elders would be taken seriously. Riggs contextualizes individual posts within an analysis of the subthemes and emotional tone characteristic of each message board. The irony that people regarded as lacking technological competence found solace in virtual community is not lost on Riggs, who throughout the book takes care to articulate such subtle contradictions.

Gender, race/ethnicity, and class information given on the message boards could not be taken at face value, but the stories told in the third chapter are those of flesh-and-blood bodies, allowing Riggs to develop aspects of her theme related to gender. Sixteen women who worked at the Harley-Davidson company, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, participated in long interviews and group meetings with Riggs in 1998-99. They had all noted gender distinctions in the ways they and their co-workers approached computing. For example, they saw their approach to computers as more pragmatic than that of their male colleagues. Several of them recalled welcoming computers, which they could use easily because they knew how to type, while male workers resisted the machines. However, when new, more powerful computers were purchased, they were given to male workers higher in the office hierarchy. In this regard, Riggs reports that
    all the women conveyed a sense of emotional conflict about the measure of control the computers gave them in their work measured against the control held over them through the implementation of computer systems . . . Sophisticated machines appear to enhance work capabilities, but their use, in fact, complicates and proliferates highly gendered routines for which women are responsible for maintaining. (69)
Chapter 4, which is based on interviews with 36 women in Central Milwaukee between 1998-2000, continues the focus on gender-related issues. Chapter 5 considers Manuel Castells' notion of "self-programmable labor" (106) in regards to the experiences reported by 35 workers with at least some exposure to information technology interviewed by Riggs online. In the aggregate, these chapters based on workers' experiences bring to life Riggs's statement that "computing is not a single, unified practice but a loosely connected set of complex practices and technologies" (83).

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 offer Rigg's analysis of images of older workers in various media: film, magazine advertisements, and self-help/business books. It must have been a stark contrast for Riggs to immerse herself in film depictions of elders after the project with inner-city women. As she notes somewhat tartly, Hollywood may not have completely failed to depict the life of an aging worker who is both female and nonwhite. But she finds material in 18 movies ranging from Driving Miss Daisy to The X-Men. She identifies three general themes in the depiction of elders-at-work: Fairy Tales, The Child Becomes the Father, and Revisionist Histories. She takes a similar approach to magazine advertisements and self-help/business books, naming pervasive themes such as "Geek Mystique" and "Gen X: The Future is Now" which she discusses in relationship to stereotypes of aging. She notes that business books in the "Gen X: The Future is Now" category, apparently targeted for older managers, describe young people as if they were Martians. It is this implied generational divide that Riggs tackles directly in the 9th chapter.

In the Fall of 2000, Riggs launched a professorial experiment. She told students in her senior seminar there would be no readings or exams. Instead, they were asked to recruit a 55-plus-year-old partner with whom they would visit a cluster of Web sites each week and report on the experience. All the Web sites assigned were age-related, plunging the surfer-pairs into sometimes unwelcome discussions regarding aging. As the semester wore on, Riggs reports, "the class period could not contain the gathering. They started to form a community unto themselves in a way I had not previously experienced" (210). This experiment in developing intergenerational empathy suggested to Riggs the potential of young-to-old mentorships, the value of intergenerational diversity perspectives as part of higher education, and the need to address computer training for older adults in diverse ways.

Granny @ Work closes with a chapter in which Riggs develops these insights into policy recommendations, including tailoring retirement systems for individual differences, shifting representations of aging workers towards inclusiveness, and stopping government practices discriminatory against older workers. In conclusion, Riggs calls for other scholars to join her in examining technology in relationship to all ages, decrying the fact that "scholarship on technology retains its teen-aged crush on youth" (241). This excellent book points the way.

Carolyn Said, "New Blueprint Needed as Boomers Begin to Retire," San Francisco Chronicle, April 21, 2005 p. C4

Meredith Tromble:
Meredith Tromble is Acting Director of the Graduate Program and Co-Director of the Center for Art + Science at the San Francisco Art Institute. As part of the Stretcher.org artist collective she will be included in the survey Bay Area Now opening at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in July. She is the editor The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson, forthcoming from the University of California Press.  <mtromble@sfai.edu>

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