Garrett Bemiller, a 25-year-old New Yorker, has spent his entire life online. He grew up in front of screens, swiping from one app to the next. But there’s one skill set Bemiller admits he’s less comfortable with: the humble office printer.
“Things like scanners and copy machines are complicated,” says Bemiller, who works as a publicist. The first time he had to copy something in the office didn’t exactly go well. “It kept coming out as a blank page, and took me a couple times to realize that I had to place the paper upside-down in the machine for it to work.”
Bemiller usually turns to Google for answers. But he’s also found an alliance with some older workers, who are veterans of the copy room and can swiftly purchase shipping labels on the office UPS account.
Bemiller knows that the expectation is that he’d be the one helping them out with tech issues. “There is a myth that kids were born into an information age, and that this all comes intuitively to them,” said Sarah Dexter, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia. “But that is not realistic. How would they know how to scan something if they’ve never been taught how to do it?”
Gen Z workers tend to be well equipped to edit photos and videos all from their phones, or use website builders like Squarespace and Wix. They grew up using apps to get work done and are used to the ease that comes with Apple operating systems. Their formative tech years were spent using software that exists to be user-friendly.
But desktop computing is decidedly less intuitive. Things like files, folders, scanning, printing, and using external hardware are hallmarks of office life. Do they know what button to press to turn on a bulky computer monitor, when many simply close their personal laptops when they’re done with them? (No, says one Reddit user who works in IT and has resorted to putting a sign over the power button on work computers.)
Steve Bench runs workshops on generational differences in the corporate world. “I joke in my sessions that my Gen Z intern didn’t know how to mail a letter,” he said. “They asked me where the sticker went. I said, ‘Do you mean the stamp?’”
The tech company HP coined the phrase “tech shame”, to define how overwhelmed young people felt using basic office tools. According to the study, one in five young office workers reported “feeling judged for having tech issues”, which made them less likely to ask for help. And in another survey, the employment firm LaSalle Agency found that almost half of the class of 2022 felt “underprepared” when it came to the technical skills relevant for entering the workforce.
Dell used its own survey of respondents between the ages of 18 and 26 to find that 56% of respondents said “they had very basic to no digital skills education.” A third of them said their education had not provided them “with the digital skill they need to propel their career”. What they know comes from the apps they use on their own time, not the tech supplies at Office Depot.
And so we come back to printers, which remain especially difficult for Gen Z to crack. “When I see a printer, I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’” said Max Simon, a 29-year-old who works in content creation for a small Toronto business. “It seems like I’m uncovering an ancient artifact, in a way.”
Simon, who makes humorous videos about corporate life for his audience of over 220,000 TikTok followers, falls into the category of young millennial. He considers himself something of a shepherd for Gen Z staff who feel lost navigating Google Suite and other quotidian software.
“I’ll invite them to a Google Meet, and they’ll say, ‘How do we get a link to that?’ But the link is already in the calendar invite,” Simon said. “Like, it’s 2023, this is the world that we live in. Things that seem pretty straightforward often catch Gen Z off-guard.”
For Simon, it’s another problem to blame on the brain-melting power of social media. His hunch: apps like Instagram and TikTok are so easy to use that younger people expect everything else to be a breeze, too. When it’s not, they’re more likely to give up. “It takes five seconds to learn how to use TikTok,” he said. “You don’t need an instruction book, like you would with a printer. Content is so easy to access now that when you throw someone a simple curveball, they’ll swing and they miss, and that’s why Gen Z can’t schedule a meeting.”
When it comes to accomplishing simple tasks, sometimes Gen Z has to get a bit creative – or downright evasive. Elizabeth, a 23-year-old engineer who lives in Los Angeles, avoids the office printer at all costs. “I feel like I just haven’t been taught things that some people consider basic knowledge, and I’m too shy to ask,” she said.
Bemiller, the publicist, accidentally killed one work laptop because he didn’t know how to ask for help. Every morning when he turned it on, he would be greeted by a pop-up from the storage service Dropbox, which he always accepted without reading. After a few months, the computer began to run painfully slowly. It often died without warning. Bemiller could not get any work done, and his manager ordered him a new laptop.
By the time the replacement came in the mail, IT had figured out the issue – and it was completely avoidable. As it turned out, every time Bemiller accepted the pop-up, it gave Dropbox permission to back up everything on to the computer’s disk. At the same time, it gave the computer permission to backup to Dropbox.
“It was constantly backing up everything on to itself,” he said. “Murdering that poor laptop is still so funny to me.”
Sometimes, bosses bring in experts to help with the divide. Jason Dorsey is the co-founder of the Center for Generational Kinetics, a research firm based in Austin. Managers tap him to lead workshops that unite employees of all ages around their mutual computer struggles. In one exercise, he puts attendees in a circle, where they share the different technological advancements they remember living through.
“It’s extremely humanizing,” Dorsey said. “You’ll have someone who remembers the first color TV, another person who remembers the first answering machines, and a kid who can do their job on a smartphone. It helps us recognize that diversity of these experiences is a strength.”
But there’s at least one thing that sets tech-hopeless Gen Z workers apart from their older coworkers. Younger people seem more willing to learn, and can quickly adapt to new skills – even if it takes a few rounds at the printer to fully master the art of scanning.
“Gen Z is very comfortable navigating software they’ve never used before, because they’ve been doing it their whole lives,” Bench said. “They are used to trial and error. They may not be this godsend to the workforce who come in automatically knowing how to do Excel, but they’re fast learners.”