Generation gap: how are young South Africans different to older generations?

There are few countries in the world where the gap between the experiences of young and old are quite as stark as they are in South Africa. With so much talk of Gen Z, Gen Y, Gen X and baby-boomers these days, it seems that we are devolving into an all-out generational war!

But regardless of whether you identify as a millennial or a boomer, you will undoubtedly have noticed significant differences between yourself and the generations before and after you.

Noticing these differences is entirely natural. In fact, it is simply an inevitable part of growing up. But in an age where technological, social and cultural differences seem to be accelerating at an unprecedented pace, these generational differences can often be quite disconcerting.

Much of this is down to the growing ubiquity of technology and in particular, digital literacy.

For those older generations less experienced with new digital technologies, there is all the more reason to feel distant or cut off from a generation who live much of their lives in a digital space that is not accessible to them.

Working and professional life in the digital age

The digital divide between young and old is perhaps one of the most stark examples of the generational split between young and older groups of South Africans. In fact, this was commented upon by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, Ramaphosa commented that while young South Africans are fully ready to embrace the digital era and are already deeply invested in technology in their personal and professional lives, the older generation are not keeping pace with these desires.

For Ramaphosa, this is an issue from a governance perspective, as while the demands of young are to embrace technology, it is the older generations who predominantly find themselves in governance positions. With high levels of unemployment among younger generations, Ramaphosa also recognises the importance of the digital economy for job creation, as it is the younger generation who are better equipped to take advantage of these job opportunities.

In fact, digital upskilling has recently been recognised as a way for young workers to escape a floundering economy that has left millions out of work.

Leisure time and internet usage: a growing generational divide?

But beyond a general desire for a digital future, is this generational divide between younger and older South Africans evident in how they use technology?

Perhaps one of the most immediately obvious ways in which younger and older South Africans differ is in how they spend their free time!

As of January 2021, there were a total of 38.19 million internet users in South Africa. Of these, around 25 million are regular users of social media, which represents an increase of 3 million from the previous year. Out of a total population of 59.67 million, this is a reasonably high percentage of individuals with access to the internet – particularly when compared to other African nations.

What is interesting about this statistic, however, is that access to the internet and regular internet usage is primarily concentrated in the younger generation. Additionally, there seems to be a generational divide in how young and old South Africans spend their time online.

While social media usage is definitely higher among younger generations, we also see a higher uptake in other activities such as online casinos and gambling in general. These have exploded in popularity with South Africans in the last year, but particularly among millennials. Increased levels of disposable income coupled with the human desire for leisure has been a powerful driving force.

When older South Africans go online, it is most often for keeping in contact with friends and family, although not necessarily through the same range of social media platforms as millennials. Younger South Africans are also more likely to use digital services for a range of tasks such as online shopping, accessing banking services or paying utility bills.

Dating is another aspect that for young South Africans is increasingly being conducted through online platforms. Although relatively unheard of for older generations, it is now relatively commonplace for young South Africans to meet their significant other using dating apps. This is in itself reflective of a much broader generational divide when it comes to dating and relationships, with the younger generation tending to be more open and less conservative.

In light of all this, we begin to get a sense that the shift into the digital era is broadening the gap between younger and older generations within South Africa, and even given South Africa’s relatively high levels of access to the internet across all demographics, the divide is nevertheless growing.


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