How reverse mentoring can help tackle the elderly digital skills gap

Catherine Heath, December 14, 2017 5 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

A mentor with more experience usually coaches someone with less experience, and is normally older than their mentee. Reverse mentoring flips this relationship on its head.

Reverse mentoring is already popular in the business world, with the likes of Microsoft, General Motors and Cisco evangelising the benefits of reverse mentoring. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham is looking further at each end of the spectrum.

It’s now difficult to successfully navigate daily life without at least a basic grasp of technology and how to use it. Business and government are responding to the demand for digitisation and connectivity from consumers and service users, but 5.5 million over-65s in the UK have never used the internet.

A skills exchange between teens and their elders can present one solution to this conundrum. Burnham calls for young people to mentor their elders in technology in a video on reverse mentoring for BusinessCloud.

Facts and figures

We talk a lot about the digital skills gap, with a focus on young people and a school curriculum that struggles to keep up with the requirements of the working world. There’s also plenty of dialogue around upskilling people already mid-way through their career.

But we rarely talk about the digital skills gap in elderly people, specifically the over-65s, who are retired or near-retirement.

According to research conducted by Age UK, there is a trend towards digital exclusion among this age group, especially among women and those in poor health. Of those who do use the internet in this age group, they are mostly using it for email rather than social media or video call. Nearly 10 million people over the age of 65 don’t have the internet at home.

Fear of breaking technology, lack of knowledge of its benefits, and pride are all factors that may prevent older people from learning digital skills.

In the technological adoption curve hypothesised by Everett Rogers in 1962, adopters of technology are split into five categories:

  • Innovators
  • Early Adopters
  • Early Majority
  • Late Majority
  • Laggards

The earliest adopters of new technologies are the ‘innovators’, who are the youngest in age, highest in social class, wealthiest and most closely connected to other innovators. These represent 2.5% of the population.

The latest adopters he unflatteringly calls ‘laggards’, who are most advanced in age, most resistant to change, and are the lowest in social status, wealth and education. These are roughly 16% of the population. This is in keeping with research conducted by Age UK into internet usage among older people.

Clearly there is more we can do to pull people out of the ‘laggards’ category. Teenagers and young adults already possess valuable digital skills that they can share with their elders, and they will also benefit from exposure to the life experience that older people possess.

Context of reverse mentoring

Reverse mentoring probably goes on informally all the time, where younger family members or colleagues school their elders in the latest technologies. But it can benefit from increased awareness and profile-raising.

The trend for reverse mentoring reflects the habit we all have of halting our learning as we reach a certain age, and consequently miss out on gaining experience with the influx of new technologies.

Vimla Appadoo, Service Designer at the Department of Work and Pensions, says “We often think that mentoring is rooted in experience, but experience doesn’t come with age, it just happens throughout life. And that’s why reverse mentoring is important.

“Young people have grown up in a different world and have had different experiences. It’s those differences that can help us innovate and better understand how to embrace tech and digital, opening doors and opportunities for even more people”

In the case of reverse mentoring, an elderly person receives mentoring from a younger person who has more knowledge of technology, but less experience of life in general. We could look at it as a partnership between Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) who have left or are leaving the workplace, and digital natives Generation Z (born after 1995).

Mentoring programmes

Some organizations like Leeds Trinity University have already seen a great success from putting a reverse mentoring programme into practice. Leeds Trinity’s Social Media Surgeries launched in 2014 and are due to restart soon.

Liz Cable, Senior Lecturer in Social Media at Leeds Trinity, and Course Leader for Leeds Trinity’s Media and Marketing degree, says, “We have used reverse mentoring successfully at Leeds Trinity University. Students from our Media and Marketing degree programme worked in Social Media Surgeries to help local charities and third sector organisations improve their social media presence.”

These students provided free social media training, help and support for third sector organisations through informal gatherings. Volunteers with web expertise helped other people who wanted to use the web to communicate, campaign or collaborate for their organisations.

Why it’s important

It’s easy to extol the virtues of the digital revolution and get excited about ‘disruption’, but the reality is that many people are already getting left behind. Mayor Andy Burnham wants to promote an “age-friendly Greater Manchester”, instead of one where digital literacy becomes the dominant measure of inclusion.

Tech is an industry when the estimated average age of a billion-dollar startup founder (at the age of founding) is 31. Youth is seen in tandem with ‘innovative thinking’ and the pressure is on for young people to make their mark – and quickly.

In this climate, it’s good to place more emphasis on the contribution that older people can make, and especially those over 65. Their life experience and professional accomplishments are useful for teens to learn to from.

As Jo Morfee, Director of Liverpool Girl Geeks, says, “Reverse mentoring is not a term I would personally use as it defines the relationship using only age as a descriptor.

“In my view, mentoring is always a two way street. I’ve personally mentored both younger people and older people, teaching them digital skills, supporting them and giving them informal career path advice. In every single case I’ve also learnt a lot from my mentee and it’s been more of an exchange.

“I think we need to get away from the idea that only age determines your level of experience and accept that everyone in society, no matter their age, has a unique contribution to make and a different perspective to offer. Only then can we be open to learning from one another and start to move forward.

“I’ve met older people who would describe themselves as ‘digital dinosaurs’ but they’ve picked up concepts quickly and surprised themselves. I’ve also met younger people who have grown up with devices all around them, who’ve been equally apprehensive about learning tech skills.

“Underpinning both of these scenarios is lack of confidence. If we believe we can, we will. So no matter what age my mentee is, I start with that. Building self belief is key.”

Ideally, older people would have their profile raised in the tech industry, too.

Mentoring in the business world

It’s not just the over-65s who sometimes need a little help with technology. Reverse mentoring is already popular in the tech industry where mentoring is commonplace.

Reverse mentoring brings to mind the generations currently in the workforce: the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. It has the potential to help bridge the generational gap and recognise the strengths of tech-savvy Generation Y.

This happens alongside traditional mentoring. Trish Travis, Project Lead at Tech Manchester, found her mentor, Helen Besant-Roberts, through Business Growth Hub’s mentoring programme.

Trish says, “I felt my business wasn’t moving forwards, and that I had exhausted the knowledge I had learned from my past 20 years as a business owner. Helen’s guidance was like medicine to get us to the next stage – she helped us to understand what we needed to do, and to envision the end result. I see Helen as my saviour and feel unstoppable.” (BusinessCloud)

Trish now leads on the Tech Manchester mentoring programme, which connects startups with potential mentors.


The proliferation and popularity of mentoring programmes such as Tech Manchester suggest that mentoring is much-needed. Especially in an industry like digital and tech, there are no traditional learning paths for people to enter into their first jobs or develop their careers.

Many of the jobs in this industry didn’t exist 10, 5 or even 3 years ago as it’s still very new. Knowledge passed between people is rendered all the more important.

It’s crucial for everyone to keep learning, for the duration of their professional lives, and beyond.

Data & research, skills, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, North West, Yorkshire