E-mail Is for Old People

By Terry Calhoun

E-mail is not hacking it for me. I don’t know about you, but I am in touch with more people and information streams, and less able to manage my various communications, than ever before.

Things should be easier. I have eased my way out of a number of volunteer positions in various professional and other groups, which has reduced the scope of the various projects and issues that I need to monitor.

But I feel less and less competent in my communications. This is at least partially due to e-mail. My inbox gets at least a quick look at more than 3,000 incoming messages a day. (One very bad side effect of having a substantial online presence.) After the spam filters are done, I still have an immense number of “subject lines” and “from addresses” to scan many times a day. Unfortunately, important messages are often several “screens” down in my inbox before I have a chance to see them.

I find myself more and more saying, in a reply, or on a conference call, or during a face-to-face-meeting: “Gee, I’m sorry. I just never saw that message.” This d'esn’t mix well with my lifetime dread and avoidance of voicemail. What’s left? Instant messaging, snail mail, face-to-face, and real-time telephone?

Snail mail is too slow, face-to-face is too rare, and it seems to be getting harder every single month to arrange teleconferences with all of the right people on hand at the same time. Even though the SCUP staff makes vigorous use of instant messaging, there are still many friends and acquaintances that refuse to be available in such a direct way. Maybe my friends and professional colleagues are too old?

A recent news article, making its way from source to source, emphasizes the relative unimportance many young people feel for e-mail: “According to the study, less than one-fifth of the 13-17-year-olds surveyed profess to using e-mail to communicate with friends, compared to 40 percent of adults aged 25-54.” (That link is to Fox News. It’s my post-election gesture of collaboration.)

I found that article especially interesting, because my two youngest children (18 and 21) do have e-mail addresses, but they use them so infrequently that I cannot recall the last time that either of them e-mailed me. To be truthful about it, I cannot even remember what their e-mail addresses are. That’s okay, because they still live at home and we manage to stay in touch. The four of us even had a sit-down dinner together last night. In that sense, the article also rang true to me: “‘One of the most insightful data points was the one about friends, but what we saw about family, it is still a lot of face-to-face communication and phone calls,’ said John Barrett, director of research for Parks Associates.”

So, what d'es this trend in communications styles among young people mean? How, for example, can we be sure that our institutions are communicating adequately with students if the students find it distasteful to use e-mail?

If I can’t persuade my 18-year-old and my 21-year-old to check their e-mail more often, or to use it once in a while to share with me, what luck are professors having with students? The Fox News item cites an expert saying:

“It's one thing to have this always-on communication when it is people you want to talk to, but once you switch to a more professional environment, that delay is nice to have," Barrett said. "So it's a big question on how that will work. I suspect you'll see more of a mix as this generation enters the workforce. E-mail will remain a way to get in touch, but they'll also use instant messaging as well.

So, it’s the old “enlightened self interest” story. Profs hand out grades, bosses hand out paychecks, therefore young people will conform – at least enough to satisfy their need for grades and money? Maybe.

If it weren’t so doggoned useful! Perhaps my current very negative attitude toward e-mail is a mid-life crisis? I already have the little red convertible, so probably not. Maybe I am a much older bellwether, trending despite my age in the same direction as the Millennials?

It’s not my choice, though. I am responsible to folks who write my paycheck, and as a group, higher education professionals have adopted e-mail as their primary means of communication. So, just as soon as I put the next edition of SCUP’s Trends to Watch in Higher Education to bed – sometime this weekend – I will sit down, sigh heavily, and proceed to move e-mail folders, create new ones, ruthlessly winnow out tens of thousands of useful messages at once, and set a myriad of new filters.

That might help. Until I know for sure, though, if you e-mail me, use a very clear subject line! If you don’t hear back from me in a day or two, try sending a second message. And, please don’t leave me a voice message. In fact, whenever I am online, I am available with AOL instant messenger as “splendid1.”

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