The Generational Gap in Cybersecurity and Privacy

As cybersecurity threats evolve, each of us must continually improve our security practices in response. How we handle these threats can be influenced by our generation's overall tendencies and viewpoints. There is a significant generational gap in cybersecurity, and it has implications for how effectively organizations can protect their digital assets. Here's a look at how each generation approaches cybersecurity, the challenges they face, and how they can strengthen their preparedness for cyberthreats.

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How Baby Boomers Approach Cybersecurity and Privacy

Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were present when computers entered the workplace. Accordingly, boomers are most likely to be comfortable with legacy enterprise technology, and they often retain valuable institutional knowledge about these systems. They're not as comfortable with newer digital channels, however. According to AARP, 40% of people aged 60-69 and 45% of people aged 70 and older don't feel today's technology is designed with all ages in mind. As a result, they may not be as well positioned to spot emerging cyberthreats.

Challenges That Baby Boomers Face

Baby boomers are especially likely to use technology to stay in touch with friends and family, which can make them vulnerable to social engineering attacks. They also have more wealth and workplace seniority than younger generations, making them a tempting phishing target for hackers and scammers. To their credit, boomers are good at spotting phishing attempts, but they could benefit from more education on what to do with the suspicious messages they receive. According to research from SailPoint, 94% of boomers are confident or very confident in their ability to detect a phishing message at work, but only 29% know that they should forward it to the IT department.

How Baby Boomers Protect Their Digital Assets

Although other generations sometimes tease boomers for their perceived lack of digital sophistication, this generation — sometimes referred to as silver surfers — is deliberate about its cybersecurity habits. According to research from Beyond Identity, baby boomers are the least likely of all generations to reuse passwords and the most likely to say they have about the same level of security for their professional passwords as they do for their personal passwords. That said, boomer cybersecurity could stand to improve in one area: According to research from Digital Guardian, boomers aged 65 and older were most likely to admit that they don't use complex passwords.

How Gen X Approaches Cybersecurity and Privacy

Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, came of age alongside the internet. This generation is as comfortable online as it is offline. Gen Xers remember life before digital technology became ubiquitous, and they appreciate the value of balancing their digital and analog worlds. Once dismissed as slackers, Gen Xers have acquired considerable work experience as they have gained job seniority, and they use it to manage organizational cyber risk. Because of this blended perspective, Gen X is well positioned to bridge the generational gap in cybersecurity between boomers and millennials.

Challenges That Gen X Faces

Even though Gen X is known for promoting workplace collaboration, it also has a strong independent streak. According to Appgate, Gen Xers would prefer to have the autonomy to fix a problem or propose a solution instead of being told how to do it. Because of this tendency toward self-reliance, Gen X may not immediately comply with what it sees as hierarchical, top-down cybersecurity directives.

How Gen X Protects Its Digital Assets

By and large, Gen X cybersecurity practices are quite strong. According to SailPoint, just 15% of Gen Xers are using corporate email accounts for their social media logins, whereas 77% of Gen Zers and 55% of millennials do so. Only 4% of Gen Xers would open a suspicious email as opposed to 46% of Gen Zers and 29% of millennials. Gen X also has a good grasp of password security. As Beyond Identity found, Gen X is the generation most likely to report that it changes its passwords at least once a year, and Gen X trails only boomers when it comes to ensuring that professional passwords are at least as secure as personal ones.

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How Millennials Approach Cybersecurity and Privacy

Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, are now the largest generation in the workforce. As Appgate notes, millennials claim the broadest use and fastest adoption rates of new technology, which can pose both pros and cons. They have brought their digital-first preferences to the workplace, encouraging the consumerization of IT and transforming companies across the globe. They also prize the convenience and flexibility that technology makes possible. According to research from MBO Partners, 44% of digital nomads are millennials — the largest share of any generation. While millennials are generally more tech-savvy than their elders, they aren't necessarily more cybersecurity-conscious. As a result, they may face increased cyber risk.

Challenges That Millennials Face

Millennials want to stay safe online, but they may sacrifice that safety for convenience if forced to choose one over the other. For example, millennials are more likely to use multiple connected devices at the same time, which increases their chances of falling victim to fraud and identity theft. And according to an NTT report on cybersecurity and the next generation, 39% of millennials would pay a ransom for their data in order to get back to work quickly — that's nine percentage points higher than older generations. Millennials also fall prey to cyberattacks more often than their seniors. A recent Atlas VPN survey found that 52% of millennials and Gen Zers have had their password stolen or know someone who has. By comparison, just 37% of Gen Xers and 12% of baby boomers say the same.

How Millennials Protect Their Digital Assets

The millennial cybersecurity approach prioritizes speed, flexibility, and a frictionless experience over security and complexity. As the Appgate report points out, millennials are twice as likely to emphasize simplicity over security when handling sensitive data. They are three times more likely to avoid security policies, and 60% of them have admitted that they would take the easiest option when handling confidential documents. Because they are comfortable with digital media, millennials may have a laissez-faire attitude toward data privacy.

How Gen Z Approaches Cybersecurity and Privacy

Generation Z, born from 1997 onward, is the first truly digital generation. According to Microsoft, these digital natives have grown up with a lack of privacy and a corresponding sense that they lack control over their own lives. As a result, they are more likely than other generations to call attention to the many ways in which digital culture can affect our well-being. However, some Gen Zers — also known as zoomers — harbor a strong sense of apathy about these problems, believing there's nothing that can be done about them at this point. As a result, Gen Z is even more likely to prioritize convenience over security and privacy.

Challenges That Gen Z Faces

Gen Z cybersecurity attitudes are concerning, to put it mildly. Gen Z's lax approach to cyber risk and comparatively minimal workplace experience make this generation especially vulnerable to cyberattacks. Zoomers are at least likely to practice safe cyber behaviors, which places them at higher risk than other generations. According to the SailPoint report, 46% of Gen Z respondents said they would click on a link or an attachment in a potential phishing message. According to the NTT report, workers under age 30 are more accepting of the risk of devices in the workplace than their elders.

Zoomers don't yet understand the potential cost of these risky approaches to cybersecurity, either. Gen Zers believe that an organization can recover faster from a security incident than it actually can, and they're likely to underestimate the amount of planning and stakeholder communication that is required to recover from a cyberattack. Perhaps especially worrying, nearly half of people under age 30 think that cybersecurity responsibility rests solely with the IT department and that they are not required to improve their own cybersecurity practices.

How Gen Z Protects Its Digital Assets

Gen Z may not appreciate the importance of protecting its digital assets. According to Dark Reading, zoomers' familiarity with digital communication may mean they overly trust in it, believing they are safe while using the technology they know so well. Since this generation is just entering the workforce, it might not understand its role in ensuring organizational security. As a result, Gen Z would especially benefit from cybersecurity awareness training.

How Each Generation Takes Cybersecurity Seriously

Although there is a pronounced generational gap in cybersecurity, each generation has its own way of addressing cybersecurity concerns. For example, boomers bring a healthy skepticism to online interactions while Gen Z never fails to notice how digital technology is encroaching on its self-agency.

Baby Boomers

Baby boomers are especially wary of scams and fraud, so they're more likely to correctly identify phishing attacks and practice good password security than younger generations. Because boomers perceive that their juniors place too much trust in technology, they take special care to protect their identities and assets.

Gen X

Gen X has more workplace experience than any other generation except for boomers, and it has also had an opportunity to become proficient in modern technology. Gen Xers have used these combined advantages to become cybersecurity-savvy. According to the NTT report, workers aged 46-60 scored the highest on cybersecurity best practices than anyone else.

Millennials

Millennials are fluent in the language of technology, and they can be great advocates for new digital initiatives they see as innovative. They also seek opportunities for education and self-improvement, so they could be an ideal audience for a cybersecurity awareness training session focusing on new and emerging threats.

Gen Z

Zoomers are keenly aware of how deeply technology has compromised their sense of personal agency. Some Gen Zers have even experienced the phenomenon of "sharenting," in which their parents or caregivers have shared social media updates about them without their consent, and so they pay closer attention to privacy concerns than their elders. However, this awareness doesn't necessarily translate into a vigilant cybersecurity stance.

Best Practices for Protecting Digital Assets Across All Generations

Even though each generation has its own particular advantages and risks when it comes to cybersecurity, all generations can benefit from strengthening their cybersecurity posture. Here are some best practices that will help any organization's employees protect digital assets:

  • Stay up to date on security training. All generations could stand to improve their security awareness and beef up their security habits. Be sure to take advantage of any security education opportunities that come your way, whether you're a boomer or a zoomer.

  • Use strong password security practices. Use a unique password for every account, make sure it's complex — with a mix of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols — and regularly update all of your passwords.

  • Resist the temptation to overshare on social media. As Gen Z will tell you, digital privacy is an increasingly important issue. If you publicly share personal information on your social media profiles, cybercriminals may use it to target you or your colleagues in an attack later on.

  • Take advantage of two-factor authentication. Passwords alone can't protect your digital assets, so consider adding an additional layer of security to your online accounts, such as two-factor authentication (2FA). Vonage's Verify API is a simple and effective 2FA solution that can help protect businesses and their customers from cybercrime, fraud, and bots.

How to Bridge the Security Gap for Each Generation

There is a pronounced generational gap in cybersecurity, but this gap can be viewed as an organizational opportunity. Each generation has something to teach the others about cybersecurity best practices. Boomers are right to caution younger generations not to place too much trust in technology, while Gen X is diligent about password security and understands the value of protecting critical digital assets. Millennials believe technology should make our lives convenient, so they would likely embrace innovations like 2FA that make it easier for everyone to stay secure online. And Gen Z can remind us all that privacy is precious, and we should be careful before sacrificing too much of it. By learning from each generation's unique perspectives, any organization can begin to bridge the generational gap in cybersecurity just a little bit more.

Learn more about how Vonage's patented 2FA technology can help protect people from all generations against fraud while building trust and increasing conversion across multiple channels.

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By Adam Weir Senior Manager, Product Marketing - APIs (AI & Authentication Solutions)

Adam Weir is a senior product marketing manager for Vonage Communications APIs. He leverages his marketing expertise to develop strategies and promote key API solutions including Verify and Number Insight, along with Vonage’s Artificial Intelligence. Adam has broad marketing experience, working previously in the financial services, information technology, and staffing industries. He lives in the Orlando, FL area, where he enjoys the year-round sunshine by spending quality time with his family at the local beaches and theme parks.

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