When Camille Knight, age 50, was considering a job switch, her career counselor insisted she get on the professional networking site LinkedIn. It took her three years to do it. She was concerned about security issues and like many of her boomer cohorts, "You get shy about putting yourself out there in public," she said. But just before her 13-year position in human resources was eliminated in February 2012, she set up a LinkedIn profile.
As Knight began updating her content to reflect additional skills, the calls from recruiters started coming. At one point, she received 30 emails a week and a dozen phone calls with job prospects, one of which led to her current position as a business analyst in Austin, Texas. "It is my dream job," Knight said. "[Having] an online profile to remain competitive in today's job market is an absolute necessity."
The generation that spawned Bill Gates and Steve Jobs continues to keep pace with technology: According to the Pew Research Center's Internet Project, 66 percent of those ages 55 and older are online—but notably focused on professional activities. Among the 50-plus age group online, interest in professional pursuits "is tremendous," said Adam Sohn, vice president of brand alliances and partnerships for AARP. "There is a huge part of this demographic that is already digitally savvy and is using LinkedIn and recognizes that the paper rolodex is an ancient artifact," he said.
Nicole Williams, a LinkedIn career expert, has seen LinkedIn use in the elder demographic grow exponentially within the last couple of years. Williams said they feel less intimidated by it than other platforms because it is a professional network. "They understand that this is the place they need to dig in," she said.
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The elder "endorser" phenomenon on LinkedIn, and the preference among older Americans for a professional network within the social media realm, reflects a persistent online divider: wealth and professional status. Older Americans are going online to connect professionally in greater numbers, but traffic from blue-collar workers is less than 20 percent, said Art Koff, founder of RetiredBrains.com, which attracts roughly 1,700 unique visitors a day, most between the ages of 50 and 65.
At Vibrant Nation, an online community for women ages 45 to 65 that attracts 250,000 unique visitors a month, the majority of members are college graduates and the average visitor has a higher-than-average household income, said Stephen Reily, the site's founder. Two million older Americans visit RetirementJobs.com—which specializes in connecting those ages 50 and older with professional opportunities—annually.
LinkedIn said it can't disclose what percentage of older Americans are on its site because it doesn't require a user profile, but LinkedIn tends to be made up of higher-educated people with advanced degrees, said Lori Bitter, president of The Business of Aging, a consulting firm.
According to Pew data, 41 percent of those who are not online have no high school diploma. That includes people of all ages, but income is a pervasive issue among older adults, many of whom live solely on social security and can't afford a computer or monthly Internet service plan, said Laurie Orlov, an industry analyst who writes the blog, Aging in Place Technology Watch.
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The white collar/blue collar divide is at least partially a chicken-or-egg scenario, according to the experts. Kerry Hannon, an AARP jobs expert and author of "Great Jobs for Everyone 50+," said blue-collar workers don't find LinkedIn as relevant to the job hunting process because it's a networking tool for those interviewing at corporations where they might have existing connections. "It doesn't mean they shouldn't do it, but I don't see that much use among blue-collar workers. I'm not sure they see the relevance of it," Hannon said.
Tom Kamber, executive director of OATS—Older Adults Technology Services, which works with older adults to use technology, said 23 million Americans over 50 aren't online, but though statistics may show a relationship between income and digital use, he doesn't see this divide in his firm's work. "Technology doesn't discriminate. There's just as much interest among lower-income minority seniors as among the wealthy around technology," Kamber said.
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The technology gap does widen the older an individual is: Pew data show that of the 15 percent of all American adults who aren't online, 49 percent of them are ages 65 and older. With Americans working longer than ever before, for those who cut their professional teeth on paper resumes and old-fashioned face-to-face networking and are hesitant to have their online debut, it's time to get over it, the experts said. "If you're over 50 and are in the job market today, you have to have a social media footprint. This is nonnegotiable," Hannon said.
The boomers are making the most of professional opportunities online. A May 2013 survey by Google and Ipsos found that social networking sites are used by the majority of boomers daily, with more than half following a group or organization on a social platform. Bitter said most activity occurs among those ages 55 to 66, while the older end of the mature market tend not to own devices or know how to use them.
The boomer generation has been adapting to technology all of their lives, said Matt Thornhill, president of The Boomer Project. "Just because we've hit a certain age doesn't mean we've lost the ability to do that." Mary Furlong, a 65-year-old consultant specializing in aging issues who spends roughly 10 hours a day on her iPad, said as many boomers saw their 401(k)s tank, they have to continue working "and to continue working, you need to know technology."
The Society for Human Resource Management reports that 56 percent of organizations are using social networking sites to recruit workers, up from 34 percent in 2008; 95 percent of them use LinkedIn. Over the past year, AARP has forged a partnership with LinkedIn to integrate the professional networking site into its Life Reimagined for Work site, which allows AARP members access to more than 200 companies actively seeking to hire older workers. The Life Reimagined for Work group on LinkedIn now has 7,400 active members.
LinkedIn career expert Williams said that even though those who are lower educated and lower income do not make up the majority of LinkedIn users, she has seen exceptions, and small success stories. She was asked to work with a homeless woman living in her car. She showed her how to use LinkedIn. "She ended up getting a job at Walmart," Williams said.
—By Julie Halpert, Special to CNBC.com.