Do digital natives and immigrants exist? Researcher Marc Prensky coined these terms as a method of highlighting some generalizations around the generations of tech users including those who grew up before the advent of many of today's technology we use (digital immigrants). Generalizations are also assigned to digital natives who grew up with recent technology who he segments as those born in 1980 or later.
Much like national immigrants who grew up speaking a foreign language before immigrating to a new nation, digital immigrants are said to use technology with an accent and experience some difficulties expressing themselves to the level of proficiency of younger generations who were born with technology surrounding them.
These descriptors are loosely helpful from the perspective of a instructional designer in that it's important to consider the general technical aptitude of one's audience when deciding best methods of sharing instruction. As with all generalizations, there are exceptions to stereotypes, and in the case of the generalizations surrounding digital natives and digital immigrants, the exceptions are plentiful.
Technology is vast. It's expansiveness makes it impossible for any one person to "know technology". There are simply too many technology-related subjects in existence that mastering them all, let alone having a general understanding of all-things-technology, is impossible. There isn't really a pure expert in "technology" young or old. An expert networking specialist likely knows little about web development. A video production editing specialist can master linear editing software but may have little conceptual understanding of iOS application development. One's ability to master any area of technology has little to do with her generation and more to do with her unique interests in specific areas of interest. Those who are interested in app development will likely engage in activities and studies that will expand their knowledge in that area. Because interests are individual and don't always correlate with age, our audience of technology literate users, generally speaking, is diverse.
Differences in the technological skills and abilities of technology users in their 20's, 30's, 40's, and 50's, I don't believe, has a huge amount of variation if interests are aligned. I believe a lot of the generalizations Prensky assigns to digital immigrants become more evident in many users in their 60's, 70's, and beyond, although there are still myriad exceptions.
I love this PBS Idea Channel spot on the subject:
So, do digital natives and immigrants exist? My answer is yes, in general terms, they do, but in specific terms, they don't. From the perspective of a designer, it's important to consider the unique set of technology skills and aptitudes your users will have when designing material.