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Older Consumers Straddle the Digital Divide

Janet Kornblum May 7, 2018
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Older consumers’ relationship with technology is changing fast, as increasingly tech-savvy boomers enter the senior marketplace. Here’s where it stands today.

More seniors than ever are wired and online, as a generation that adapted to personal computers and other technologies when they were adults now grows into older age.

But a close look at how older people use technology also reveals that individuals over 80 are much less engaged with new devices than younger retirees and remain on the wrong side of an age-based digital divide.

“Seniors are… moving towards more digitally connected lives,” says the Pew Research Center in a report about tech adoption among America’s 46 million seniors (defined as 65 and older). Some 42 percent of seniors say they own smartphones, up from just 18 percent in 2013.

And more of the oldest Americans are using the internet–67 percent, an increase of 55 percentage points in just under two decades, according to Pew. Half of older Americans have broadband at home.

But those statistics only tell part of the story. The 2017 report also found that tech adoption was much stronger among younger seniors, with those in their late 60s about twice as likely to go online or have broadband at home as those over 80–and four times as likely to own smartphones.

Baby Boomers who are becoming seniors “are carrying their tech with them,” says Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center. In other words, older generations are becoming more tech savvy as time passes.

Technology adaption among seniors also varies dramatically by education and income, mirroring societal trends overall, the study says.

For instance, some 32 percent of seniors own tablet computers, such as an iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab, a double-digit increase since 2013. But 62 percent of older adults with annual household incomes of $75,000 or more say they own tablet computers and 56% of college-degree earners say the same.

By contrast only 16 percent of seniors living in households earning less than $30,000 a year had tablets, according to the study.

The percentages of tablet ownership also predictably declines by age: 41 percent of those 65 to 69 have tablets compared with only 20 percent of those 80 and over.

Seniors also tend to have different relationships to technology than younger people.

On the positive side, those who are social networking on Facebook (34 percent have used social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter), are connecting with family—and each other, Rainie says.

Many join Facebook to keep in touch with their grandchildren. But once there, “They’re forming communities and interacting with each other around the issues that matter to seniors,” such as caregiving and healthcare, Rainie says.

And while seniors are getting more into technology, they still need extra help when they get electronic devices:

“Some 34 percent of older internet users say they have little to no confidence in their ability to use electronic devices to perform online tasks, while 48 percent of seniors say that this statement describes them very well: ‘When I get a new electronic device, I usually need someone else to set it up or show me how to use it,'” the report states.

It’s no wonder. Seniors grew up at a time when technology operated fundamentally differently than it does today, says Tobey Dichter, founder and CEO of Generations on Line.

“The science that the 20th century population grew up with was rooted in a fundamental approach that you did one thing after another, that things made sense and that you couldn’t go back again,” Dichter, says. “If you blew a fuse you had to change a fuse. A computer is really different.

“Very often we blame the victim and say that older people are just Luddites; they can’t adapt to technology.” The truth, she adds, is that learning requires the knowledge of “non-intuitive jargon, icons, tools and techniques that you couldn’t logically figure out.”

So why does it matter that seniors are still largely being left behind?

Those who are offline and have remained offline aren’t just missing out on more than finding out what’s trending on Twitter. More importantly, they run a risk of isolation in an increasingly digital world.

Being offline in an era when just about everyone else is connected is a “disability,” Dichter says. When she founded the organization 18 years ago, “We thought it would only take five years to convert all 21 million people,” she says.

Yet for the minority people who remain disconnected, the gulf they need to cross grows wider almost daily. As technology develops, it usually gets more complex. And skills that seem obvious, such as how to work a mouse, address an email, or scroll through a website, are simply not intuitive.

Companies have a big incentive to create more and more senior-friendly technology. “There’s a whole vast complex of marketers and creators who are trying to make sure that technology is senior friendly,” Rainie says.

And people like Laurie Orlov, founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch, think that voice-operated devices like Amazon’s Alexa will become a big hit with aging consumers.

After all, while operating most devices requires a steep learning curve, just about everyone knows how to talk.

Janet Kornblum

Janet Kornblum is a writer, media trainer and private investigator based in Northern California. She has written about technology and culture for years and is hopelessly addicted to gadgets.

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