FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, January 21, 2005

Why Seniors Don't Go Online Now, But Will in the Future

We've written before about the lack of senior citizens in cyberspace, and have speculated as to why this is. Now, two new studies both confirm the dearth of seniors online and offer some insights as to why they're in no rush to go there.

The first, from the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that just over 30% of American seniors (age 65+) surveyed have ever been online. However, 70% of what the report calls the "next generation of seniors" (those aged 50-64) have been online. The report goes on to point out dramatic differences in Internet usage between the two generations, particularly when searching for health information.

The second, from the Pew Internet & American Life Project last March, corroborates those findings. Pew found that only 22% of American seniors go online, but 58% of those aged 50-64 do so. However, the report found that those who do go online are just as enthusiastic about it as their younger counterparts. The Pew report calls those aged 50-64 the "silver tsunami" (a phrase they probably wouldn't use if the report were being written today), and also speculates as to why those aged 65+ don't participate in cyberspace more:

[M]ost seniors live lives far removed from the Internet, know few people who use e-mail or surf the Web, and cannot imagine why they would spend money and time learning how to use a computer. Seniors are also more likely than any other age group to be living with some kind of disability, which could hinder their capacity to get to a computer training center or read the small type on many Web sites.

Commenting on the Pew report, blogger Lois Ambash adds her own interpretation:

Younger adults readily concur that no one would tolerate a high-maintenance refrigerator, telephone, or even VCR. Most people have neither the time nor the interest to pamper machines as erratic, complex, and unreliable as the average personal computer. The incentives to develop fluency in the use of Internet and computer technologies often come in the form of job requirements, paychecks and promotions.

From this perspective, the precipitous drop in Internet use among people over 65 takes on a different cast. Are the over-65s too incurious, intellectually limited, or set in their ways to embrace electronic technologies? Instead, consider a less condescending explanation: These seniors may have attained a maturity level and sense of self that lets them comfortably say no to unfriendly machines. Poorly-designed controls, ever-changing screen images, counterintuitive navigation, and incomprehensible documentation may just not command their time and attention. In other words, the decision to steer clear of new technologies may reflect rational choice, rather than ignorance or impatience.

Those aged 50-64 -- the eldest Baby Boomers -- are largely still in the workforce, and have developed Internet skills as a matter or course. Therefore, it's likely that they will remain online long after they retire. However, it will be interesting to see whether this influential group presses for more user-friendly interfaces and accommodations for disabilities. The problems of cyberspace pointed out by their predecessors, after all, should not and cannot be ignored.