The long view of Pew -- most older adults are still not online

The Internet haves and have-nots. Pew Research produced an intriguing summary in April, Digital Differences, a long-term comparison report of changes in Internet use between the years 2000 and 2011.  In June 2000, only 12 percent of the 65+ population (aka seniors) were online – and today, 41% are. And just in time for US government agencies switchover to online requirements: the other 59% will need a backup plan. According to a new Washington lobbying group, paper versions of tax forms, savings bonds, annual social security statements and social security checks (switching to direct deposit) will soon be just a memory. So it is important to have accurate data about who has online access and who doesn't -- particularly within a vulnerable population of older adults.

What’s changed – perceived danger has faded, but actual risk has grown.  In 2000, only 47% of all adults were online – today 78% are. In 2001, only 4% had broadband, today 62% do -- but only 30% of seniors. In those long-ago days, non-users of the Internet, especially seniors, thought the Internet was a dangerous place to be. Doesn’t that strike you as quaint today, because as we all know, today’s Internet, if you’re not careful, really IS a dangerous place: online fraud schemes, password and identity theft and rampant viruses, and now there's even phony grandchild Facebook fraud (!). Last year DC-based year Project GOAL (Get Older Adults Online) produced a brochure of safety tips which -- along with vendor and OS-specific guides for Windows PC and MACs -- should be distributed in every tech and phone store.

Breaking down specifics on the 41% of seniors online – good luck.  That 41% represents an ever-growing market of nearly 17 million people. It’s too bad that Pew doesn’t offer sub-segments of that data in component age groups. Hmmm, which of these groups is not like the other? Could it be that combining 66-year-olds and 96-year-olds makes less than perfect sense? Of the nearly 17 million represented by the survey sample, using the Pew percentages, one can conclude that more than 9 million are shopping online and 7 million are banking online. Do banks get this, as a marketing opportunity? Uh, not really, see Bank of America and let’s just forget about Citibank. Do stores? Not exactly, though one wonders what is discussed at Macy’s meetings: type ‘online shopping Macy’s seniors’ into a Google search and see the plus-size dress page and study the models. Is that a chasm between search engine optimization and web marketing groups – or is that a just a chasm not crossed by Google?

What’s a marketer to do with a broad opportunity that remains undocumented?  One wonders, if not Pew Research, then who?  To reach folks in older age ranges – as FirstStreet and ElderLuxe, for example, must – better do your own research (as Link-age did). AARP, which should offer maximum granularity of data on older adults, is not too helpful. Check out this survey on credit card usage that included the 18-49 set (AARP members to be!) but lumped the entire older adult population as 50+. Or study AARP’s Connecting Generations – which does have sub-segments, but combines ages 59-75 (now compare that to another source, I dare you) and  cites the opinions of those age 39+ (??? are they kidding?) who think computers and access to social media increase quantity and quality of communication with long-distance family. Right.

Fielding surveys about online access of seniors is very difficult -- so let's not. And modifying strategy based on behavior the results of surveys is even more challenging. As one nationwide aging services organization CEO told me not so long ago: "We really don’t need to focus on boosting Internet usage of older adults because it is happening anyway."  Ah, but, as the few long-term survey sources reveal, it is happening v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.

Basis for Optimism on Internet Usage

You make great points, Laurie, both about the impact of life going online when so many seniors are not yet there and that the data reporting lumps such a broad range of people together by not segmenting those in the 65+ category. Still, Pew's own research shows that internet usage by seniors can change quickly. While their survey from August 2011 showed only 41% of seniors online, the figure had jumped to 47% in the survey they conducted in Jan-Feb 2012. Certainly care is needed not to read too much into such a change but it is an indication that we CAN grow the number of seniors who have access to the online world.

The world is clearly -- and should be -- moving to take advantage of the benefits of operating online. Rather than slow it down, we should be acting to make sure everyone, regardless of age or other demographic factor, has access to those benefits.

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