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Do older adults have good reasons to resist technology change?

Surveys affirm increasing tech use among older adults, but for some, not so fast. Whether it is new data from Pew or AARP, some older adults refuse or are unable to use newer technologies, whether it is smartphones, online banking services, or (perhaps especially) social media.  Maybe they prefer clamshell phones (450 million shipped in 2017!) They may not be interested in being the first to test a new gadget or service.  Maybe they can’t get the packaging for a wearable opened without a hacksaw.  For that matter, how many of us are storing a pliers in their kitchen for vacuum-sealed containers?  But the tech of the day is particularly an anathema to a number of people, whether it is due to costly Internet plans, pricey and fragile smartphones, or hacker-improved, uh, enriched social media.

Older adults worry about losing the social aspects of in-person transactions.  In the small but compelling study from the UK, titled appropriately 'The Wisdom of Older Technology (Non) Users', several cited valid concerns: fear of getting things wrong, the burden to become an ‘expert’ (as with use of product comparison websites), security concerns (like Equifax), and a legitimate worry that online shopping takes business away from local shops.  There is plenty of media mention about social isolation and health of older adults these days, and suggestions about ways to mitigate the issue, generally suggesting visits or calls. the direct relationship between technology and mitigating social isolation still seems tenuous.  In fact, for young people, tools like Facebook may worsen the problem.

What’s to be done about boosting in-person interactions – supported by technology?  The key insight from the UK study?  Older people want to connect with others – and clearly, the other studies show that it does not occur enough. Secondarily, the role of technology (if present at all) is to help people find ways to connect. Imagine a scenario in which a group of older adults attend a regularly scheduled event, whether it is a senior center that offers lunch, a lecture or concert series in an area populated by older adults, a ride service that brings older adults to medical appointments, a home care company that has multiple clients in the same age range and status, a local college with a life-long learning program of afternoon classes.  Or a neighborhood watch program that notes who is stranded by their geography, whether it is warm or icy. Or a high school program that volunteers with local seniors for credit – and a new career path. Through each of these examples, technology access can be a persistent side effect.


It's always strange to encounter research carefully documenting things that are self evident based on one's own lived experience. But it's even stranger to get into face to face arguments with people who believe religiously (i.e. without evidence) that one's own lived experience is impossible.

I'm a 60 year old software engineer making my living producing things that I believe to be less suited to their purpose than their predecessors. (I have no input to increasingly confusing user interfaces, among other serious flaws.) I'm occasionally told by coworkers that the reason I dislike our products is that they aren't tailored to my demographic, because my demographic has no disposable income. While I realize that plenty of seniors are impoverished, I know a lot of us are simply keeping our wallets firmly shut - or buying the cheapest stopgap pending the unlikely discovery of tech that we actually like. I agree that most tech is not tailored to my demographic. But I'm increasingly convinced that while typical tech is less youth-hostile than elder-hostile, it's been on a downward spiral for all demographics for a long time.

I wonder to what extent senior non-use of tech comes from simply having longer memories. I can compare the reliability and easy of use of my old manual typewriter, with the complex assembly of computer, printer, software, and internet. I can compare the sound quality of an ancient rotary phone to that from my oh so modern Android device. I can compare the effectiveness of filing paper copies of all financial information, to hoping it's still on the relevant provider's website (which is hopefully up when I need it, doesn't require new authentication hoops, and is compatible with whatever piece of tech I'm trying to use to access it).

All those techs I'm comparing with older methods got me something I couldn't do before. Editing on computer is much easier than typing and retyping a paper document.  Those boxes of files were heavy, took up storage space, and sometimes got lost, damaged, or destroyed. But going to computer tech cost me something significant.

The same kind of comparison can be made between earlier and later computer technology.  I consider the original Mac to be the approximate pinnacle of easy of learning and ease of use; it's been downhill from there. A modern Mac can do many more things, and it also looks a lot prettier. But you can't learn to use one effectively without Google. Meta keys. Gestures. Nowhere-documented keyboard shortcuts. Random icons without text labels. Screens with no obvious borders between sensitive fields,  so it's easy not to notice some of the things you could click - and equally easy to get something you never intended. Each new version has new improved bugs, just as with all other software. And there's always a prompt about something wanting to auto-update.

People generally dislike losing things more than they like gaining new things. Perhaps that's part of senior aversion to the latest thing(s). We're more clearly aware of what we can no longer do, with each new tool, and the gains may not console us.

There are other reasons why I as a baby boomer dislike much recent technology. I'm now longer in a life stage where learning new skills is a major source of gratification for me. I can do it, but I want to be teaching and guiding others, or simply enjoying what I have, not e.g. learning the latest and greatest(sic) way to manage my calendar, using tools lacking documentation and, quite commonly, any text at all. (Interestingly my office mate, who might be all of 40, has recently started using a paper daytimer. Not due to my influence - the tech tools he had or could buy weren't helping him manage his time effectively.)

And of course that's before we deal with interfaces requiring precise movements, 20-20 vision, acute hearing, and similar aging-unfriendly, disability-unfriendly  misfeatures.

p.s. When it comes to social media, I'm still on a live journal clone. Facebook is not an improvement. My sister (limited budget, rarely upgraded computer) can't access it at all. Plus the usual issues about privacy, abuse, abusers moving from online to offline, and fake news. And by the way, it makes sense for a senior to be more frightened by typical online threats than a younger person might be. I'm far less able to defend myself now, or even run away, if someone who objects to my opinions decides to come visit.



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