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Taking the older adult tech pulse in 2010

Ho, ho, ho-hum: more older adults use the Internet. Maybe 2011 will be the year I stop whining about older adults not being online. Pew just released its Generations Online 2010 report -- one of the few data sets that breaks the 65+ population down into subgroups.  Surveyed in the spring, Pew reports that now online are: 76% of aged 56-64, older baby boomers; 58% of the 65-73 age range (Silent Generation???? Silent about what?); and 30% of those age 74+ (GI Generation). These percentages are all up a bit from the slightly different categorizations from the 2009 report. And there's more:

  • Access must be painfully slow for most -- but still of valueFor most, they will need to first drink a cup of coffee and wait to see that video sent by the grandkids. In terms of how speedy the experience is, à la broadband, the study indicates that 61% of older baby boomers, 44% of the 'Silents' and 20% of the 'GI's are now connected via broadband.  Compare last year: just 13% of both of the older two online generations reported downloading videos. This year 44% and 20% respectively are watching videos online -- presumably those are the ones that have broadband connections. Connecting to others is important: among the online oldest age groups, social networking use has jumped: from 11 and 4 percent respectively, to 34 and 16 percent.

  • Some activities are compelling -- who knew that 'rating things' matters. After e-mail, in the oldest age groups, searching dominates the activity list today. More of those aged 65-73 are now looking for health info -- 76% in 2010, up from 70% in 2009. In the oldest online group (age 74+), 57% are buying a product online, up from 47% in 2009, and 35% of that group now bank online, up from 24% in 2009. Pew also offered up a very interesting heat map of activity emphasis -- for the 65-73 year olds, 'Rate things' ranked in the top ten list of activities after e-mail -- doesn't that make you eager to see more participation among older adults, let's say on consumer complaint sites, pressuring sellers to provide better and more communicative service and make tolerable packaging?

  • The Pew research panel surveys offer so much -- but let's ask for more.  I am extremely grateful that Pew offers age breakdowns past 50 -- so many other surveys lump and clump all in a 65+ bucket. That said, we want to know more. For the older age groups who have broadband or wireless access, how much does it cost them, do they also have or are considering a smart phone? How many older adults have iPads, since Apple plans never to tell us? Among the reasons for not going online, how does that break down by age?  For those who say it is too expensive (10% of non-users), what do they perceive the barrier price to be?

Marketplace device proliferation will exhaust prospective upgraders. Many folks I speak with believe that when baby boomers are older, in their mid-70's or beyond, they will 'take their tech with them,' and so resistance to tech among older adults will evaporate. Maybe not. The pace of change is accelerating, but the desire to keep spending and relearning, reading the manual and re-installing, swiping and re-typing, maybe that will dissipate as we age. I called Best Buy recently and tried to pin them down on how many steps were involved in setup of Internet-enabled TVs, the only type of TV they are rumored to be selling come January. Answer -- at least 5, not for the faint of heart, Geek Squad, hint hint. Or you could try this eHow 5-step article which the writer amusingly characterizes as 'easy'.

Aging is becoming more connected, but connecting the devices more daunting. It's a looming conundrum. We clearly want and need to be 'online' in some capacity. But we are entering a new and nasty period where devices and access mechanisms are multiplying like weeds -- and these weeds are mostly aimed at the young and determined. Product developers design in the image of their squeaky selves, devices destined to be inadequate or uncool in the shortest possible timeframe. Ain't it just grand that there are 15 different tablet competitors coming soon to a store near you, that if you get sick of the tiny buttons on your smart phone, you can drown in Droid choices; that as laptop screens for movie watching get larger, carry on space is getting smaller, wireless routers are baffling? And that extracting yourself from your phone contract -- so that you can change providers to better hear the call -- might cost as much or more than the phone you might buy?

I hope that in future Pew Research studies, there will be a way to tease out whether there is growing discomfort with the pace of tech change.

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Just read your blog post after spending the last hour with Dad and his PC. He's 84 and requested I help him setup a laptop for him at 82. This was his first PC, keyboard/typewriter, mouse experience and it was tough going at first because I live on the West Coast, he on the East Coast.

After months getting use to mouse technology (didn't realize how non-intuitive it is until watching him), he's now a wiz at banking online, checking health web sites (was able to identify some cross medication issues on his own), and has just started understanding the power of online purchases (hasn't rated anything yet). Guess he fits the +74 demographic really well and will be thrilled to know he's in the top 30% of his generation.

He can't type, so doesn't email, but, also feels it's better to talk over the phone. One issue is support. Aside from praying nothing goes wrong between my visits, I've setup free remote support software (Teambuilder)which came in handy in the beginning, not needed so much today.

Bottom line -- I'm really impressed with his willingness to give it a try, but, sad that he has had to experiences the same frustration with PC technology as the rest of us. So, the issue as I see it is support for this 74+ GI generation that knows little of PC technology and social networking.

Next challenge -- camera download independence!

Teambuilder, huh? Does anyone know of something similar that could be used between Macs and PCs? I'm a California Mac, but my parents, in Florida, are PCs. Apparently nobody in Florida uses Macs. :-( So far, my googling hasn't turned up anything for Mac-PC remote support.


An interesting discussion, as always, Laurie. Following the progress of technology and adoption by seniors, you really have to wonder if companies are thinking about the growing complexity and the impact on initial adopters, and not just seniors. Is the technology going to make adoption by those who did not grow up with it impossible, or will the common interests and need for help bring the generations together? Of course, a whole service sector is already sprouting from it.

Although many new products require more tech savvy to get running, there are also more systems being introduced specifically to allow non-tech savvy seniors to easily use. Systems like GrandCare provide a simple touch screen interface which allow the elderly person to get email (from approved senders) and pictures from family members worldwide by merely touching the icon. And the internet icon is pre-programmed to access specific web sites that are of interest, like news, weather, etc.
Although typically set up by a family member who is more current, once set up, the senior is fully connected to family and plugged into the internet. I believe this type of capability will allow many seniors that are techno-phobic to get connected and stay engaged.
Tom Binder
Palo Alto, CA

It doesn't surprise me that they are joining the online ranks like this. From working in multiple online industries, I have realized that while the older adults may not be early adopters, when they do join in, they stay with it. The interesting part of this will be as the boomers continue to age, how technology will change and their adoption rates be affected. Just think. The older generations grew up with television, radio, and phones as the extent of their technology. Going from that to where we are now is a massive leap. Will the leap be as big over the next couple decades? I kind of doubt it, but I could be wrong. I think the boomers will adopt these changes much quicker as they age because of this.


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