Comment from Clive: The digital divide between older and young people represents a wasted opportunity for the technology industry

clive-gilbertOlder people have many advantages over the young. The accumulation of years brings experience, wisdom and contentment. Older age can also be a time of discovery, when the commitments of family and working life recede and give way to personal interests and pursuits.

While older people have far more opportunities for self fulfilment in later life than ever before, they are still less likely to be able to enjoy the benefits of the digital age. The latest figures show that people aged 65 and over are less likely to have access to the internet or own a smartphone and tend to value the postal system as a means of regular communication more than others.

This inter-generational divide is often taken for granted as a consequence of rapid technological progress which leaves anyone who is not immersed in it out in the cold.

The resulting stereotype of an irretrievably technophobic generation not only robs a growing section of society of a chance to benefit from the vast array of products and services that make use of the power of computers and the internet, but it also deprives technology developers and designers of an opportunity to learn from their elders.

Bridging the divide

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s comments made in 2007 that he always encourages hiring managers to only look for young talent because ‘younger people are just smarter’ still serves as a totemic moment for the technology industry which highlighted the sector’s ageist tendencies. These proclivities often mean that products designs are made in the image of their youthful creators, with too little regard for other demographics.

It is true that making products and services that are accessible to older people presents unique and multifaceted challenges. The decline of perceptual, cognitive and motor function is inherent in the ageing process. However, the diversity of ability among older people is vast, ranging from the relatively healthy who may not have a disability but whose daily routines, desires and needs have changed, to people with more frailties, possibly with one or more major long-term health conditions. Older people’s lifestyles are also more changeable than their younger counterparts, constantly evolving as time passes depending on factors as diverse as their health and cultural background.

And yet, advanced age is not in itself a barrier to technology adoption.  Studies have indicated that fluid intelligence (the ability to solve abstract problems) and computer anxiety are more important factors of whether someone is likely to take up new technologies.

Another barrier, exacerbated by the lack of technology developers of a mature age, is that older people tend to have different priorities and are not interested in learning about technology for technology’s sake. Technology is often lost in translation with designers failing to take into account the goals and requirements of older people.

A valuable perspective

In fact, technology makers would dramatically improve the quality of their products for everyone if they paid more attention to the senior user. People tend to become more critical and independent thinkers as they age, making them a powerful barometer for the potential success of new technologies. Older people are more likely to take things like privacy and security more seriously – something the technology sector has been too cavalier about in recent years.

They may also take more convincing for technology companies to prove that their latest gadget really is useful rather than just part of a temporary fad, encouraging designers to be more rigorous in evaluating their products before going to market. A review of smart home technologies in 2013 found that older people would be receptive to such devices, particularly if they were shown how they would benefit from increased physical activity, independence and functionality.

Focusing on the needs of older people would also encourage designers to reconsider the impact of their products on users’ health. Features such as larger fonts, simpler menus, better colour contrast and more ergonomic designs are essential for older users but would also reduce the incidence of injury among all users.

While future generations of older people are likely to be more tech savvy than today’s cohort as they will be more used to using higher forms of technology, the realities of ageing and the pace of technical change mean that the digital divide between younger and older people will probably persist. As the population ages, the technology industry will need to overcome its hang-ups about old age.

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