“A lot has been happening on Facebook since you last visited,” I’m told by the Russian bots or whoever it is that now controls the world’s most obsession-inducing social-media vortex. Meanwhile, the rulers of the Twitterverse remind me that I have been ignoring “99+ notifications” and, in what appears to be a vague attempt to rekindle a nonexistent digital conversation with my 116 followers, they inquire as to whether my email address has changed.
Pinterest? I don’t think so. Instagram? No thanks. Snapchat? Not so much.
I am not what you might call an energetic contributor of free content designed to boost the earnings of Silicon Valley billionaires. But that doesn’t make me an aging technophobe. I traded my flip phone for a smarter one way back in 2015, after all, and once downloaded an entire Paul Simon album from the iTunes store without incident. I know how to send texts to my offspring (though I never expect a response), and I am familiar with the workings of the Weather Channel app. I am at this very moment confidently typing these words on a laptop computer.
That makes me, if recent research is any indication, a fairly typical geezer doing his best to navigate the shifting terrain of a digital world designed for someone much younger.
A 2015 Pew Research Center survey reported that only about one in four Internet users 65 and older felt “very confident” using electronic devices such as computers and smartphones. Beyond that lack of confidence, however, other barriers prevent seniors from engaging fully with this technology: health conditions that challenge their ability to manipulate the devices — foggy memory, reduced vision, hand tremors — and the lack of available technical assistance. (I can vouch for the panic that set in when our two millennials fled the nest.)
But researchers at Lancaster University in England point to more subtle obstacles, some of which resonate pretty strongly with this geezer. Writing in the journal Communications of the ACM, Bran Knowles, PhD, and Vicki Hanson, PhD, argue that the elderly eschew social media, online financial transactions, and other digital technology primarily because it conflicts with strongly held personal values.
Mastering various online practices, for example, requires an investment of precious time and energy that produces uncertain benefits. Internet transactions also present ominous security risks — especially for inexperienced users accustomed to reliable and safe analog practices. Finally, the seniors Knowles and Hanson surveyed expressed serious misgivings about the social and cultural side effects of a digital-dependent life.
Study participants exhibited a strong sense of social responsibility, which plays an integral role in their reluctance to fully embrace digital technologies. They worry that online shopping, for instance, will damage the local economy and hurt their grandchildren’s job prospects. They also believe that an overreliance on digital transactions — both personal and financial — will damage their community connections.
“The efficiency gained by conducting online interactions is not a powerful motivator for technology adoption by older adults who may be experiencing loneliness and isolation,” Hanson notes. “In many cases, making digital technologies appealing for older adults means ensuring that digital engagements do not replace social interactions, and, if possible, facilitate new social and community-building opportunities where they can meet people.”
Despite my demonstrable ability to download a Paul Simon album from the iTunes store, I’m not sufficiently engaged in the digital world to know whether such geezer-friendly changes have arrived — or are even showing up on drawing boards. But to hear Kai Stinchcombe tell it, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs would be missing the boat if they didn’t give it a try.
Stinchcombe, CEO of San Francisco–based True Link Financial, suggests in a recent piece in Politico that the traditional “digital divide” that separates young, tech-savvy Snapchatters from landline-hugging geezers represents a bungled business opportunity. The industry, he argues, needs to pay attention to demographic trends. “By 2050, the aging population will almost double, with one person over 65 for every three working-age adults,” he explains. “That’s a dangerously large part of the country to risk cutting off — but seen correctly, it can also be an impressively large market for tech firms who figure out how to reach it.”
Even those twentysomething Instagrammers will someday find themselves here in Geezerville, contemplating how to install the latest holographic software and wondering why they can’t recall the password for the Google food-preservation unit. And the current industry landscape doesn’t offer much hope that these “digital natives” will be better served at that point in their lives than their grandparents are now.
It took a threatened ban by London city government to persuade Uber to offer wheelchair-accessible vehicles, Stinchcombe notes, and you still can’t order a ride from your landline. And while other companies have signaled their willingness to serve the elderly without threats of legal action or boycotts, the industry as a whole seems about as nimble as an octogenarian with a walker. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” he writes. “Indeed, these new technologies have an enormous potential for older customers by providing new tools to address the key problems of aging at home — isolation, finance, transportation, and health monitoring.”
I stand ready to applaud any geezer-friendly upgrades tech firms offer to ease the lives of my aging peers, though it seems pretty unlikely that I’ll notice them. I’m blessed with more social connections than I probably deserve, My Lovely Wife handles our finances, my bicycle gets me from Point A to Point B, and no technology could monitor my health better than my acupuncturist. For the time being, at least, I seem to be navigating just fine with my measly digital skills.
Just don’t expect a response to your “friend” request.