When we talk about the Baby Boomer generation, we usually refer to the people born in the years between 1946 and 1964[i], the post-war boom of rapid population growth particularly in countries like the U.S. and Australia. “Baby boomers” are sometimes divided into “early boomers” (1946-55), and “late boomers” (1956-1964)[ii] . In this article I am primarily concerned with the “early boomers”, who are now in their late fifties and sixties, and those people a little older than them from the “Silent Generation”[iii] (1940-1946), who are now mainly in retirement.
Although the total percentage of all web users over the age of 60 is still relatively low, the proportion of people within this age group who are going online is increasing all the time. The “PEW Internet and Lifestyle” 2009 survey in the U.S. for example, reported the percentage of adults 65 and older using the Internet had increased from 15% in 2000 to 38% in 2009[iv]. Similar growths in web usage by older sections of the population have been reported in other countries. The Australian Bureau of Statistics survey in 2006-07 found that the greatest rate of growth in Internet use was by those in 65-74 age group with 28% (up from 20% in 2004-05) of all people in that age group going on line.[v]
In developed countries like Australia and the US, government and business are increasingly looking to the Internet for service delivery. In Australia for example, the 2010 report of the “Government 2.0 Taskforce”[vi] advocated greater use of the internet and, in particular, social networking tools by government agencies. Also many financial services can now be accessed online with computers and more recently mobile phones.
The move to online service delivery offers some clear benefits in terms of cost and improved efficiency. Also, the use of social networking tools could potentially enhance openness and greater community participation in the process of government[vii]. However as more and more essential services go online, there is a real danger that a significant number of older people may be unable or unwilling to access them. For example, see an earlier blog post about a man in his sixties who doesn’t want to go online and feels that his access to information in the real world is diminishing.
Age per se is not a disability, but it does increase the risk for a range of chronic, disabling illnesses including Parkinson Disease and Alzheimer. Also, as a natural consequence of the aging process, our auditory and visual acuity and our fine motor skills tend to diminish and we are likely to find remembering some things more difficulty.
It might be reasonable to assume “baby boomers” should have little difficulty adopting new technologies. After all, the formative years for the “early boomers” were marked by an explosion in personal freedom, social experimentation, better education and greater wealth. At the same time there was growing concern for the welfare of others and greater engagement in the socio-political processes. Bob Dylan told us “The times they are changing” and urged mothers and fathers to, “Get out of the road if they can’t lend a hand“[viii]; and Martin Luther King spoke of a better future in “I have a Dream“[ix].
The Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Daniel Schacter, in his book “The Seven Sins of Memory”, however suggests the Baby Boomer Generation maybe particularly prone to memory loss. “These memory deficits are particularly evident when older adults are required to recollect the particulars of an experience, such as exactly when and where an event occurred. Older adults lose specific details and tend to rely even more that younger adults on a general sense of knowing that something happened.” [x]
Clearly, there are elderly people who make extensive use of the internet and in many respects they use it in much the same way as their younger counterparts. However, when it comes to using computers and the adoption of new connective technologies, the ability of “early baby boomers” is highly varied: Although virtually none used computers during their formative years, some as a result of either interest or their work environment became active participants in the personal computing revolution, but there are still many people over the age of 60 who have had very little or no experience with computers.
For the computer literate “early boomers”, the challenges posed by the interactive, interconnected media of today are less likely to be technological, but rather ones of attitude and civic behaviour. The apparent lack of concern for privacy in the social networking space and the highly opinionated, and sometimes brutal, language of the blogosphere and Twitter they find confronting.
The “early boomers” with limited exposure to computers however, can face significant problems when confronted with the need to “go online” in order to access goods and services. The ability to encode new memories declines as we get older and since this group have little or no past experience of computers to build on they are likely to find learning how to use the these new media more difficult than their computer and web literate counterparts.
Most producers of web content appear to give little consideration to the needs and abilities of those over the age of 60. And those who do try to address this segment of the population often make the mistake of lumping them together into a single generic group of “the elderly.”
In association with a couple of friends, Peter Hindmash and Russ Weakley, I am currently researching the use of Internet and mobile phone technologies by people over the age of sixty. If this includes you and you wish to participate, please complete our online survey of “Mature Age Internet Users“.
The results of the survey will be used in future articles on this topic and will be incorporated into a paper, Improving Web Accessibility for the Elderly, which I am presenting at CSUN 2011 on March 16.
[i] “Are you a Baby Boomer?”, http://www.babyboomers.com.au/about-you.html
[ii] “Baby Boom Generation”, Encyclopaedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, http://www.faqs.org/childhood/Ar-Bo/Baby-Boom-Generation.html
[iii] “The Silent Generation”, (originally described by Time Magazine in 1953 and revisited in this essay) Time Magazine Essay, 29 June 2010, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,878847-1,00.html
[iv] “PEW Internet and Lifestyle Survey”, 2009, http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1484/social-media-mobile-internet-use-teens-millennials-fewer-blog
[v] “Internet Access at Home”, Australian Social Trends, 2008. Australian Bureau of Statistics http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Chapter10002008
[viii] “The Times They Are Changing”, Bob Dylan http://www.justsomelyrics.com/331870/Bob-Dylan-The-Times-They-are-Changing-Lyrics
[x] Schacter, D. “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers”, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2001.