Computers, Phones, and the Internet: Domesticating Information Technology

By Robert Kraut; Malcolm Brynin et al. | Go to book overview

4
Older People and
New Technologies

Why Older People?

Yoel Raban

Malcolm Brynin

Age tends to be associated with reduced health and resources, as well as diminished openness to new experiences. Yet aging is not a one-dimensional process. In the case of adaptation to new technological developments, even if the average use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) by older people is lower than that of younger people, the behavior of older people nevertheless contains considerable variation. We should neglect neither this variation nor its possible effects. Just as with younger people, the factors among older people that influence ICT behavior are varied, including age itself (i.e., very old people are different from less old people), gender, education, social class, income, wealth, and so on. A study of people aged 70 years and over in Berlin found that although age tends to reduce variation in capacities, the latter remains considerable. Nearly 30% of the sample could be classed as “vitally involved,” “socially embedded,” or “active.” Not all were equally fit and active, but another 23% were “satisfied with life” or “independent” (Baltes & Mayer, 1999, p. 502). Material differences are also important. In Britain, in the mid-1990s, average weekly nonessential spending was nearly £250 for the richest tenth of two-person households with an occupational pension, compared to £50 for the richest tenth of oneperson households on a state pension (Mann, 2001, p. 96). This disparity makes a huge difference to the ability to adopt new ICTs because the elderly poor are exceptionally poor.

The constraints of old age are not only material but may derive from ill health, loss of social networks, and unfamiliarity with the new. In a survey in Belgium, although 85% of those aged 18– 29 years considered computers useful, only 32% of those over 65 year of age agreed (Galand & LobetMaris, undated). Yet it would be wrong to assume that only the young have learning curves, even if they move along these curves faster. The Berlin study mentioned above found that a majority of the elderly people in the sample wished to or were able to continue to learn. Whereas PC access declines among older people, for instance, from 57% of those in their 50s to 32% of those in their 60s, over 30% of people aged over 50 years who responded to the appropriate question in another European survey said they wished to improve their computers skills (SeniorWatch, 2002, pp. 52–58).

The “problem,” if it is a problem, comes from the lack of resources to move along the learning curve inherent in the need to adapt to any new tech

-43-

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