Academic journal article Generations

Ageism and Technology

Academic journal article Generations

Ageism and Technology

Article excerpt

A reciprocal influence.

It is useful to think of ageism and technology as having a reciprocal influence on one another. Ageism has important implications for how new technologies are developed and marketed, just as ageism can be a potent factor affecting the adoption of new technologies by older people. At the same time, technology may be considered as having the potential to affect ageism-both by fostering the perpetuation of ageism and by acting as a force contributing to the weakening of ageist views.


The older population has been portrayed in a variety of unflattering ways as a result of ageism. Other articles in this issue deal with these portraits, and with how they may be changing, in more detail. However, some stereotypical views of aging and of the older population bear repeating here because of their implications for the development, design, and adoption of technology.

Ageist views have typically held that older people are poor, frail, and resistant to change. Yet we know from repeated studies that estimates by the general public of the extent to which low income or poor health are problems for older people far exceed the extent to which older people themselves see these issues as personal problems. For example, data from the American Perceptions of Aging in the 21st Century survey (Cutler and Whitelaw, 2000) show that only 4 percent of people 18-64 years of age thought that poor health was not a problem for most people over 65. Yet, 56 percent of people 65 and older reported that poor health was not a problem for them personally. Data from the study yield a similar picture about income: Some 53 percent of younger people thought that not having enough money to live on was a very serious problem for most older people, but only 15 percent of the older population thought it was a very serious problem for them personally. Although a more recent brand of ageism paints a picture of older people as being relatively well-off and hoarding entitlement resources they do not really need -as being "greedy geezers"-frailty and poverty continue to be the images of the elderly that the general public holds far in excess of the prevalence with which these problems are reported as actually being experienced by older people.

Another facet of the ageist portrait of the older population has to do with the willingness and capability of older people to learn and with their openness to change. A clear depiction is found in the writings of Sigmund Freud, who once argued that psychotherapy would be of little or no benefit to older people:

The age of patients has this importance in determining their fitness for psychoanalytic treatment; that, on the one hand, more or less above the fifties, the elasticity of mental processes, on which the treatment depends, is as a rule lacking-older people are no longer educable - and on the other hand, the mass of material to be dealt with would prolong the duration of treatment indefinitely, (cited in Horton, 1982, p.i; italics added)

Other data from the 2000 American Perceptions of Aging in the zist Century survey show that only 9 percent of people 18-64 years of age thought that most older people were very openminded and adaptable, while 55 percent of older people thought of themselves in this way. The Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell (2003, p.398) sums up this stereotype when his protagonist, Inspector Kurt Wallender, laments his inability to fathom the use of computers in law enforcement: "... now there were whole domains of knowledge he knew nothing about. He was forced to accept the fact that he had simply become old. An old dog who could no longer be taught new tricks."

That these sorts of images are at such considerable variance from the ways older people view themselves has important implications for the development and adoption of technology. A recent report from the National Research Council noted that technology is typically developed by younger people for the use of younger people and marketed at younger target groups (Pew and Van Hemel, 2004). …

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