The Internet times they are a-changing

Fifty years after Bob Dylan sang an anthem to his generation’s coming-of-age, baby boomers may again cause another social upheaval

James Lawrence
© Plainpicture

The Internet times they are a-changing

Fifty years after Bob Dylan sang an anthem to his generation’s coming-of-age, baby boomers may again cause another social upheaval

James Lawrence

When people think retirees and Internet, the image is typically of a parent or grandparent struggling to complete a short email or shakily typing with one finger hovering over the keyboard. This image no longer fits. Recent statistics from the Office for National Statistics in the UK show strong growth in the use of digital technologies among those aged 65 and over, including increased use of social media. The number of over 65 year olds using the internet daily in the UK has increased to 42% in, up from just 9%.

Christine Milligan, professor of health at Lancaster University in England, began looking at these changes in her paper Ageing and the Use of the Internet. In a recent interview with PROJECT M, she discusses what’s happened since this publication was released.

“The number of those 65 plus using the Internet just went past 50% for the first time. Email is the most frequently used application, but we’re also seeing a growth in things like Skype, Facebook and FaceTime. Interestingly, we’re not seeing a growth in things like instant messaging and Twitter.”

The popular notion that the elderly are unable to adopt new technologies also appears untrue. Milligan’s research, a systematic review of the literature on digital technologies and pensioners, shows a bigger barrier to adoption is the failure of digital technologies to meet the needs and desires of the elderly. Individuals in their later years have different needs than the usual early adopter of technology, who is typically aged between 18 and 40. Facebook is successful as it connects elderly users with friends and family on a personal level. Twitter, on the other hand, fails because it focuses on quantity rather than quality.

Despite these trends, growth in internet access has yet to make its way into the “real” economy. Elderly usage in more active areas of the digital world, such as online shopping, travel bookings or the sharing economy, remains low.


While current pensioners are passive users of the Internet, Christine expects the next wave of retirees to be more active. Baby-boomers were an integral part of the Internet revolution as it began and, consequently, are more trusting of digital technologies. Many were experienced professionals as the digital age began and were forced to adopt new technology as early as the to survive.

The 55- to 64-year-olds today have 20 years of experience with digital technologies and are unlikely to give this up for a simpler retirement. As they transition out of the workforce, we can expect big changes in the way seniors use the Internet.

“We’ll see an age group in the next ten or twenty years who are more used to shopping for both products and information so will be more savvy users of the Internet, taking greater opportunities to save themselves money,” says Milligan.

This is good news for online retailers. Pensioners are currently largely absent from this market in the United Kingdom, despite the potential cost savings of online shopping (a Price Waterhouse Coopers report estimated potential online savings to equal £540 (US$823) a year). With internet access among pensioners expected to reach 90% over the next 20 years, adapting to this demographic change will be essential for online retailers to capitalize on this new market.


Unfortunately, not all companies are taking notice. Many developers continue to focus on early adopters due to their importance in diffusing innovation. Developers of digital technologies tend to be young and are unable to understand the needs of those in older age groups. Milligan believes companies will soon begin to adapt their products, due to the size and wealth of the boomer generation.

“If companies don’t recognise the importance of tapping into that market, they are missing a major trick,” she says.

Hidden amongst these commercial opportunities is a more human side as well. One important side effect of digital technologies is that they help overcome social isolation and loneliness. Mounting evidence suggests that social isolation has significant, adverse health effects. PROJECT M discussed this with Orsoyla Lelkes from the European Centre of Social Welfare Policy and Research. Social isolation increases mortality risk by between two and five times, she said, describing the effects on health as similar to smoking. Milligan agrees.

“It’s a significant issue. I think this is one of the things that we’ll start to see a push on, particularly in health related circles.”

With governments around the world facing aging populations, digital technologies may play a strong role in reducing these adverse health effects of social isolation. With access to the Internet a foregone conclusion, policies around digital technology will need to focus more on development. Encouraging developers to consider the needs of the elderly could have a large impact on quality of life and health outcomes. Boomers may be about to announce another revolution, but this time it is the youth who need to take notice.

© Copyright. . ProjectM Online. All Rights Reserved. Terms | Site Map