Several years ago, I was tasked with migrating my team’s website from an outdated platform to a more functional content management system. It was a simple job, but the instructions in the manual I’d been given didn’t work. After several frustrating hours with no success, I contacted the technology support team and asked if it was possible that I didn’t have the permissions needed to use that version of the manuaI. They told me it wasn’t possible, and re-sent me a copy of the same manual.
One week and a lot of frustration later, I tracked down the people who had written the manual and pleaded for help. They immediately recognized I didn’t have the permission levels needed to use the version of the manual I’d been given. They made a call, got me the right permissions, and I easily completed my task.
So why did the tech support team dismiss my suggestion? When I learned they had been much more responsive to the problems my younger colleagues were experiencing during the migration of their sites, I realized it was probably a case of ageism.
It’s not just condescending to assume someone struggles with technology based solely on their age, it’s inaccurate and potentially harmful. Here are five of the most common misconceptions about older people and technology that contribute to age bias, and why society as a whole would benefit from addressing that bias.
Seniors do value technology, but many value things like personal relationships, privacy, and security more. People aren’t likely to stop in-person socializing after decades of building personal relationships that way. They prefer to share information face-to-face rather than through a screen, and if they do share through a screen, it likely won’t be anything they would consider personal or sensitive.
Seniors are also very aware of being targets for scammers, so adding another way for criminals to access them isn’t high on their to-do list.
Of course, none of this stops seniors from taking advantage of technology they do find valuable. In 2018, Statistics Canada reported that 60.4% of Canadian internet users 65 and older have a smartphone, and 21.2 % of them are checking that phone every 30 minutes. They also reported that 71% of seniors were using the internet as of 2018 (compared to 48% in 2012).
Some older people say they want to learn to new technologies, and some don’t. But do you know what everyone wants to learn to use? A technology that’s useful.
In her article Why Older People Really Eschew Technology, writer Joelle Renstrom points out that helping older people use new technology means more than just making bigger buttons on phones; it means working with seniors to determine what they really want and need, not what younger people assume they want and need.
Older people don’t use Facebook to make new friends; they like to stay in touch with old friends and their family. If it didn’t offer that service, would it still be as popular with older age groups?
If you want to create a new tool for seniors, forget about “build it and they will come,” and instead ask yourself: “what do they really want and need?” If you build that product, you’ll gain a large, untapped market.
By a certain age, few things are your first – or even second – rodeo. Technology is so pervasive and ingrained in daily life now, people forget it took a long time to get to this point. Until well into the mid-2000s, adopting technology meant tolerating limited function, high purchase costs, hard-drive eating computer viruses, and fights over who gets to use the phone to access dial-up internet.
We’ve seen enough buggy operating systems, exploding smartphones and pointless computer accessories come and go to know it’s a smarter bet to let others do the experimenting for you before needlessly investing time and money.
However, when baby boomers find a technology they believe is worth investing in, they have the resources to go all-in. That’s why Hootsuite recently referred to them as an “increasingly digitally savvy and lucrative demographic.”
Media and pop culture like to portray the technology industry as one filled with 20-somethings, or even barely 20-somethings, but research shows otherwise. In 2019, the Brookfield Institute reported that 35% of Canadian technology workers were between 45 and 64.
In the US, analytics company Visier crunched the data and found that plenty of people over 30 work in the technology industry, and they remain as valued as their younger colleagues.
Sadly, the cultural misconception of technology being a “young person’s game” is making it more difficult for talented older people to find employment in the industry. It’s ironic that an industry so invested in diversity and inclusiveness has overlooked creating age-diverse work teams as a simple and effective way to enhance employee engagement, generate ideas, and increase innovation.
It’s true, some older people struggle with technology. Sometimes it’s because they can’t afford a technology, so have limited access to it. For some, literacy might be a barrier, or they might not have a comfortable and supportive environment in which to learn, or patient and considerate assistance from others willing to help them learn.
During the pandemic, these barriers became amplified, and have prevented many people from being able to access online healthcare or financial assistance, get help in a medical emergency, or overcome crippling isolation. These barriers aren’t exclusive to certain age groups, so shrugging these problems off as merely age-related could mean important, potentially life-saving technologies might never be developed.
The reality is that everybody gets older, technology will continue to evolve, and today’s tech whiz kids will one day be seniors facing their own technology challenges. So stop thinking about people as numbers, and stop buying into the misconceptions about age and technology.
If we all let go of ageism, and focused on practical ways to support others to use valuable new tools, we could help make technology – and life – better for everyone.