We all know it – as a society, we’re getting older. Not just that, but we’re living longer than ever before.
The rapidly ageing population in the Western world is transforming society at an incredible pace. At the turn of the Millennium, 810 million people globally were aged 60 or over.
By the year 2050 that number is expected to rise to 2 billion, according to the World Health Organisation. Furthermore, the number of people aged 80 or over will nearly quadruple between now and the year 2050.
The new digital divide
Advances in medical technology and changes to lifestyle choices are enabling people to live longer while remaining active. But this means there will be an ever-increasing strain on social infrastructure such as energy, transport, healthcare, welfare, environment and education.
On top of this, we need to make sure older people are not shut out from the opportunities technology can bring. The phrase ‘digital divide’ is often used to describe the inequality between urban and rural areas.
But the emergence of ‘digital natives’ – those born into a world where technology, the internet, and mobile are ubiquitous – has meant different attitudes and comfort with technology exist.
This is not trivial. As commerce has shifted online, the widest ranges of goods and services – and the keenest prices – are no longer accessible on the high street. If consumers don’t have access to comparison websites, for example, they can’t secure the best deals for energy, travel or insurance.
On top of this, online is being the go-to communication method for local and central governments wanting to deliver services, as well as distributing advice and guidance.
Increasing digital inclusion
Many older people are aware that they’re missing out, but often lack the skills or motivation to go online. While people in all age groups have increased their internet usage over the years, in the UK people over 65 still form the smallest sector – fewer than half are online according to ONS data.
To combat this, a new approach is required if we are to encourage more people over the age of 60 to get online and use IT.
Older people are unlikely to take traditional classroom courses and prefer to learn with someone they can relate to directly. Research shows that when teaching the elderly to use computers, the type of training and the system design make a significant difference to the student’s success. Training should include subjects like email, social networking, video conferencing and security.
On top of that, charities such as Go On UK have made it their mission to close the digital divide.
Access to IT and technology must be seen as a right rather than a privilege. The UK government’s recent announcement to make broadband a ‘universal service obligation’ is a step in the right direction.
The pledge will mean all homes and businesses will have broadband of at least 10Mbps by 2020 – and this will certainly help in bridging this new digital divide.
However, granting access does not necessarily mean services will be used. As the UK moves to a ‘digital by default strategy’ with all government services moving online, we still need to ensure people are being taught the skills so they can access key services such as registering to vote online, renew their passports and pay vehicle taxes.
If the age-related digital divide, the government’s aims will not be met in full.
The changing skills dynamic
The need for basic training in computer skills will start to taper off as technologically experienced people age. However, older people will still require special consideration, especially as regards usability. Rather than attempting to predict the needs of the ageing population, it makes sense to include older people in the design process.
Involving older people will enable the IT industry to develop products and services that are functional and beneficial for this growing group. It also makes business sense. By downplaying the needs of older people, businesses are turning away customers.
Technology also has an important role to play in ensuring our wellbeing as we grow older. The fragmentation of families and strain on local services mean that assistance from IT in the home will make a valuable contribution to keeping older people safe, well and independent.
At Fujitsu in Ireland we’re working on creating an intelligent home solution with embedded sensor systems that can monitor health and mobility. This will let people look after themselves much better, while also providing a real-time stream of data to carers and first responders.
The benefits of digitalisation must be made accessible to all parts of the community. As populations in developed countries grow older, it is incumbent on decision makers to ensure older people are not left stranded in the more expensive, isolated and fragmented world of the past.
Government has a role to play, not least in the general desire to reduce the costs and extend the reach of public services. But technology companies must take a lead too. We must design our products and services with demographic trends in mind. This is both sound business sense and the right thing to do ethically.
The social and economic benefits of technology belong to every member of the community, whatever their age.
This blog is based on a research paper by Fujitsu Distinguished Engineer Tim Chapman. Read more on our website.
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