Think older people are technophobes? Think again
Around 42% of adults aged 65 and older now report owning smartphones, up from just 18% in 2013.
NEW YORK – A record 46 million seniors live in the United States today, and older Americans – those age 65 and older – now account for 15% of the overall US population. By 2050, 22% of Americans will be 65 and older, according to US Census Bureau projections.1
At the same time America is graying, recent Pew Research Center surveys find that seniors are also moving towards more digitally connected lives. Around four-in-ten (42%) adults ages 65 and older now report owning smartphones, up from just 18% in 2013.
Internet use and home broadband adoption among this group have also risen substantially. Today, 67% of seniors use the internet – a 55-percentage-point increase in just under two decades. And for the first time, half of older Americans now have broadband at home.
Yet despite these gains, many seniors remain largely disconnected from the digital revolution. One-third of adults ages 65 and older say they never use the internet, and roughly half (49%) say they do not have home broadband services. Meanwhile, even with their recent gains, the proportion of seniors who say they own smartphones is 42 percentage points lower than those ages 18 to 64.
And as is true for the population as a whole, there are also substantial differences in technology adoption within the older adult population based on factors such as age, household income and educational attainment.
Seniors ages 65 to 69 are about twice as likely as those ages 80 and older to say they ever go online (82% vs 44%) or have broadband at home (66% vs 28%), and they are roughly four times as likely to say they own smartphones (59% vs 17%).
Adoption rates also vary greatly by household income. Fully 87% of seniors living in households earning $75,000 or more a year say they have home broadband, compared with just 27% of seniors whose annual household income is below $30,000. Educational differences follow a similar pattern, with college graduates adopting technology at much higher rates than seniors with lower levels of formal education.
These younger, relatively affluent and/or highly educated seniors are helping to drive much of the recent growth in technology adoption among the older population as a whole. For example, smartphone ownership among seniors whose annual household income is $75,000 or more increased by 39 percentage points since 2013 – 15 points higher than the growth reported among seniors overall.
It also remains the case that older adults face unique barriers to using and adopting new technologies. Some 34% of older internet users say they have little to no confidence in their ability to use electronic devices to perform online tasks, while 48% of seniors say that this statement describes them very well: “When I get a new electronic device, I usually need someone else to set it up or show me how to use it.”
Still, older Americans who use the internet tend to view technology in a positive light and incorporate digital technology into their everyday lives. Fully 58% of adults ages 65 and older say technology has had a mostly positive impact on society, while roughly three-quarters of internet-using seniors say they go online on a daily basis – and nearly one-in-ten go online almost constantly.
These findings are based on several nationally representative Pew Research Center surveys. The main findings on technology adoption are from a phone survey of 3,015 US adults conducted 29 September to 6 November 2016. The margin of sampling error at the 95% confidence interval for results based on the total sample is plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Details about the other surveys used in this report are available in the methodology. The terms “seniors”, “older Americans” and “older adults” are used interchangeably in this report to denote adults living in the US who are ages 65 and older.
Technology use among seniors
Although seniors consistently have lower rates of technology adoption than the general public, this group is more digitally connected than ever. In fact, some groups of seniors – such as those who are younger, more affluent and more highly educated – report owning and using various technologies at rates similar to adults under the age of 65.
Still, there remains a notable digital divide between younger and older Americans. And many seniors who are older, less affluent or with lower levels of educational attainment continue to have a distant relationship with digital technology.
Four-in-ten seniors now own smartphones, more than double the share that did so in 2013
With smartphone ownership in the US more than doubling in the past five years, Americans are embracing mobile technology at a rapid pace. And while adoption rates among seniors continue to trail those of the overall population, the share of adults ages 65 and up who own smartphones has risen 24 percentage points (from 18% to 42%) since 2013. Today, roughly half of older adults who own cellphones have some type of smartphone; in 2013, that share was just 23%.
Smartphone ownership among seniors varies substantially by age: 59% of 65- to 69-year-olds own smartphones, but that share falls to 49% among 70- to 74-year-olds. Smartphone adoption drops off considerably among adults in their mid-70s and beyond. Some 31% of 75- to 79-year-olds say they own smartphones, while only 17% of those ages 80 and older are smartphone owners.
Smartphone ownership is also highly correlated with household income and educational attainment. Fully 81% of older Americans whose annual household income is $75,000 or more say they own smartphones, compared with 27% of those living in households earning less than $30,000 a year. Additionally, around two-thirds of seniors with bachelor’s or advanced degrees report owning smartphones (65%), compared with 45% of those who have some college experience and 27% of those who have high school diplomas or less.
Seniors in these high-adoption groups have seen the largest growth in smartphone ownership in recent years. Since 2013, smartphone adoption among older adults who live in households earning $75,000 or more a year has increased by 39 percentage points; those with at least bachelor’s degrees, as well as those who are ages 65 to 69, have each seen a 30-point increase in smartphone adoption over that time.
Internet use and broadband adoption among seniors varies across demographic groups
As is true of the population as a whole, internet adoption among seniors has risen steadily over the last decade and a half. When the Center began tracking internet adoption in early 2000, just 14% of seniors were internet users. But today, 67% of adults ages 65 and older say they go online.
The share of seniors who subscribe to home broadband services has also risen – albeit at a slower rate than internet use. Around half of seniors (51%) now say they have high-speed internet at home. This represents a modest uptick from 2013, when 47% of older adults were broadband adopters.
As is true of the general public, internet and broadband adoption among older adults varies substantially across a number of demographic factors – most notably age, household income and educational attainment.
Younger seniors use the internet and subscribe to home broadband at rates that are comparable to the overall population. Fully 82% of 65- to 69-year-olds are internet users, and two-thirds say they have broadband internet connections at home. (Internet use and broadband adoption rates for the overall population are 90% and 73%, respectively).
On the other hand, fewer than half of seniors ages 80 and up (44%) report using the internet and just 28% say they have home broadband service. Adoption rates for seniors in their 70s fall in between these two groups.
Internet and broadband adoption rates also differ considerably by household income and educational attainment. Around nine-in-ten seniors whose annual household income is $75,000 or more say they go online (94%) or have high-speed internet at home (87%). Those shares drop to 46% and 27%, respectively, among older adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year. College graduates are far more likely than those with high school educations or less to say they use the internet (92% vs 49%) or have home broadband service (82% vs 30%).
Tablet ownership grows among older Americans, while e-reader adoption stalls
Roughly one-third (32%) of seniors say they own tablet computers, while about one-in-five (19%) report owning e-readers. While this represents a double-digit increase in tablet ownership since 2013, the share of older Americans who own e-readers has stayed largely unchanged over that time period. (This mirrors adoption trends in the broader population as well).
Tablet ownership is especially common among seniors with more education and those living in higher-income households. Some 62% of older adults with annual household incomes of $75,000 or more say they own tablet computers, while 56% of college-degree earners say the same. Each represents a more than 20-point increase since 2013 (at that point, 39% of high-income seniors and 31% of college graduates in this age group owned tablets).
By comparison, fewer than one-in-five seniors in households earning less than $30,000 a year (16%) or who have high school diplomas or less (18%) own tablets. E-reader adoption follows a similar pattern, albeit from a lower baseline level of overall ownership.
Younger seniors are also more likely than their older counterparts to own tablets or e-readers, although these differences are especially pronounced in the case of tablets. Some 41% of 65- to 69-year-olds report having tablet computers, compared with 20% of those ages 80 and older. The age gap in e-reader ownership is narrower: 21% of 65-to 69-year-olds and 13% of those ages 80 and older are e-reader owners.
Social media use among older Americans steadily increases
Social media is increasingly becoming an important platform where people find news and information, share their experiences and connect with friends and family. And just as internet adoption and smartphone ownership has grown among seniors, so has social media use.
Today, 34% of Americans ages 65 and up say they ever use social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. This represents a seven-point increase from 2013, when 27% of older adults reported using social media. Still, a majority of seniors do not use social media, and the share that do is considerably smaller than that of the general population.
As with other forms of digital technology, younger seniors are more likely than their older counterparts to use social media. More than four-in-ten (45%) seniors under the age of 75 say they ever use social networking sites, compared with 20% of those ages 75 and older. Social networking use is also relatively common among those who have at least some college experience and those whose annual household income is $50,000 or more.
Barriers to adoption and attitudes towards technology
Digital technology has transformed the way people communicate, get news, shop and even find love. And as more tasks migrate online, there are unique barriers and challenges that may hinder some older Americans from going online and using new technology. But despite these challenges, many seniors have a positive outlook about technology and the benefits it can provide. And once online, many older adults engage deeply with online content and activities.
Older adults face unique barriers to adoption, ranging from physical challenges to a lack of comfort and familiarity with technology
One challenge facing older adults with respect to technology is the fact that many are simply not confident in their own ability to learn about and properly use electronic devices.
For example, just 26% of internet users ages 65 and over say they feel very confident when using computers, smartphones or other electronic devices to do the things they need to do online, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey. Roughly one-third describe themselves as only a little (23%) or not at all (11%) confident in their ability to use electronic devices to do necessary online activities.
Similarly, a 2016 report from the Center found that “digitally ready” Americans – meaning those who are confident in their digital skills and in their ability to find trustworthy information online – tend to be disproportionately under the age of 65. Meanwhile, older groups make up a larger share of those who are described as “digitally unprepared.”
Hand in hand with this lack of confidence in their own ability to use digital technology, seniors are also more likely than those in other age groups to say they need others to show them how to use new devices. Around three-quarters of Americans ages 65 and up say the statement, “When I get a new electronic device, I usually need someone else to set it up or show me how to use it,” describes them either very (48%) or somewhat (25%) well.
Older adults may also face physical challenges that might make it difficult to use or manipulate devices. Some 28% of US adults ages 65 and up say they have health problems, disabilities or handicaps that keep them from participating fully in work, school, housework or other activities.
And seniors who report that they have a disability are less likely than those who do not to utilise a variety of digital assets – from the internet in general, to devices such as smartphones or tablet computers.
Once seniors are online, they engage at high levels with digital devices and content
Once online, most seniors make the internet a standard part of their daily routine. Roughly three-quarters of older internet users go online at least daily, including 17% who say they go online about once a day, 51% who indicate they do so several times a day and 8% who say they use the internet almost constantly. Among older adults who own smartphones, this figure is even higher: 76% of these smartphone-owning older adults use the internet several times a day or more.
Similarly, a relatively small share of older adults use social media – but those who use these platforms tend to be highly active and engaged. For instance, fully 70% of older adults who use Facebook indicate that they log in to the service on a daily basis. Other Pew Research Center surveys have found that older adults who say they get news on social media engage with news on these platforms at similar rates as social media news consumers who are ages 18 to 29.
And even though playing video games is much more common among younger adults, many seniors are taking part in this tech-based activity. One-in-four adults ages 65 or older say they play online video games, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2015.
Most older adults say technology has had a mostly positive impact on society
Despite these concerns and challenges, there are a number of areas in which seniors hold relatively positive views of technology and technology-related topics. For instance, at a broad level, 58% of seniors feel that technology has had a mostly positive effect on society, while just 4% feel that impact has been mostly negative.
Although older adults are less inclined than other age groups to say they like trying new technology, some seniors do show a strong preference for early tech adoption. On a six-item index that classifies Americans’ preferences for new technology and products, around one-in-five adults ages 65 and older (21%) hold strong preferences for being early tech adopters.4
Seniors also place a high value on the importance of home broadband service, according to a survey conducted by the Center in 2017. The vast majority of adults ages 65 and older say they believe having access to high-speed internet at home is either essential (42%) or important (49%). This puts older Americans on par with Americans of other ages when it comes to the importance of home broadband service.
Written by Monica Anderson, research associate, and Andrew Perrin, research assistant, Pew Research Center.
This article was republished courtesy of the World Economic Forum.