Technology & Science·Analysis

'Aging with attitude': How to fix technology's ageism problem

Resources devoted to seniors and their adoption of new digital technology are sparse, but that's slowly starting to change, writes Ramona Pringle.

Community centre offers online dating, entrepreneur training for seniors

From the way tools are designed and marketed to the fact that seniors are all but excluded from product testing, the tech industry is biased against seniors, critics say. (leungchopan/Shutterstock)

The world of tech is notoriously ageist. It was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, after all, who said, "young people are just smarter."

But according to experts, the youth-obsessed industry is going to have to change its ways.

Statistics Canada reports that people over 60 are the fastest-growing segment of internet users nationwide. The Pew Internet Study released in 2017 found that seniors in "high-adoption groups" (i.e. those who were affluent or highly educated) represented the largest jump in smartphone ownership in the U.S. in recent years.

Nonetheless, resources devoted to seniors and their adoption of new tech are sparse. But that's slowly starting to change.

Senior Planet is an example of a new enterprise focused on the needs of older adults in a digitally saturated world. The tech-themed community centre, which has a handful of offices across the U.S. and a flagship location in New York — nestled between startups and a Google office — proudly boasts the slogan, "aging with attitude." 

The centre helps seniors become savvier about using different technological tools, and gain the resources to become digital entrepreneurs, so that they can create new opportunities for themselves.

In a given week, classes include a basic tutorial in messaging apps; a session called Online Dating for Our Generation, billed as a member-led lecture on the variety of dating websites; and a lecture on Spotify, in which participants can learn about the streaming service's important features, "including how to search for songs and create your own playlists."

New generation of digital entrepreneurs

A great many of the classes are also focused on helping this demographic use technology to work and make money. Statistics show that more people are working into their later years, and regardless of whether they are doing so because they want to or because they need to, having the necessary digital skills means they can keep working on their own terms.

According to Statistics Canada, people over 60 are the fastest-growing segment of internet users nationwide. (AFP/Getty Images)

"A lot of people are coming in trying to figure out how to use their computers and acquire very basic skills," said Tom Kamber, founder of Senior Planet. But they're also coming in "seeking more advanced skills, accelerator skills, like digital design skills and learning how to build a website for their commerce business."

Many of the seniors want to learn about how to set up a digital storefront on Etsy and use PayPal to process payments. After all, as digital entrepreneurs, they can stay active and engaged and continue to earn an income without having to deal with many of the barriers of the job market.

A 'magnifying glass on society's ageism'

"The reality is, ageism is still alive and well," said Marissa Lennox, director of Stakeholder Relations for CARP (formerly the Canadian Association of Retired Persons). Lennox said pervasive workplace biases are based on perceptions from over a dozen years ago, when digital tools were less user-friendly, and that "there is no evidence that the older audience is less tech-savvy."

According to a 2017 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, across nearly every job category, the older job applicants were, the fewer callbacks they received.

In this sense, "the tech industry is a magnifying glass on a society that already has ageism problems," said Kamber.

He said tech's ageism is particularly problematic. From the way tools are designed and marketed to the fact that seniors are all but excluded from product testing, "the entire industry is designed to tip away from older adults." Kamber said not only is this inefficient, it's not cost-effective, as biases lead companies to make snap decisions about who they can employ and who can buy their products.

"For every time the tech industry excludes an older worker, or makes it harder for an older user to buy their product, they're losing market share," Kamber said. "So there is a serious economic consequence."

Not just for 60-plus

While Senior Planet is focused on the needs and goals of older adults, it could be argued that the tools and strategies that Kamber and his colleague are piloting will be increasingly necessary among other demographics as automation changes the nature of work across industries.

Indeed, with machine learning and artificial intelligence set to disrupt huge swaths of the working population and make jobs with repetitive tasks obsolete, it won't just be those over 60 who are in need of some technical upgrading. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2022, more than half of all employees are going to need significant retraining.

Many seniors are now seeking more advanced computer skills, like digital design and learning how to build a website. (Eric Vidal/Reuters)

"The real challenge with technology is that every year there are thousands of new innovations," said Kamber. As technology advances at an exponential pace, there will be more new tools for everyone to learn, not just those 60 and older.

Kamber said the hurdles older people face in connecting with technology foreshadow a lot of future challenges for our broader society. Indeed, figuring out how to help 70-year-olds master email and Spotify today will teach us a lot about how to help 45-year-olds learn to work alongside intelligent machines a decade from now.

The only constant is change

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once wrote, "Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and just a natural part of the way the world works; anything that's invented between when you're 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it; anything invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things."

Indeed, there are a lot of 35-year-olds with Instagram accounts and iPhones, but fewer of them are using newer apps like TikTok, despite the fact that it is the fastest-growing platform out there right now.

It would seem, once you've got all the tools you need, it's hard to figure why you would need another — not to mention, find the time to integrate it into your life. While the future income of those 35-year-olds may not rely on TikTok, it will inevitably require them to learn new tools.

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.

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