June 9, 2010

Babyboomers becoming lost in the Digital Divide

By Charles Moffat - June 9th 2010.

TECHNOLOGY - Are you over 50 and can't tell a search engine from a web portal? You're not alone. Baby Boomers are slow to embrace surfing, online videos, downloading of music and movies... in fact they're so slow at it that seniors (the over 70 age group) on average know more about the internet than the 50 to 70 age group according to a 2007 Statistics Canada survey.

According to a May 2010 study conducted in the USA only 53% of the over 50 age group has used the internet to watch a video online. Compared to 84% among 18 to 29 year olds and 74% among 30 to 49 year olds. The average was 69% overall.

It should be noted women on average are more internet savvy than men, by a 2% margin.

I admit my mother and father fall into this category of Baby Boomers who haven't yet figured out the internet. They're still using a dial-up modem because my mother refuses to pay the extra $10 per month it would cost her to upgrade to Sympatico Lite so instead she keeps using the local dial-up provider in their farming community.

The speed is a mere 1 to 2 kbs per second. In contrast my Rogers cable internet gets about 500 to 2,000 kbs per second depending on the server I am downloading from. Upgrading to a Bell Sympatico Lite account would allow my parents to get approx. 40 to 100 kbs per second, but my mother is as stubborn as they come and firmly believes that they can't even get Bell Sympatico service on the farm (despite advertising to the contrary).

My father won't even touch the computer. He firmly believes he will break it. Thus my mother is the only one in their household who uses it and the internet is only used for the occasional email, ordering seeds online for her gardening and that is about it.

According to statistics however this is a large chunk of the North American population that is very hesitant about using the internet. The Baby Boomers (god bless them) have been a cultural force since the 1960s, the result of frequent post WWII lovemaking which created a bumper crop of children between 1943 to 1960. Their influence was so big it shaped the entertainment industry, politics and changed how companies advertise. Everyone wanted their ears, their votes and their money.

But as the internet era grows and TV becomes slowly obsolete the Baby Boomers have split into two groups:

The Web Savvy Boomers - They check their email daily, they're likely to be on Facebook, they do research/shop/download media online, they might even have their own website for a hobby of theirs. (If you're a Baby Boomer and you're reading this, you're probably in this group.)

The Haven't-Got-A-Clue Boomers - Which includes my parents sadly. These Boomers rarely check email, rarely touch a computer and frankly don't seem to care. They don't see the advantage of instant media.

I'd argue however there is some definite personality differences between the two groups. The 1st group is also more likely to enjoy outdoor activities such as kayaking, rollerblading, cycling, playing road hockey with the grandkids and trying new things. The 2nd group prefers TV, playing Euchre, long drives to see the Autumn leaves change colour and sticking their head in the sand.

For web developers the 2nd group is a difficult nut to crack. They won't even go online in the first place so its very hard to market to them online. They would look at a web development Toronto website and get confused quickly about what is meant by the word development.

Such people are more likely to know more about portable toilet rentals than they know about the internet. This may be an exaggeration, but my point is made. These people don't know s**t about the internet. (Sorry mom, but its true.)

Only 58.5% of Baby Boomers in the USA have ever used the internet according to February 2010 statistics. This contrasts with the 93.2% of 12 to 24 year olds who use the internet, and the 85.6% of 25 to 49 year olds who use the internet. The moment they are over the age of 50 there is a steep decline in internet usage.

This digital divide between young and old is already a source of Generation Gap confusion. If I mention Facebook, my mother thinks its some kind of blog. Which is better than my father who does not even know what a blog is.

Part of this might be because many of the Boomers in the 50 to 65 age group are still working in tradition non-computer based jobs. They have yet to retire and they have not been forced to use computers as part of their work schedule and thus learning how to use a keyboard (typing speed is considered a problem for people not used to the internet) and the internet in general is a foreign concept to them.

There are other factors too, which include: Poverty, illiteracy, lack of interest, addiction to other activities, worry they might become internet addicts and even paranoia thanks to films like The Net (which is wholly inaccurate and ridiculously out of date by today's standards).

We can hope that once these people do retire that maybe they will have enough money saved up they can finally afford a computer, start using it and make an effort. But maybe not. It seems more likely that once people are stuck in their ways they will stay that way until they die.

Sometimes you just can't teach an old dog new tricks. Not because they're not smart, but because they're too stubborn to try something new.

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