Digital natives will get old, too
Technology can divide Americans as well as connect them, and older Americans face not one but two of these digital divides. Seniors are more likely to have lower incomes and live in rural areas—the traditional "digital divide" that cuts some people off from the fast internet hookups increasingly necessary to connect with work, services and friends. And the second divide is one even today’s most connected digital natives will eventually confront: The changes that come with aging make using digital services more challenging for the old than for the rest of the population.
By 2050, the aging population will almost double, with one person over 65 for every three working-age adults. That’s a dangerously large part of the country to risk cutting off – but seen correctly, it can also be an impressively large market for tech firms who figure out how to reach it.
The challenges for older tech users are physical, mental and cultural. Reduced vision can make small print harder to read. Changing speech patterns can make voice-activated devices less accessible. Shifts in memory can make it harder to remember passwords; hand tremors due to Parkinson’s or other neurodegenerative diseases can make using a mobile phone more difficult. Confusion and the unfamiliarity of fast-changing programs can make it difficult to recognize security threats, leaving seniors vulnerable to hacking and theft when using technology for banking and health care. It’s not just a matter of declining abilities: The fast-moving technology world places serious demands on our brains to learn new behavior patterns. Even today’s millennials, raised in a digital world, will hit these obstacles over time and start to find new technologies harder and harder to adopt.
Is it any wonder that older Americans feel left out? While 88 percent of Americans under 50 have smartphones, just 42 percent of Americans over 65 do. But none of those physical and mental challenges mean seniors can’t use technology … it just means it’s harder for seniors the way we’re currently designing it.
The truth is that the aging are currently an afterthought in technology design. As FaceTime has supplanted Skype as a way to video-chat with family, desktop users have lost out. As mobile banking has replaced the branch, customers who rely on brick-and-mortar banks face new burdens to safeguard their money. As companies have moved to automated “chatbots” instead of live human phone support, the aging can find it frustrating to access automated services from phone installation to travel planning. Apple’s app store offers guidance and features to support accessible apps, but it doesn’t enforce these guidelines on app-makers.
The example of Uber and Lyft is particularly illustrative. For aging Americans on fixed incomes and unable to drive, the arrival of a low-cost competitor to taxi services should have been a big win. Yet the new ride-sharing services also rolled back accessibility features historically offered by taxi companies – for example, the ability to hail a ride by calling from a landline phone, the availability of cars and vans fitted for wheelchairs, and (at least initially) the ability to arrange a ride in advance. As Uber and Lyft reduced the number of traditional taxis, many seniors have faced longer wait times and less predictability – a trend that will likely continue.
Yet under pressure from activists and regulators, both companies have taken positive steps to bring the aging and disabled into their customer base. Under the threat of a ban in London, Uber made wheelchair-accessible vehicles available at the same price as ordinary Uber rides. Yet in other cities, Uber has offered only half-measures – the wheelchair-accessible option in Washington, D.C., for instance, simply calls an accessible D.C. taxi and tacks on a $2 fee. In San Francisco, the accessible option is available in the app but often supported by zero cars on the road. And in most cities, there’s no accessible option at all.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Indeed, these new technologies have an enormous potential for older customers by providing new tools to address the key problems of aging at home – isolation, finance, transportation and health monitoring. The grocery-delivery service Instacart, for instance, has been revolutionary for mobility-impaired seniors and the disabled, expanding meal options by reducing the time and expense of getting groceries. Better and more pervasive video chat software – from FaceTime to Amazon Alexa’s new drop-in feature – means seniors can enjoy better connections with family and less isolation. Fingerprint or face recognition-based ATMs are not only easier for those who have trouble remembering PINs, but are more secure for all of us. And in my own field, financial services, “robo” advisers can provide seniors with objective, low-cost financial advice about decisions like how fast to spend their retirement savings, reducing the risk and high fees associated with bad advice – or unscrupulous advisers.
There’s still a long way to go, but the pieces are in place to make the changes we need. The expansion of accessible Uber and Lyft services shows a two-part path forward. Tech companies can take easy steps like letting community partners train Uber drivers to assist seniors getting into the car—voluntary moves that grow their market. Yet pressure was also necessary. Where regulators pushed (like in London), accessibility services are dramatically better than where regulators have not. Just as disability advocates applied pressure to Uber, national organizations that work with seniors likewise have to step in and lead – not just offering suggestions on how to optimize technology for accessibility, but applying pressure to companies that don’t adopt these best practices.
If tech companies start to include seniors in their business models from the start, they will find a significant upside. Seniors are a vast and underserved market. If technology becomes friendlier to the whole population, especially the booming numbers of older Americans, companies will find their business landscapes expanding along with their consumer base. Everyone will benefit from having happy, healthy, active grandparents — not least of all, grandparents themselves.
Kai Stinchcombe is co-founder and CEO of True Link Financial, a San Francisco-based financial services firm focused on older Americans.
via The Agenda
February 11, 2018 at 03:54AM