Seniors displaying growing interest in Net

An 80-year-old has a newfound interest in the computer.
Sheila Cohen, who works here at HYPN, told me an interesting story about her 80-year-old neighbour; a story that highlights how computer technology is beginning to gain acceptance amongst Canada's 70+ set.

An 80-year-old has a newfound interest in the computer.

Sheila Cohen, who works here at HYPN, told me an interesting story about her 80-year-old neighbour; a story that highlights how computer technology is beginning to gain acceptance amongst Canada’s 70+ set.

Her neighbour lives alone in a small bungalow and last week Sheila noticed her sitting out on the porch reading a bright yellow, soft cover Internet for Dummies book. Sheila was fascinated by the juxtaposition…an elderly woman, on the front porch, in a rocking chair, brushing up on her Internet skills.

Sheila’s 80+, computer neophyte neighbour was having a problem. Sheila, being a helpful type, entered her study and came upon a brand new I-Mac system, complete with printer and high-speed Internet access, amongst the fading wall paper and peeling linoleum. Sheila’s neighbour was worried about accessing the Internet while simultaneously having a word document application open. She can’t watch two TV channels at once; she can’t listen to two radio stations at once; she can’t read two magazines at the same time; how could she have two things running on the computer at the same time?

This story demonstrates the sort of computer technology barrier that separates the young from the old. The notion of doing two things at once is standard fare for the younger age segment but media multi-tasking is a difficult concept to absorb amongst the older portion of the population, not because older people are slower than younger people but because their media lifestyle experiences have been so different.

The immense technology gap that separates the young from the old is best exemplified by examining in-home computer usage penetration levels. Huge ownership penetration swings exist in Canada today. Over 50% of teens use a PC in the home and as the Canadian population ages, penetration drops rapidly. Only 10% of those over the age of 70 use personal computers.

Today’s 75-year-olds were in their late fifties when the desktop computer was kicking the typewriter and the typist out of the workplace, so it’s no wonder these low levels of computer penetration exist. Few 70+ers had hands-on computer training prior to retirement.

Things are changing however. Computer penetration levels amongst older age groups are moving up. People like Sheila’s neighbour are now inviting the personal computer into their home. There now exists, within the older age group, an early computer adopter sub-section.

The biggest demographic difference between this new, computer literate subsection and the balance of their 70+ peers relates to occupation prior to retirement. If you know someone who is over 70 and they have a computer at home, they were probably lawyers, doctors, engineers or accountants (this finding comes from PMB 2001 and its new, detailed computer technology data).

But some joining the gray-haired computer set do not come from professional occupations. Like Sheila’s neighbour, these are people investing considerable time and money at this late date in their lives. They are doing it because they are trying to keep up. They want to get plugged into the world. They want the news that is offered by the Internet. They want the convenience of e-mail. They want to stay in touch.

Almost 40% of our 70+ society lives alone. Only 2% of these households contain kids under the age of 18. Can you think of any other section of Canada’s society in greater need of connectivity? This is a group which can really use this technology.

People like Sheila’s neighbour are exhibiting the purest possible motive behind their effort to become technically proficient and, in doing so, they will probably develop a keen respect for computer technology.

This leads me to wonder if perhaps the oldest segment of society might become the segment most affected by Internet content. The 70+ crowd might become more susceptible to ad messaging on the Internet because they value the service provided by the Internet more than most. Even though their computer penetration levels might remain low, this group might develop the highest level of Internet dependence.

The media planning implications would be obvious; the Internet might prove to be a far more effective way to reach this older target market than more traditional media such as print or TV.

Before you know it, Sheila’s 80-year-old neighbour will be dropping by to share a delicious-looking Visual Basic 6 program she whipped up the other day.

Rob Young is a founding partner and SVP, planning and research, at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen

& Newell. He can be reached at

ryoung@hypn.com.