The Digital Divide Between Age Groups

Jerry Garfunkel


The economic dividing line separating the rich from the poor has been widening for some time.    In the early 1990's, the United States ranked 18th among industrial nations in a list of National Economic-Extremes.  The Netherlands had the smallest gap between its wealthy and poor citizens; it ranked #1. (1)
As the gulf between rich and poor widens, so too does the gulf between the technologically literate and illiterate.   It is a classic socioeconomic cause-and-effect phenomenon.   Which side of the line one falls on economically, pre-defines one's chances of being technology literate or not.  There are several digital dividing lines: gender, race,  special needs, ELL, as well as the socioeconomic digital dividing line.  But there is one dividing line, not so difficult to overcome, that is of particular interest to me - it is the digital dividing line between generations. There is a gap (more like a chasm) between the (generally) technologically literate younger generations and the (generally) technologically challenged senior population.  Much has been written about the generation gap. Every generation experiences this gap between itself and both its predecessor and successor.   Sometimes the gap can be seen in the different styles (clothes, music, etc.) that each generation adopts. Few things are as radically different between the younger generation and the older generation as is the intergration of techology into their lives.    This generation gap is most evident at the extreme ends of the digital divide between our seniors and our children.  According to Susannah Fox, editor of "Older Americans and the Internet,"(3)  a report issued by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, (a non-profit organization in Washington, DC), 15% of Americans, over 65,   used the internet in 2000. That number was up from 2% in 1996 and jumped to 22% by 2004, a 47% increase in four years and over 1,000% in 8 years. 

% Seniors (65+) on line
this chart was created from data reported in
Older Americans and the Internet, (2004, PEW.)

"That translates to about 8 million Americans age 65 or older who use the Internet. By contrast, 58% of Americans age 50-64, 75% of 30-49 year-olds, and 77% of 18-29 year-olds currently go online."  (2004, Hafner, K.)

Age Group
% online
Americans age 65 +
Americans age 50-64
Americans age 30-49
Americans age 18-29
this chart was created from data reported in
Older Americans and the Internet, (2004, Fox,S.)

Interesting to note that, at least within the wired senior population, there is no digital divide with respect to gender.  In 2004, among wired seniors the ratio of men to women is 50/50, up from 60/40 (men/women) 4 years ago.

Some might argue that the digital dividing line separating older citizens from younger citizens will eventually disappear as each successive generation becomes more technology oriented.  But human nature is a stronger factor than mathematical projections. In spite of a more computer literate population growing up, the digital divide between generations still exists.

The newly emerging senior population will be more computer literate (and increasingly so each year) since they will have lived a good deal of their productive lives around computers at work and in the home. This new emerging senior population is more comfortable, less intimidated by computers and by today's technology in general. But tomorrow's technology is just down the road a bit.

There will always be a generation gap in all matters of society.  The technology today that our children will grow up with will be the legacy technology of tomorrow - like dinosaurs in their own lifetime.  Our children, like every generation before them and after them will have to grapple with technological advances that are likely to change their lives even more substantially than they did ours.   When today's children become tomorrow's seniors, they too will be challenged by the then-modern technology.  It is natural after years of getting comfortable in one's ways, to want to keep the status quo - i.e. resisist progressive change, whether it is technology related or related to some other aspect of life.  But those seniors who are "wired" will continue to be participants in society all through their lives.  They will learn better and remain relevant, get healthier, become smarter, live longer and more comfortably. They will be "plugged" into society and all the services/benefits that our society offers. Long Island Univerity's graduate Educational Technology department's Electronic Educational Village (EEV) is a precursor to what is to come. It is a digital gathering of resources and services for village "residents."

As a young boy I watched my father connect the stereo components and thought what a technological wizard he was.  As a young girl, my daughter watched me scan computer listings and thought what a technological wizard I was. As a young girl, my granddaughter will watch her mother create web pages and broadcast them around the world, and she too will think what a technological wizard her mother is. Quoting Linda Ellerbee, "...and so it goes."  JG

By this reasoning, while more and more seniors become technologically literate, the digital divide grows even wider. How can this be? The answer lies in how we define "technological literacy." We often define the digital divide between age groups by measuring "computer literacy."   It will be necessary to continually update society's definition of "technological literacy" to accurately understand the digital divide.   Measuring "computer literacy/illiteracy" to define the digital dividing line is a short-sighted view of how we should define the digital divide, or at least how we measure it.
Differential rates of Internet access across demographic groups continue to persist in the United States, even as the Internet has diffused more widely in the population in recent years." (Lenhart, A., Horrigan, John B. (2003) (2)   The authors make the point in their report that the digital divide is not binary; there exists multiple levels of technological literacy. The title of the report, "Re-visualizing The Digital Divide..." suggests that the digital dividing line is a moving target, needing periodic (frequent?) re-visualizing.
While the digital dividing line (gap) is widening, the number of Americans over 65 is increasing.   At the same time computer literacy is increasing.   Pre-baby-boomers are now in their 60's. "There is a burgeoning group of Americans who are slightly younger than retirees and who are vastly more attached to the online world ('silver tsunami'). (T)hey are unlikely to give up their wired ways..." (Fox, S, 2001 Pew Internet Project report) (3) 

The low number of seniors (relative to the general population) using computers reflects a predisposition of this group to resist technology.  There may be many different reasons one resists learning to use technology in their lives to improve their lives. There may be psychological/social/medical/philosophical reasons for one's predisposition toward technology.   But regardless of how they got there, they share a resistance to technology to such a degree that it interferes with the quality of their lives.
Are seniors trainable? Of course they are.  For every person there is a computer (technology) application that is so valuable in their lives, that it can inspire and motivate them enough to overcome their predisposed resistance to technology. This is my hypothesis.   Once discovered, this application is the key to learning enough technology to accomplish their task;   The sky's the limit after that. I sometimes refer to this as a "killer application."   Most seniors have never found their killer application, not because it doesn't exist, but because few have reached out to this group.   The typical response one might hear from seniors (the older the more likely), "...I'm just not a computer person..." or similar words. This group of seniors has special intelligences and strengths which are not tapped into enough.   Just like young students with special learning needs, be it physical, behavioral, emotional, verbal, etc. we must gear our education to this group by customizing the learning environment to suit their special needs.  This involves not just accessibility alternatives to the standard mouse, keyboard, display, etc.  It also includes a careful selection of computer applications that are relevant to their lives.  Furthermore, the computer applications and problems that are presented to those over 65 and who are technologically challenged, should be in the context of their real lives, so they can clearly see the direct benefit of technology in their lives. 
I found from my own personal teaching experience over the past 20 years that nearly all seniors with whom I've worked (up to 93 years old) are quite capable of learning technology in general and computer usage specifically.   They share a common "killer application."  This application is exchanging email with family.  This application alone, when presented carefully to seniors (technologically challenged) is enough to get many started on a technology learning path. I stress "presented carefully" because this is a group of technological self-doubters, defined more by their shared resistance to technology than by their age.   They are fragile learners. That is, they are cynical about their own ability to learn to use technology. They have built negative mental models of  technology. We get very few chances to change their thinking.  When we fail with this group of seniors, not only do we not change their thinking regarding technology, we reinforce their negative feelings and self-doubt. So we must be careful. We have attracted them to the "classroom" by promising to help them reach a specific goal.   They come hesitantly, but they come willingly. It is a wonderful example of Peter Senge's shared vision between the student and the teacher.   In this case that promise is the ability to write email to their grandchild and see a digital picture enclosed in the reply perhaps.  Or in Senge's terms, we are united in helping our senior students master their technnology skills.    
According to Susannah Fox, Director of Research at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, nearly all "wired" seniors (94%) use the internet for email (among other things). This would seem to support my personal observation.   Ms. Fox said "Younger (family members) encouraged their parents and grandparents to start communicating with e-mail, and many seniors have turned out to love it." Ms. Fox's report, (2004, Fox, S), was written on behalf of Pew Internet and American Life Project

Age Group
% email usage
age 65 + wired Americans
all ages wired Americans
this chart was created from data reported in
Older Americans and the Internet, (2004, Fox,S.)

Furthermore, Ms. Fox adds, "Communication and information searches attract wired seniors. There has been sharp growth in the number doing key Internet activities such as health searches, e-shopping, and online banking." (2004, Fox, S)
All around the world there is an increasing reliance on technology to deliver health and medical assistance.  It may be something sophisticated like on-line monitoring of vital signs by a remote doctor/nurse over the internt or it could be something simple like ordering asprin from an on-line pharmacy. Those seniors who are "wired" are at a distinct advantage over those who are not.  Now that the senior population is growing so large, there are natural marketing forces driving the introduction of other technology based products and services, which are targeted directly to seniors. This marketing effort will only get bigger and more intense as the senior population swells (the "silver tsunami"). The "technologically handicapped" cannot take part in many of these technology based services. These include services like: on line shopping, home access to medical information and medical assistance, security and health monitoring, access to public libraries and databases, communications with family and friends, on line banking, on line learning, remote technical assistance, access to daily news and events, entertainment, maps/directions, et al.
Computer and internet literacy will become increasingly important as more services are offered through this medium. As society intergrates technology into every day life, so should (must) our seniors. And for those seniors who simply cannot cross the digital divide,  we must find proxies to help them connect to social services.

Other components contribute to the digital divide between the old and the young.  Older people often have accessibility problems dealing with today's "normal" computers. Because of special health needs such as mobility, eyesight, hearing, dexterity, etc. some seniors with special needs simply cannot take advantage of many technology-based services that have become part of our lives, like the ATM machine. Often, the factor preventing seniors from being more technologically literate, is less mental as many would believe and more physical.  In addition, psychological factors, such as lack of self confidence or fear of humiliation, etc. contribute to seniors staying on the "wrong" side of the digital divide.  Technology is drastically altering the way we go about our lives. These seniors are missing it.
The digital division regarding age, is not reserved to senior citizens.  Many pre-seniors, who have not grown up with computers in their work place or in their homes, are intimidated and lack self-confidence to learn basic technology skills.  They, like their older counterparts are missing many of the same benefits.  They, like their older counterparts, have their own "killer application" that will grab their interest and motivation long enough to help them cross the digital divide.

Jerry Garfunkel, June, 2004


Online resources referenced for this paper
(Note: These resources/URL's have not been maintained after June 2004)
"The Ever-Shifting Internet Population: A new look at Internet access and the digital divide" (2003, Lenhart, A, Horrigan, J, Rainie, L, Allen, K, Boyce, A, Madden, M, O'Grady,E

IT State of Florida



(1) I can no longer remember the source of this statistic and my research attempts failed to verify the information.     (return to text)
(2) Lenhart, A., Horrigan, John B. (2003). Re-Visualizing the Digital Divide as a Digital Spectrum, IT & Society, (1) 5, 23-39     (return to text)
(3) Fox, S. (2004). Older Americans and the Internet, PEW Internet And American Life Project: Report on Demographics     (return to text)