When it comes to technology, younger generations seem to get all the love.
After all, marketers are well versed in the behaviors of Millennials and Generation Z; there’s a constant stream of coverage on their ever-evolving digital habits.
But what about older Americans?
There are more than 46 million adults age 65+ in the United States, yet the technology usage of this group is rarely examined in-depth.
Luckily, the Pew Research Center recently filled this void with a comprehensive look at smartphone, tablet, broadband, and social media adoption among older Americans. The study was based on a nationally representative poll of 3,015 adults age 65+ and augmented with findings from a series of other surveys.
What did the researchers find? Here are five key learnings that every digital marketer should keep in mind when thinking about how to reach this important—and quickly growing—demographic:
1. Older Adults Are Rapidly Embracing Technology
The big finding from the study is that the stereotype of older adults being Luddites is wrong: Americans age 65+ have strongly embraced technologies of all sorts over the past few years.
The most impressive data point: 67% of American seniors now use the Internet, up from just 12% in 2000.
Along similar lines, smartphone use among older adults has nearly quadrupled in the past five years (42% now own a smartphone vs. 18% in 2013), and half of seniors now have broadband at home.
Although technology use among older Americans still lags that of adults overall, the trend lines are similar: digital devices and platforms are already very popular with seniors and are set to become even more so in the near future.
2. Tech Use Varies Widely by Age, Income, and Education
Although the topline finding from the report is that technology use is increasing among older adults, it’s important to note that adoption varies widely based on age, income, and education.
For example, 59% of 65- to 69-year-olds own smartphones, but just 31% of 75- to 79-year-olds own smartphones, and only 17% of those age 80 and older are smartphone owners.
Smartphone adoption is especially high with wealthier older Americans (80% of those with a household income $75k+ own a smartphone) and more-educated older Americans (65% of those with a bachelor’s degree or more own a smartphone).
Broadband and Internet adoption follows a similar trend: younger, wealthier, and more-educated seniors are much more likely to use these technologies compared with older, poorer, and less-educated seniors.
3. Tablets Are Increasingly Popular with Older Adults
While the Pew study didn’t dive too deeply into the device preferences of older Americans, it’s possible to see some high-level trends from the data.
Specifically, the increasing popularity of tablet computers with wealthier and better-educated seniors is apparent.
Some 62% of older adults with annual household incomes of $75,000 or more own tablets, up from 39% in 2013, and 56% of older adults with college degrees own tablets, up from 31% in 2013.
To a lesser extent, e-readers are also popular with these groups (37% of senior high-earners and 32% of senior college graduates own one), though their adoption has leveled off in recent years.
What the popularity of tablets highlights for marketers is that it shouldn’t be assumed that older Americans have the exact same technology preferences as younger Americans. There are a number of important differences when it comes to device and platform adoption that are just starting to become apparent.
4. Social Media Use Is Steadily Increasing
So what about seniors and social media?
The general takeaway from the research is that adoption among seniors is steadily increasing, albeit slowly.
Some 34% of Americans ages 65 and older say they use social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. This is up from 2013, when 27% of older adults reported using social media, but still significantly lower than the adult population overall.
As with other technologies, use of social media by seniors varies significantly by age, income, and education. Some 47% of seniors ages 65–69 use social media compared with just 17% of seniors age 80+; 56% of seniors with college degrees use social media compared with 20% of those without any higher education; and 57% of seniors with household incomes $75k+ use social media compared with just 23% of seniors with household incomes below $23k.
For brands this data is a bit of a mixed message: there is increasingly a large cadre of seniors on social media—especially younger, wealthier, and better-educated individuals—but the majority of older Americans still haven’t embraced the networks.
5. For Many Older Adults, Tech Confidence Is Still Shaky
Finally, the research yielded an interesting finding that marketers should keep in mind: although older Americans are rapidly adopting things like broadband and smartphones, many still don’t feel completely comfortable with these technologies.
Only 26% of Americans age 65+ say they feel very confident when using smartphones, computers, or other devices to do the things they want to do online; this compares with 74% of Americans ages 18–29, 60% of Americans ages 30–49, and 41% of Americans ages 50–64.
Moreover, 73% of seniors say they need help in learning how to use new electronic devices very well or somewhat well.
What’s important to note is that this hesitancy doesn’t mean that older Americans see electronic devices and digital platforms as a bad thing, just that they need help ramping up.
When asked what the impact of technology has been on society, 58% of older Americans say it has been mostly positive and 33% say it has been equally positive and negative.
What share believe the impact of technology has been mostly negative? Just 4%.
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