In 1991, Estonia enthusiastically embraced its freedom and independence from the Soviet Union, but its economy was in a parlous situation. It faced overwhelming bills just to sustain its basic public services. A leading light in its Government, who went on to serve for ten years from 2006 as President Toomas Ilves, was an autodidact computer programmer, and forcefully advocated that those public services would only be sustainable if the country embraced the digital economy. So it came to pass that everyone had to sharpen up their skills, and get used to paying their taxes, updating their health records, registering their right to citizen benefits, voting, and even applying for a bus pass online. No exceptions.
At Age UK, we are well aware of the technological wariness of the older population. Successive surveys regularly show the older households lagging significantly behind younger ones in their use of the internet. It has long been our mantra that information and advice needs to be available in printed form – an expensive and sometimes ponderous option. We are not planning to renege on that clear position.
But the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics, recording data from the Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of 2017, strongly signals a change is afoot. Internet use by those aged 16 – 34 was 99%, but older generations are catching up. The 65 – 74 cohort clocked in at 78%, and even those 75+ had crossed the 40% threshold. Between 2011 and 2017 those two older groups had increased from 52% and 20%. In real numbers, this means at 4.8m adults have never used the internet, of which 2.6m were over 75. It seems to be disability, rather than age per se, which is increasingly the barrier to internet usage.
This growth in digital confidence is welcome. Companies offering products and services to the consumer market increasingly rely on electronic communications to provide information and support, and are bringing a dizzy array of sales offers forward. Without the benefit of search engines and filters, even the most enthusiastic consumer would be confused.
The Government itself has ordained a ‘digital by default’ approach to its interactions with the public. People who cannot or will not adjust to this new environment will be at increasing risk of marginalisation and isolation. Even if we will need to keep alternative, more personal, channels open and available, to shift as much as possible onto digital will make it more affordable to cater for those that really need that service.
The Government’s view of a market which is ‘working for people’ is one where people switch their supplier fairly regularly in response to the introduction of different deals to the market. Energy is held up as an example – a ‘failed’ market because 70% of us are reluctant switchers. The raft of tariff offers are just too overwhelming to grasp, and with smart meters being installed (7m so far, with 50m being the target by 2020), there will be lots more in the future.
Without using a price comparison website, no consumer has a fair chance of selecting the deal they want. So we must welcome this apparent growth of digital maturity, and encourage older people to engage with the multitude of choices which are opening up in so many sectors. But at the same time, public and private service providers must continue to take seriously their support (with alternatives) for the significant numbers of people who cannot or will not go online. They may be shrinking, but they are not going to disappear any time soon.
For a range of advice at your fingertips, visit www.ageuk.org.uk/publications or call Age UK Advice on 0800 169 6565 – lines are open every day from 8am – 7pm.