How many older people use the internet? Surprising research from New Zealand

Slide showing that internet usage falls sharply after age 75

Slide from Professor Miriam Lips’ Nethui talk about research on digital inclusion for seniors

How do older people use the internet? Easy, right? They don’t—or do they? (They being me.) We have often been told that seniors are Luddites who avoid using email and smartphone apps and online games and Skype and blogs and social media and other digital technology. But hang on, even if that used to be true, is it still true?

At last we have up-to-date information about how older people use the internet in New Zealand, and it’s mighty interesting. At Partners’ Day before NetHui NZ, we got a preview of several research studies, including the findings of Miriam Lips, Professor of Digital Government (Victoria University of Wellington School of Government) and her team.

Every slide got me thinking, and I’m looking forward to a full report being published next month.

Meanwhile, let’s think about this one slide and its implications. First I’ll provide a text version below, because, alas, I suspect many of you have trouble reading pale text on a cream background. (People of all ages struggle with low-contrast text. That’s not news, by the way. Sigh.)

Description of the slide: Older people using the internet and other technology

First a paragraph explaining why it’s worth researching this topic:

Technology presents an opportunity to improve the lives of older people—improving health care and connections with family and friends. Conversely, those who do not have digital tools or do not have access to technology are unable to realise its benefits.

Now to the nitty gritty—2019 data about the level of internet usage in New Zealand residents of various age groups:

Internet usage by age

  • Under 65: over 97% use the internet
  • 65–74: 90% use the internet
  • 75–84: 75% use the internet
  • 85 and older: only 50% use the internet

A plunge in internet usage after the age of 75

There’s hardly any drop in internet usage between people 65–74 and younger people. Then suddenly in the next ten years, the gap doubles from 7% to 15%. And among those 85 and older, usage plunges by 25%.

Doubtless the full report will explain these figures legitimately. Meanwhile here are my own conclusions, or rather, hypotheses.

When it comes to using the internet and other technology, we’d better stop thinking of people in their 60s and mid-70s as old. Their habits are similar to those of younger people. And 10 years from now, that may well be true of people in their eighties. We shall see.

Why are the stats changing? I assume for two reasons:

  • Changes in human life span and health span. Most of us are healthy and fit for much longer than people used to be.
  • Changes in the workplace. A few decades back, the whole world was internet-free. Outside of work, people could take their time stating to use the internet, but at work it soon became mandatory.

When the internet entered the workplace in 1996:

  • Today’s 65-year-olds were 42. (I think. Please check my arithmetic.) Using the internet is a habit they’re unlikely to drop.
  • Today’s 75-year-olds were 52. Maybe they had to use the internet at work, maybe not.
  • Today’s 85-year-olds were 62. Many could avoid ever learning to use the internet at work. Digital technology was not part of their working life, so getting the necessary motivation, knowledge and skills will naturally be more difficult for them. And… they’re older, more likely to have less functional movement, hearing and eyesight, which obviously makes internet use more difficult.

Lots to think about in one small dose of data! I look forward to the full report from Professor Lips’ team on this aspect of digital government: how older people use the internet, and how to help those who would benefit from it.


17 thoughts on “How many older people use the internet? Surprising research from New Zealand

  1. colonialist says:

    I do expect to be using internet at 85 plus — given mental and physical activity, that is.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Of course you will.

  2. cedar51 says:

    those last figures do have much bearing on what age we/others were when the Internet was part of that other life (work). I was introduced to it in the late 1990s, not for work but for an organisation that I wrote a regular column for (specialisation) and the editor got tired of my scraps of paper, with cross outs and so forth… I didn’t get a new machine, but someone’s now dated but could be used machine…I had dialup which worked well, but that meant the telephone couldn’t be used…

    I did have one skill that was very useful, I could touch type … that led to some issues later in my computing life, but that another tale all together…

    I remember finally getting a new model, another hand-me-down and the internal terminology in it had completely changed…I struggled big time, it seemed so much more complex…

  3. cedar51 says:

    I want to add something…just last year, was the first time (28 years after #1 & this is about #10) – I researched and bought my own new laptop without anyone helping me with what was best – brand/type/model/etc. I had tried to get some help but everyone seemed to busy to help. I not only researched the gadget but took a bus to a retail store that had one in stock and lugged it home. OK, a laptop isn’t a big entity but with all the packaging it felt like a monster!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Congratulations: this was a milestone and I hope you feel proud. Enjoy your new toy

  4. Su Leslie says:

    I think you make a really good point Rachel; age and generation are two different things, and it’s vital not to confuse them. It will be interesting to see the full report, especially the “pull” factors for older users who have to learn to use unfamiliar technologies.

    My parents and parents-in-law are/were all the same age, and none of them encountered the internet in their working lives. My parents have both learned to use email and some social media and I think it’s because they are physically distanced from their kids and grandkids, who are ‘digital natives.’ My better-educated in-laws had less need to engage, so didn’t. Father-in-law was also a bit of a technophobe — even ATMs were beyond him.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      An eloquent cross section of the demographic. Interesting

  5. cedar51 says:

    I’m sorry but for this is not a “toy” – it’s as valuable as my oven, my toaster and even my hand held whisk…

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Well said. As soon as I wrote that I thought, will you understand what I mean? I call my computer and phone toys even though they are essential to my life and work:)

  6. anne leueen says:

    Very interesting. I am 70 and have been working on a computer since before hard drives and before Windows and I used to know how to get stuff going with the DOS prompt. That was the early 80s. I do not want to go back to those days and I think I will be using a computer and the internet until I get so old I cannot remember any of my passwords or until my fingers give out. But I’m sure there will be solutions to those problems that will be invented to help us aging nerds.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Our generation had to understand the workings, and to invent them. Maybe we will have to find those solutions.

  7. aiyshah2014 says:

    Absolutely agree. I’m just curious who the 3% under 65 are right now who don’t use the internet. Perhaps the blind deaf and dumb. But there is still amazing internet technologies for them these days.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Maybe the very poor or severely disabled.

      1. aiyshah2014 says:

        Hmmm could be. Thanks.

  8. Jonno says:

    Fascinating stats aren’t they Rachel? I think you are spot on with your explanation that those who were in their 40s and 50s in the mid 90s use the internet and will continue to do so. As they age I don;t think their usage will drop off either. Anyone of retirement age in the 90s almost certainly didn’t get too involved. Not sure what age ‘old’ is anymore though?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Not 65, for most.

      1. Jonno says:

        Definitely not. It sounds daft but 65 year olds today are nowhere near as old as 65 year olds 20 years ago.

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