Why do old people think they are “bad” at technology?

photo of old hand typing on a laptop. On the screen are the words "Why do old people say they are bad at technology?"
Am I bad at technology or is technology bad at me?

For years I’ve worried when old people say, “I’m bad at technology” or “I’m useless with computers” or “I hate technology, I get so frustrated.” I’ve worried because they are putting themselves down, blaming themselves for every frustration, and turning their backs on some of the tools that are essential or pleasurable.

It’s 2022, and by now computers and the internet have been common in workplaces for over 20 years. People working in a university may have been using computers since the 1960s! That means many of the people who damn themselves as useless and hopeless with technology were pioneers in that very technology. The technology now provides far, far more options and choices, which makes life more difficult, but on the whole it has also become more user-friendly.

And yet, and yet… things change.

A friend said recently, “Isn’t it strange that I can’t handle today’s technology? I used to work lights and sound and backstage in the theatre. I operated the first reel-to-reel tape machine in New Zealand. And yet today I’m hopeless at technology.” Yes, it is strange, I thought. How can that be.

Half the time, technology is being bad with us. But in certain ways, our aging bodies let us down.

  1. In old age, our short term memories quietly decline. And computer technology does require that faculty, or an alternative. So we need to plan for this and keep our personal management systems in shape. Some things that help me:
    ~ A good system for bookmarking and classifying specific web pages.
    ~ Regular decluttering of those bookmarks and the desktop.
    ~ 1Password — I love you I love you I love you I can’t live without you — but there are other good password management systems of course.
    ~ An old fashioned notebook with tips for software I use only occasionally.
    ~ Limiting the number of applications that I use and knowing them very well.
  2. Our eyesight declines, at least mine has. So we need to set up our hardware so that print is the right size for us and layouts simple and consistent. This is comforting and reassuring, and cuts down the number of things we might simply fail to notice.
  3. Our fine muscle movements are not always quite so fine after a certain number of birthdays. So buying hardware is a serious matter that needs extra thought and experimentation. If one phone doesn’t obey your fingers, don’t say you’re stupid. Keep looking, asking, simplifying, and getting lessons from the shop and from your friends and family.
  4. Decision making becomes more difficult as we get older. This one is tricky. Often for me, booking an air ticket takes longer than the flight!
  5. Maybe our self-esteem as an old person has been dented, so that we are far too quick to write ourselves off as “bad at technology.”

How can we old people raise our confidence with technology?

I can only speak for myself. When things go wrong with my hardware (i.e. laptop, printer, hubs, iPhone, Kindle, and iPad)

  • I never say I’m bad with (ALL) technology. That’s not true. It’s not true of anyone, surely! I love my new electronic hearing aids and my microwave, for instance. And most of the time my hardware is an immense help to me. Sometimes I mess up, but that happens with other things too. I sometimes mess up appointments, but that doesn’t mean I’m bad with appointments.
  • When things go wrong on my hardware I get puzzled, not angry. I don’t blame myself. The first rule of usability is that it’s NOT YOUR FAULT. I take a break and then go through all the usual steps of trying to identify the problem and fix it.Starting with turning the appliance off and on at the wall, a la The IT Crowd. If even a YouTube video can’t help me, I have a cup of coffee.
  • I remember the years when I was an IT professional. I’m the same person today at 82. I choose to hold on firmly to that part of my identity.

Now that I understand that age-related changes do make some things more difficult, I feel more compassionate towards those who protest that they are digital dinosaurs. But I still hate to hear people talk like that. At best those cliches reinforce a false sense of inadequacy and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They cut off older people from stimulation and social opportunities. At worst, they prevent us from accessing all sorts of necessary services, from shopping and banking to paying tax.

29 thoughts on “Why do old people think they are “bad” at technology?

  1. This is a sound, insightful post. For the record I am 80 and have an ambivalent relationship with computers. Mainly I do not like being forced to use them when I want to access a real person. For me the biggest issue is attitudes towards change. I think the older we become the more we resist it, whereas younger people who create the systems live for change which for them means progress.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Sometimes I hear a still, small voice whispering, Do I really have to learn this new thing?

  2. Sadje says:

    I fall in this category; feeling frustrated when trying to learn new tech. I bought a MacBook and thought it would have the same functionality as iPhone. Turns out they are both very different. Now I need to learn how to use this very expensive gift to myself.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And you will learn and you will love it.

      1. Sadje says:

        I’m hoping so. Thanks

  3. Interestingly, Rachel, just this week, my phone told me I had run out of memory (even though I have most stuff linking to the Cloud)… my son took a look at my phone and worked out which app was causing this (Kakao which we use to chat on to the family and send photos) and with my permission he deleted all our past threads (but the good thing is I had already saved most of the pics to the Cloud)…. just like that in a flash, I am left with gigabytes free… extraordinary really. So, another solution is to be brave and ask someone younger who can sort your problem in a flash! I would have dithered about deleting the threads etc etc… but it was the only answer really as we use the app daily. Whew….

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Totally wonderful and fixed in a flash.

  4. Alan Ralph says:

    I’m still in middle age, but I’m already noticing I need to make adjustments here and there to make technology work better for me. Turning off notifications from some apps, reducing notifications from other apps, increasing contrast, making text larger, changing my keyboard and mouse, and reducing the number of apps I have to juggle. I’ve been using computers since my teens, over 40 years ago, and it’s not me losing my skills, it’s manufacturers and developers making assumptions about those using their products.

    My mum turned 83 this year, and is pretty savvy now at using her computer and phone, but occasionally she’ll call me over to point out a cryptic error message, or worse something not working and not giving any hint as to the cause. That last one really disheartens me, as someone who has done software development in the past: it feels like the developers of today have chosen to maintain an illusion of everything working just fine rather than alert users to a problem and help them fix it.

    I had a good long rant about this a few months ago over on my personal blog — https://www.alanralph.co.uk/2022/05/08/personcentric-technology.html — and I stand by every word of it.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thanks for the link, Alan. I see exactly what you mean. We get so used to how things are, it’s salutary to be reminded that there are alternatives. It makes me sad to think that accessibility and usability, which we were fighting for twenty years ago, are still seen as unsexy.

  5. Wonderful post!! I can usually get around computer and phone problems. When I can’t, I sit there and dread having to deal with a human who has a foreign accent and mumbles at 90 miles per hour.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Still you emerge feeling positive, which is terrific.

  6. Nemorino says:

    I agree with every word of this, especially the part about 1password, which (after I finally got it set up properly) has brought order and security to my inchoate masses of user-names and passwords. I am also 82 and have been using computers daily for the past thirty-nine years (since 1983), but I’m not too proud to ask my grandsons for help with these pesky little smartphones that don’t even have proper keyboards.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thanks for the link to your article about the technology that you have used pure -personal computers. Unfortunately WordPress tells me it’s got malware in the works so I’ve removed the link. Half of what you wrote was familiar to me — but not the Osborne! I too am glad to have at least had to create my first websites from scratch, and hence some understanding of how computers tick. Because they otherwise would have seemed like magic!

  7. I agree! Thanks for your positive but realistic post.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I seem to have acquired a habit of unpicking things that are constantly said.

  8. Jane Fritz says:

    I echo the others who applaud this post, Rachel. And for me the saddest reason – but true – is the lack of self esteem in this domain. The tech world doesn’t do much to help in that regard, changing commonly used interfaces for no apparent reason and clearly with little to no user testing involved. Your suggestions are spot on. This is the world we live in; we oldsters should feel comfortable in it! 😏

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you Jane. It can sneak up on us, this belief that a problem of technology is our fault of we happen to be older. And the more we say such things and hear such things, the more we reinforce our sense of technical ineptitude.

  9. Cathy Cade says:

    I was tech-savy at work – it was my job to be and I had to teach others – but there’s been a certain amount of ‘I can’t be bothered’ness since retirement. If I don’t need it… life’s too short! But things have changed a lot since 2010. So when I do have to get up to speed with something, it’s a longer haul.
    I do tend to try new versions of things before I have to, so that I’m not floundering when the old version disappears, but the real problem comes when I have to use something I haven’t used in ages and have forgotten how it went back then. Even before figuring out whatever has changed in the meantime. I used to run macros and pivot tables on my spreadsheets – I would struggle to produce either at the moment.
    When I formatted our writing group’s first anthology I learned how to format the Contents list with different sections for each prompt’s stories, include the author under the story’s title and only have page numbers showing at the end of the title lines. Now, four years later and our third general anthology, I go back to copy the coding from that first file and wonder what to do next when it doesn’t work!
    If you don’t use it, you lose it… very quickly.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You are a model, Cathy. No self blaming. Knowing your strengths and seeing with a clear eye. Keeping software updated is a necessary chore, but then one day along comes the scenario you describe.

  10. My password is INCORRECT. I know that because my computer keeps reminding me!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:


  11. judithhb says:

    As somebody has already said here, ask for help. I have very savvy son, daughter and four grandsons so help is readily available. If you are not so lucky, ask one of the young people in the phone or computer shop, they are always ready to help and share their knowledge. BTW our Probus club is setting up a Tech Savvy group for this very reason.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s a great idea Probus has had. It feels better to learn with friends. And we have all got specific needs.

  12. Nemorino says:

    Thanks for telling me about the possible malware in my file. I have just run an extra scan and nothing was found, but as a precaution I have disabled the external links in that file.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      “Better sure than sorry.”

  13. candidkay says:

    I had such respect for my mother when she learned how to email and use the Internet in her 70s! She didn’t get all the ins and outs but it kept her in better touch with some of her favorite people:).

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s a big payoff for a little learning 🙂

  14. I have noticed my teenage nephews frequently using search when they want to know something. Now, I do the same if I get stuck with a computer function such as how to scan a document and attach it to an email.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Well spotted!

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