- Tech services are increasingly reliant on young, tech-savvy people to explain products to older populations.
- Media depictions of older people not understanding technology often become self-fulfilling prophecies.
- Tech services must become more accessible for all age groups.
- Ingrid Cruz is a freelance writer based in Mississippi.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
The first time it happened I didn’t notice it because it was too important. Around tax time, my family’s accountant told my mother to ask for my help scanning documents. More recently, my parents’ mortgage loan officer and cable provider suggested my parents ask their children for help with technical assistance.
These seemingly benign requests are part of a troubling trend of tech companies and services that rely on technology expecting young or tech-savvy people to do unpaid labor to help their clients.
Everything is online
There are myriad apps, gadgets, and services created on a daily basis that depend on basic tech know-how in order for people to use them and accomplish simple necessary tasks.
At the height of the pandemic, the use of services such as applications for unemployment benefits skyrocketed, causing websites to crash as state and local governments struggled to keep up with demand, adding further frustration for people who already have trouble with technology.
Many private and government service providers expect people to download apps or have access to a laptop in order to access account information. Anyone without reliable internet or access to a computer may have difficulty dealing with, say, their bank account or customer service issues. As the use of automated customer service rapidly increases, it’s more difficult to find an actual human being to speak to.
The vaccine roll-out is another example of the lack of consideration for senior citizens and people with little or no access to technology. Fortunately, this has changed now that many locations have shifted to walk-in or no-appointment models, but at the beginning of the vaccine roll-out, appointments had to be booked online. Although several states, such as California, made an effort to have well-funded hotlines, the reality is that the onus of booking vaccine appointments was relegated to young adults, including relatives and community members — and usually women.
Media depictions of older people not knowing how to use tech make things worse
We often joke about the inability of older adults to learn how to properly use technology, but these negative stereotypes can have a detrimental effect on the aging population. According to Penn State University, advertisers tend to show younger people using smartphones, while the elderly are often shown using older phone models, such as flip phones, despite the fact that 62% of adults over 70 use smartphones.
A 2006 study found that the West often portrays senior citizens as less able to get a grasp of technology and more prone to having difficulty remembering things. People are living longer these days, and there is ample proof that senior citizens can be healthy and skilled at things they choose to pursue. However, negative stereotypes can set people back as they begin acting in accordance with the stereotype.
The reality is that senior citizens can continue to learn and be assets in the workforce. A simple lack of confidence, repeated messages about cognitive decline as one gets older, and self-fulfilling prophecies are often the main obstacles senior citizens face when it comes to learning new skills — including how to manage technology.
Thankfully, there are ways the tech industry can better serve everyone
We know the tech industry needs to become a more accessible career choice for women, the LGBTQ+ community, and racial and ethnic minorities, but the industry also has an age diversity issue. The average age of employees in major tech companies is 27-39. User experience designers are often considered “old” once they turn 30, even though people of all ages can do the job. The point of view of older populations has little chance of being heard in places where they aren’t seen. The tech industry would greatly benefit from hiring candidates of all age groups — including senior citizens who can provide valuable input about development, gaps in technology that can serve them, and provide a unique perspective based on tech issues they face daily.
Likewise, tech companies need to include all ages in user testing. User testing is crucial to ensuring that tech products receive important feedback that can help creators tweak their creations. Some apps recruit only five to seven people to test their user friendliness.
This isn’t enough to design apps everyone can use, and this is especially crucial in the finance, healthcare, government, communication, and social media sectors. Data on users who test apps can be hard to come by, so it’s unclear whether or not the tech sector is being inclusive of people who are older as they design their user tests. The bottom line is that designing apps that are inclusive of all levels of digital experience can help people of all ages interact with public and private services with ease.
The pandemic and the resulting shift to remote work meant that senior citizens and people with little access to technology were locked out of important services. Phone-based services are a great way to bridge this gap and provide assistance. Studies show that people are more likely to communicate well with strangers than with people they know well, meaning that any misgivings about a new gadget or service can be better taken care of by someone who was trained to assist with a particular product.
We need to change the way we talk about older people and technology. Let’s focus on dismantling inaccurate and harmful stereotypes that discourage people from learning how to properly use technology, and try to have more patience with our parents and elder relatives.