I saw a telling graph the other day. Based on data from Statistics NZ, it showed how our population is broken down by age. Why telling? Well, the numbers themselves were interesting enough – every five-year band from zero to 65 had a bar to show how many New Zealanders that cohort contains. After 65, though, it was as though the graph just stopped trying. Post-retirement-age there was just one big bar, lumping together everyone whose age isn’t worth separating out anymore… the 600,000 New Zealanders shuffling aimlessly in their comfortable shoes from retirement to death.
This big bar was in focus at the most recent Moxie Session. A dozen or so mostly-under-50-year-olds assembled to ponder how “older New Zealanders” relate to the internet, what disadvantages low engagement with technology brings and how tech could solve some of the challenges faced by people who didn’t grow up with a smartphone in their hands.
Balancing out the usual Gen Y-going-on-X demographic were Judge David Harvey (soon to switch to a new career as a university academic) and SeniorNet’s Grant Sidaway. Also leading the discussion was business consultant and facilitator Wendy MacLucas.
For David Harvey, the important distinction is not so much age but the relationship a person has with technology. He quotes Mark Prentsky, who in 2001 described “digital natives” (grew up online and never knew anything different), “digital immigrants” (now use digital technology but reference it to earlier paradigms) and “digital aliens” (choose to live outside the digital world).
While many of the 600,000-strong codger cohort may still be aliens, says Harvey, there are strong social reasons to migrate. UMR research from March this year says that 68% of New Zealanders aged 60 and over use Facebook to connect with friends and family – making the site something of a gateway drug for digital holdouts. (Harvey also observes, though, that some of this digital connection risks reducing the amount of real-world contact with family.)
Wanting to migrate is one thing; knowing how is another, and that’s where SeniorNet comes in. Grant Sidaway is SeniorNet New Zealand’s executive officer and says the key to its success (17,000 participants so far) is that it uses a peer to peer model, with volunteer teachers and their students all aged 50+. SeniorNet started in the US in 1986 and has operated in New Zealand since 1992, teaching everything from how to use email to desktop publishing. SeniorNet’s aim, says Grant, is to help people “participate in the age in which they live,” rather than let technology pass them by.
Following on from Judge Harvey’s point, Grant says the social side of SeniorNet is as much an attraction for many as the technology, a theme also developed by Wendy MacLucas. Wendy sees the potential for the internet, and social networks in particular, to combat one of the ageing population’s biggest health issues: loneliness. She cites a US study that claims loneliness is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and its effects kill as many people as obesity.
But social networks only go so far, says Wendy. While Facebook, Twitter and so on are effective at maintaining existing relationships, they’re not so good for forming new ones and there’s an opportunity for technology to help older people form new social connections. One example Wendy describes is a UK initiative called GoodGym. GoodGym connects runners to older people by creating training schedules that include visits to their homes to say hi, drop off shopping or do simple chores – and form social connections along the way.
The benefit’s not just for the older people, of course. Reduced isolation means better health outcomes, freeing up health budgets in particular and government budgets in general. The economic argument rings true for SeniorNet too, and it frustrates Sidaway that it hasn’t translated into government funding for the programme.
So why is so little technology aimed at the over 60s? Partly, suggests Wendy, because most of the people inventing stuff and running tech startups are in their 20s and 30s, and aiming their products at people like them with problems like theirs, not people like their parents. (Startup bible Rework encourages software founders to “scratch their own itch.”) But as Grant points out, 600,000 New Zealanders represents a chunk of change, so there’s a real upside for tech solutions that can tap into this “silver dollar.”
In time, of course, the bright young things running startups will grow old and (presumably) start making apps and tech for the 60+ generation they’ll inevitably become. In the meantime, though, there’s an opportunity to not just serve our growing older population but build businesses doing it. That will require us to get a better understanding of the last bar of the graph, and see older people as a valued market, not a cost to society.
The Moxie Sessions is an internet economy discussion group held once a month in Auckland. Its purpose is to bring together a group of interesting folks from across the economy to talk about how New Zealand can take advantage of the internet to improve its economic performance.
Vaughn Davis is principal at social media and advertising agency The Goat Farm.
Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.