This month’s In Focus article comes to us from Dr. Sakari Taipale at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. Taipale is a research group leader for the Centre of Excellence in Research on Ageing and Care (CoEAgeCare), which studies the transformations in ageing in a digital age through analyses of everyday life and societal and policy change. In his paper, Taipale considers the ways in which digitalization of everyday life has shifted the ways we think about age and ageing.
In ageing studies, the “oldest old” are typically viewed as being largely dependent on other people’s help, while the “old” are still considered independent, self-determined actors. The line between “old” and “oldest old” is most often perceived to be crossed when the most undesirable aspects of ageing, such as infirmity, dementia and long-term care needs appear (Higgs & Gilleard, 2015). The boundary between old and oldest old becomes less stable and connected to individuals’ physical and cognitive abilities in the context of digital media use. As research often fails to make this distinction, people of different ages and generations are lumped together without acknowledgement of other influential considerations such as socio-economic status, availability of technological assistance and geography. As such, the ways we differentiate between old and oldest old become obscured in these studies with significant consequences in how we understand the ways older adults use digital media and technologies. Our everyday lives have become highly dependent on, and mediated by digital communication technologies and new media, thus it is imperative to explore the ways in which digitization shapes the social imaginary of old age.
“Successful adoption of tech often becomes a marker for successful ageing.”
In my newest book, co-edited with a Professor of Sociology, Dr. Terhi-Anna Wilska, and Senior Research Fellow, Dr. Chris Gilleard, we outline the idea that the use of modern media and communication technologies is increasingly important in marking the boundary between successful and unsuccessful ageing (Taipale, Wilska & Gilleard, 2018). In later life, those who can keep up with technological innovations, adopt new devices and use online services easily. Successful adoption of tech often becomes a marker for successful ageing. From this standpoint, ‘granny bloggers’ and YouTube stars are for older people, what the gym-trained and digitally touched-up bodies of social media celebrities are for youth: they represent a lifestyle that is unrealistic and unattainable for the majority of older people, but which still invokes feelings of inadequacy and inferiority in their coevals.
The challenges that come with adopting new technologies and getting used to digital interactions calls into the notion of independence into question. When it comes to technology, some people’s dependence on external help may take place well before visible signs of bodily and mental ageing come into play. Hence, physical and cognitive impairments that are considered in ageing studies to differentiate the “old” from the “oldest old” are not the same determinants of ageing in a networked society. In connection to digital communication technologies and media use, people in their late middle adulthood (aged 45-60; Hutteman et al., 2014), who are otherwise able to function independently, are easily regarded as old and less-abled when it comes to technology. For example, the age of 45 can be enough to classify people as “older players” (De Schutter, 2011), or “the gray haired” (Quandt, Grueninger, & Wimmer, 2009) in game studies. Moreover, the age gaps are often made invisible in the merging of the “youngest old” with the “old” and the “oldest old” in statistics. For example, Eurobarometer’s (2017) recent survey reporting on people’s perception of and attitudes toward digitization and automation in Europe lump together all respondents aged 55 or over. In reality, the most remarkable differences in the uses of digital technologies and digital skills can be found within this extremely wide age category (Friemel, 2016). That is to say, users who are between 55 and 60 will have different perceptions than users who are between the ages of 85 and 90.
The problem of a wide and all encompassing older age group is significant because it shapes the social imaginary of technology users. A wide age range can make relatively well equipped and skilled ‘youngest old’ look digitally more averse than they actually are, and it can also produce overstatements concerning the use, skills and adoption rates of the “oldest old”. The reason for this is straightforward: in representative population samples the large age cohorts of “old” and “oldest old” have a very strong influence on the mean values that are calculated for the wide age category of older people. More fine-grained age categories would at least partially rectify the situation.
Part of this problem stems from the practical challenges in reaching the oldest old in surveys, especially when they deal with technology and media. Fortunately, some improvements in sampling procedures and reporting practices are in sight. For instance, Statistics Finland has collected survey data on individuals’ use of information and communications technologies since 1996. The upper age limit of a sample of the survey was raised from 74 to 89 years in 2013. This has made possible more nuanced comparisons among the oldest respondents. In 2017, internet usage rate of 65-74 year-olds was considerably higher (75 %) than that of 75-89 year-olds (37 %) (Statistics Finland, 2017).
Social imaginaries of ageing are also reinforced through the employment of binary classification such as separating people into users and nonusers, onliners and offliners, and so on (e.g. Lüders, & Brandtzæg, 2017; Friemel, 2016; Quan-Haase, Mo & Wellman,2017). When there is nothing between the two extremes, older people and others in need of assistance get categorized in the latter categories. Hence, it is paramount that we work to identify and make visible the multitude of ways in which people engage with networked societies (see, Fernández-Ardèvol, Sawchuk & Grenier, 2017). Putting aside binary classifications opens up a great deal more potential in understanding how people use technologies with and for other people. Technological assistance is given and received across generations, especially in families with members who need encouragement and assistance in use (Dolničar et al. 2017; Taipale, Petrovčič, & Dolničar, 2018).
The reverse side of this benign help provision is that the dependency on external assistance may elicit feelings of incapacity and inadequacy. In the worst case scenario, the inability to adopt and use new technologies independently becomes a means of stigmatizing older users, particularly if it has potential to hinder the accomplishment of everyday tasks. Although this new sign of old age appears at a relatively early age, it may significantly limit people’s agency, autonomy and self-determination in a networked society. In this sense, it reflects the very same attributes that are included in the social imaginary of the oldest old, with the exception of lowered motoric or cognitive skills.
The increasing digitization of everyday life has the potential to blur distinctions between the ‘old’ and the ‘oldest old’ that can in turn function to inhibit older users from developing new skills and knowledges. It can also shift societal perspectives of age and ageing. By challenging the very binaries that conflate different ageing populations and media users, and by breaking down the wide age groups of older technology users, we can begin to address the ways in which digitization of our lives work to put older media users at a disadvantage.
Dr. Sakari Taipale is a member of the Centre of Excellence in Research on Ageing and Care (CoEAgeCare), an Adjunct Professor of the University of Eastern Finland/ Docent, and a fellow at the Academy of Finland Research.
De Schutter, B. (2011). Never too old to play: The appeal of digital games to an older audience. Games and Culture, 6(2), 155-170.
Dolničar, V., Grošelj, D., Hrast, M. F., Vehovar, V., & Petrovčič, A. (2017). The role of social support networks in proxy Internet use from the intergenerational solidarity perspective. Telematics and Informatics (online ahead of print).
Eurobarometer (2017). Attitudes towards the impact of digitisation and automation on daily life. Special Eurobarometer 460, TNS opinion & social. http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/ResultDoc/download/DocumentKy/78997
Fernández-Ardèvol, Mireia; Sawchuk, Kim, & Grenier, Line (2017). Maintaining Connections: Octo-and Nonagenarians on Digital ‘Use and Non-use’. Nordicom Review, 38(Special Issue 1), 39-51.
Friemel, T. N. (2016). The digital divide has grown old: Determinants of a digital divide among seniors. New Media & Society, 18(2), 313-331.
Higgs, P., & Gilleard, C. (2015). Rethinking old age: Theorising the fourth age. Palgrave Macmillan.
Hutteman, R., Hennecke, M., Orth, U., Reitz, A. K., & Specht, J. (2014). Developmental tasks as a framework to study personality development in adulthood and old age. European Journal of Personality, 28(3), 267-278.
Lüders, M., & Brandtzæg, P. B. (2017). ‘My children tell me it’s so simple’: A mixed-methods approach to understand older non-users’ perceptions of Social Networking Sites. new media & society, 19(2), 181-198.
Quan-Haase, A., Mo, G. Y., & Wellman, B. (2017). Connected seniors: How older adults in East York exchange social support online and offline. Information, Communication & Society, 20(7), 967-983.
Statistics Finland (2017) Use of information and communications technology by individuals. Helsinki: Statistics Finland. https://tilastokeskus.fi/til/sutivi/index_en.html
Taipale, S., Petrovčič, A, & Dolničar, V. (2018). Intergenerational solidarity and ICT usage: Empirical insights from Finnish and Slovenian families In: Taipale, S., Wilska, T.-A. and Gilleard, C. (eds.) Digital technologies and generational identity: ICT usage across the life course. London: Routledge, pp. 69-86.
Taipale, S., Wilska, T. A., & Gilleard, C. (Eds.). (2017). Digital Technologies and Generational Identity: ICT Usage Across the Life Course. Routledge.