older couple walking across the street
PHOTO: Siarhei Plashchynski

The explosion of technology has a somewhat ironic parallel: The aging population. By 2050, the number of people age 65 and older is expected to be double what it is today. Why is that ironic? Because the general assumption is that older adults are incapable of embracing technological advances. Entire TV ad campaigns are built around the assumption that technology has to be extremely simplistic to be usable by older adults.

The assumption does have some validity: Only 25 percent of people 65 and older have a smartphone. But is that because older adults are incapable of embracing technology, or is it because businesses have made no serious effort to help them do so?

That’s an important question, and not just in terms of social ethics. It also has business implications: Older adults have significant spending power. Consider these statistics:

And these statistics provide evidence that common assumptions about older adults and technology are flawed — sometimes shockingly so:

  • Baby boomers actually spend more time online than millennials.
  • Boomers spend twice as much money online as younger adults.
  • 33 percent of all tablets are owned by people age 50 and older.
  • 40 percent of Apple products are owned by boomers.
  • Baby boomers frequently conduct searches on their mobile devices before making purchases.

Developing Digital Policies for an Aging Population

The evidence is clear: Organizations that incorporate the needs of older adults into their digital policies will have a distinct competitive advantage. Here are some examples of what that might look like.

Accessibility

Not only is physical accessibility a regulatory requirement in many parts of the world, it’s also a strategic imperative for organizations that want to benefit from the buying power of aging adults. And digital accessibility is just as important. A digital accessibility policy could say something along the lines of, “Our websites will be easy to navigate and will take into consideration users with impairments in vision, hearing or dexterity.”

Security

Many older people distrust technology — and it’s hard to argue with them, given the prevalence of security breaches, phishing scams, malware, etc. Instead of trying to convince them that they shouldn’t be concerned about security, organizations could focus on providing easy-to-understand explanations of the steps they’re taking to make their digital properties as secure as possible.

Simplicity

While most older adults are perfectly capable of adapting to technology, that doesn’t mean they want to. While younger people may use digital technology simply because that’s what they expect and are accustomed to, older people will use digital technology only when doing so makes their lives easier. Organizations with digital policies that don’t make people jump through unnecessary hoops will be more appealing to the older demographic. One example could be a digital policy that requires that all of an organization’s digital properties — websites, apps, etc. — be accessible through a single login.

Proactive Assistance

One challenge of serving an aging population is that there’s a point where regulations intended to protect privacy can become a hindrance. In the United States, for example, HIPAA regulations prevent healthcare providers from talking to anyone that the patient has not previously authorized to do so. That can create significant barriers to care in cases of sudden illness, such as heart attacks or strokes, and in cases where a patient as a chronic condition, such as dementia, that grows worse over time. In many cases, by the time family members are aware of a problem, the patient is no longer competent to give consent.

A digital policy that emphasizes the importance of, and the reasons behind, authorizing a secondary contact can help patients avoid situations that turn out to be medically and financially disastrous. It can also provide a means of collecting payments when a patient with dementia or another serious illness stops paying bills.

Training

It’s also important for companies to realize how frustrating things like HIPAA requirements can be for family members and to equip employees with the knowledge they need to handle situations that involve complex regulations. A policy that requires employees to be trained not only in regulatory requirements, but also on how to communicate those requirements to family members while empathizing with their frustration, can be another huge competitive advantage, attractive to both customers and prospective employees.

Such a policy could also stipulate that customer-contact employees be trained in helping older customers navigate their apps and websites, etc. While there’s nothing specific about technology that puts it beyond the grasp of older adults, some loss of mental sharpness is a natural part of aging. The easier customer service employees can make it for people to use their companies’ systems, the more likely it is that those customers will do so.

How Does Your Company Measure Up?

Don’t write older Americans off when you’re determining your digital strategies and policies. The population is aging rapidly, and older people have money to spend. And while older consumers may not consider digital technology the “default,” as people in younger demographic groups do, they will use it when it’s easy and helpful.

How would your digital presence measure up in the eyes of older consumers?