IT and the Ageing Society

One of the frustrations (there are many joys) of thinking about the future is that some trends are clearly predictable but being right doesn't help. In the real world the urgent nearly always crowds out the important. By the time the important becomes urgent, there is not the time or resource available to deliver the optimal solution. For me one of those challenges is the ageing society.

Packing up to move home, I found some notes I made for the summary of an event I ran for a financial services company in 1992, at the tail end of the last recession. One of the external speakers had been lively and controversial but had stirred a lot of debate. Among my notes I picked up the following:

  • The pension fund holidays of the 80s will hurt for 50 years.
  • "the next recession will be the death knell of final salary pensions".
  • Retirement age will have to go up to 67 or 70.
  • A generation will face poverty in old age.
  • The cost of geriatric care will bankrupt the Welfare state.

Not bad set of predictions or observations for 17 years ago!

We hope we are at the tail end of another recession and it still feels as if we have not addressed the challenges of an ageing society. My ambition here is not to tackle the whole field of issues, but to ask, what is it that IT could do to help our society adjust to an ageing profile?

I went to Google and did a series of searches using "computing" IT "ageing society" and so on. I found lots of interesting stuff and many ideas. What I found missing was a coherent view of how Mainstreaming "IT and the ageing society" could help us tackle the social and economic challenges of our time. There are numerous pilots and lots of research projects which might provide evidence for a way forward.

The really interesting challenges to our profession in this space may be against the following issues:

  • What kind of interfaces (hardware and software) will be best suited for an ageing society? For example, the loss of sensitivity in the fingers with ageing and a growing trend to touch based interfaces may be a problem.

  • If more people have to work beyond current retirement age, how might we promote flexible working to allow for people to partly retire? We have 40 years of experience in the IT Industry of flexible working in IT, starting in the late 60s with women working alongside rearing children?

  • How can IT enable older people to stay in their own homes and live independently for longer? How can It help those people with long-term conditions manage their own condition more effectively and access health services more effectively.

  • How can IT help older people stay in touch with friends and family more easily and reduce feelings of loneliness? Can Social networks play a part in developing a sense of local community that engages the older community?

  • As we age, many of the services that people will need are very labour intensive, just at the time when the labour market will stop growing or shrink. How can we use IT to provide social care more effectively?

This is not an exhaustive list. A morning on Google has given me a partial answer to all these questions, but my overall impression is that it feels piecemeal and on too small a scale to address the needs of the UK.

There is of course a commercial potential if we could develop solutions and business models for this growing part of our society. It is a potential export market. It can impact Government, private and third sectors.

So, if you agree with me that this is important, how do we develop solutions before they become urgent?

We all have a hopefully enlightened self interest in tackling this area.

Live long and prosper!

Comments (13)

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  • 1
    William wrote on 6th Aug 2009

    Funny you mention hardware for the aged. I just bought a BT "big button" phone for the aged. It's far better, with good sounds quality and comedy buttons. Hearing aids, better visual interfaces etc - all these help all of us. If - as I expect - old age means less physical activity but hopefully a degree more reflective wisdom, I can see that being connected in old age is something to look forward to immensely.

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  • 2
    ChrisW wrote on 7th Aug 2009

    Congratulations on your depressingly accurate predictions, and an interesting topic. It seems to me that the consumer IT industry is heavily skewed towards the young, both as consumers and as developers of products, so there is certainly a challenge in persuading the industry to take an interest in the needs of older people. Which also prompts the question: How can people work in IT beyond retirement age, when they often find themselves unemployable in the industry past the age of 35? Flexible working sounds great, but only if there is work to be had in the first place. An industry which treats its own "older" workers like Kleenex is hardly in an ideal position to take a creative and sympathetic approach to the questions you raise. In any case, many older people are working beyond retirement age in low-wage jobs because they simply cannot afford to retire, so one has to ask how much spare cash they would have for new technology? This is unlikely to be seen as a lucrative target market for the industry in the short term, and the UK IT industry only thinks in the short term. My own prediction? Many of my generation of "older" people will find themselves scrabbling to survive on minimum wage long after retirement age and will be in no position to contribute towards the financial success of offshore IT companies.

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  • 3
    MikeK wrote on 7th Aug 2009

    I tend to agree with ChrisW. As I'm now 60 no-one will pay me to make use of my skills and experience, so I suppose I'll have to work for nothing, or at least for 'compensation' to ensure my brain stays alert. So to do this I need: (1) thoroughly reliable hardware and infrastructure - few things cause more stress than equipment failures that I cannot fix myself, (2) A sense that I am contributing to some greater good and my opinions and decisions make a difference, (3) A chance to learn new skills (preferably architectural rather than building) - I've been doing it all my life and don't want to stop now, and (4) as much autonomy as possible over time, location and technique. Compensation would kick in when autonomy is curtailed. Of course we will need as many communication devices and access to online shopping, information and entertainment at low or no cost as possible, but what keeps people alive is being autonomous and having something worthwhile to do, and that means playing a part in government and business.

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  • 4
    Alex R wrote on 7th Aug 2009

    I don't disagree that we need to think about IT and the Ageing Society, but as someone not far off 60, I don't think it's as gloomy as all that: If you look at Job adverts, they all tend to want several years experience, which the Ageing Society has, currently it's far worse for the School and College leaver as every employer wants where possible experience or relevant knowledge, not just certificates: This closing links to one of your other blogs 'Who's going to train the teachers?', as the current level of use to the business world of school and college leaver is very low due to their method of training as neither provides the real experience / knowledge that employers want.

    I have also purchased large button phones to save both the wife and myself having to find our glasses to see what we are dialling: When I choose a mobile phone it is always one with a large clear display area and as easy to see buttons as possible: All their other features are just nice to have, not essentials: I also have to use a traditional key pad, I find most Touch Screens harder to use ... Not sure of an answer for homes & health service generally: But from my point of view I took out lots of insurance and pension plans to ensure a fairly comfortable retirement: I started this at an early age as soon as I started work, which is typically when most people actually have more disposable income as they don't tend to have so many other financial commitments.

    Re Staying in touch, I do most of mine, by use of Txt messages / emails which seems to work well: So do various social networks / common interest groups. Not sure how IT to provide social care, but it can certainly help people to access it or find what is available, via the web. Overall I believe the best way the IT industry can help here, is to provide practical assistance in teaching the elderly how to use IT at home to make their lives easier: I have introduced a fair few retired people to how to shop online: Search for / compare services online: Chat to their friends & families online, using a digital camera and sending the pictures online (saves them a fortune): Even to writing a book and getting it published, without even printing a single sheet of paper before publication. Then there is the issue of teaching the teachers how / what to teach re IT.

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  • 5
    ChrisW wrote on 8th Aug 2009

    Alex R: Interesting points. I think you're right about the issue of training as well. Many of the points you mention relate to helping older people make better use of existing tools, which is certainly a real need. Unfortunately, cash-strapped authorities are busy cutting the classes that were aimed to helping people to gain these skills, and these courses were often under-resourced and poorly taught anyway (one elderly friend quit one of these courses in frustration at not even getting to touch a PC after 3 weeks). As in so many areas, part of the problem is simply convicing the people who control the cash that teaching a pensioner how to keep in touch with their family and friends via the web, for example, is actually a worthwhile investment. Which brings us back to the basic question of how older people are viewed by society, by government and by employers.

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  • 6
    Alex R wrote on 10th Aug 2009

    ChrisW: I would tend to agree with you re Council etc run courses: The elderly I have taught have all be done as a favour on a one/two to one basis, with very little theory, but actual hands on training, where with guidance they learn by doing it themselves: Some of these have been on so call training courses previously and not really learnt anything about actually doing it themselves, which is why I got involved: Therefore I believe it's down to us in the IT industry to help out where we can and have been doing so for over 20 years (basically since home computing came in). What I cover only takes between 1 & 3 evening sessions, for them to be self sufficient, plus my phone number if they get stuck.

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  • 7
    Ian B wrote on 13th Aug 2009

    Perhaps BCS could take a leaf out of its own book on these blog postings: comments (as opposed to the main post) are in a font size which is difficult for anyone with even a mild visual impairment to see! On the topic of the post, there is a real paradox here: on the one hand, exhortations abound to get younger folk into work, supported by a dragging of feet on removing compulsory retirement ages. Yet on the other, we are all being urged (and the next generation forced) into working beyond historical retirement ages, in order to keep the retirement bill down. Where are the enlightened employers who will see that people of late middle age have LOADS to contribute, are willing to do so, and can (if engaged suitably) train up the next generations?

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  • 8
    ChrisW wrote on 13th Aug 2009

    Ian B: Good point (although you always can hit Control and +/- in your browser to make the font appear bigger/smaller on any web page). And I would also like to see the BCS taking a more proactive role in addressing ageism within the IT industry, in addition to the current discussion of how IT can be used to help older people. The BCS often seems reluctant to confront the harsh realities of current trends in the industry, from the impact of outsourcing/offshoring to chronic ageism and lack of opportunities for career development at all levels of the industry. If we continue to hide away like meek little technocrats, we may find much of our industry disappears from under us. And I'm not ready to retire yet!

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  • 9
    Emma wrote on 14th Aug 2009

    It is an interesting topic indeed, and one which generates many ideas... In terms of IT for the aging population, I believe it could be used to great benefit to save travel costs - for example doctor consultations by webcam. Obviously, some conditions will need a physical examination, or perhaps use of various equipment (BP monitors etc), though this may have the older generation having to travel out to visit doctors for the more mundane repeat prescriptions, or to ask simple queries. This would lessen the blow of the withdrawal of free bus travel in some areas too... and would possibly help doctors to run on time as these patients wouldn't be made late by buses or traffic. With prescriptions often being sent to local pharmacies for collection this could be a real benefit. IT itself an also offer a range of accessibility features, for example rather than squinting at the small print of the newspaper, the online news sites can be displayed in various font sizes (and sometimes contrasts too). In addition, there are speech enabled websites, and online video with subtitling. There seems a real and growing emphasis on accessibility online, so it is perhaps the ideal 'playground' for users who may require alternative formats. It could even help those approaching retirement gain a better balance, by being able to work from home.... Ooh nothing better than a good rant with the morning coffee :)

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  • 10
    James Rae wrote on 15th Aug 2009

    Most of the comments seem to avoid or ignore the concept of older people actually remaining in IT positions well beyong 60. This seems to work for politicions, judges and obviously self employed solicitors etc. There are I am sure, many highly skilled IT people who are disenfranchised by their industry, much more so by 'compulsory retirement' @ 65 currently backed up by legislation. This should be changed much quicker than say, 67 by 2020! If the age discrimination act was correspondingly amended to prosecute employers who could be proven to have contravened, we would have moved to a much better place. Some of my luckier colleagues 'escaped' by 60, why? who wants to go round the world, garden and play golf all week? Personally I do not possess either a vision / desire of 'retirement' from IT Regards James Rae

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  • 11
    Roger Smith wrote on 19th Aug 2009

    Eventually the problem will disappear as those who became computer literate in their youth or middle age grow old. In the meantime, however, there is a very real problem in bringing everyone up to speed - both the user and their broadband connection. So far the posts have addressed this from the user perspective. However, Government is committed to delivering its services on line, and that will be so frustrating if the target audience can't or won't make use of them. So there is a clear Government imperative not to allow classes to fail for lack of funds. Old people need to be confident both in their ability to access the services and in the Government to provide them securely.

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  • 12
    Alex R wrote on 19th Aug 2009

    James Rae what's this about compulsory retirement: Lots of progressive firms already employee people over 65, I to dont intend fully retiring, though I do intend retiring from my current firm as I want my pension, but will probably do as other have done, go back on a part time consultant basis: ................................................ Roger Smith: There may well be a commitment from the Government, but it need the right people to do the training, there is an art / skill to training and links to another blog Who's going to train the teachers?: I have yet to come across anyone who have been impressed by any Council or Government training aimed at the elderly.

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  • 13
    Pete Berry wrote on 31st Aug 2009

    Couple of points: 1. Some 'old' skills are very much in demand - COBOL is still hugely important, but Universities generally haven't taught it for, I'd guess, a couple of decades. (In the UK - it's taught in India and is an important factor in organisations choosing to off-shore development.) 2. If us old geezers and geezeresses are still as competent and capable of absorbing and generating new ideas as younger IT professionals (we are) perhaps we would benefit from networking more in the ways they do "One Foot in the IT Grave" Facebook Group anybody? 3. We have unique opportunities - just in the comments here issues around HCI for older IT and general tech users have cropped up. Opportunities for several startups I would have thought. And who better to carry out Requirements Analysis etc? 4. Someone (Alex? - apologies, can't remember who: short-term memory going - where was I? Oh yes ...) someone mentioned pensions: there have been big changes over the past few years - you can draw a state pension and/or a company pension and still carry on working (depending on company pension rules) which makes a startup easier for us than the younger ones. Nil desperandum, Pete

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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