Growing old in a digital world


Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

The COVID-19 outbreak has given a sudden boost to the digitalisation of our daily lives. The measures to constrain the spread of the virus have indeed intensified the use of digital technologies in all areas: work, care, banking and shopping, social interaction, teaching and learning, etc.

If recent months have made more visible the opportunities offered by these technologies, they have also reminded us of the challenges they may bring: misinformation about the virus, new waves of fraud attempts, hate speech, digital exclusion leading to increased dependence, social isolation and loneliness.

Digital inclusion: a matter of rights?

Although an increasing number of older persons are present online, many still cannot access the online services to meet their basic needs or remain socially engaged, as we highlighted in our report “COVID-19 and the human rights of older persons”. Older people who live alone are at higher risk of isolation and lack of access to necessary goods and services during the pandemic. Older women, who constitute the majority of the oldest old, are disproportionately affected.

The rapid digitalisation and the threat it poses to our autonomy and participation in older age was at the center of the discussions of the recent joint international online conference “Strengthening Older People’s Rights in Times of Digitalisation – Lessons learned from COVID-19” organised last September together with the German Presidency of the EU and our German member organisation, BAGSO.

The discussions highlighted that many of the challenges that older people face in the context of digitalisation reflect more general societal problems that are also prevalent “offline”: ageism, diminished respect for the autonomy of older persons and lack of consultation. There was a strong consensus among speakers on the need to strengthen older persons’ rights and to integrate a rights-based approach to ageing policies.

This reinforces the call we made in our response to a United Nations consultation (November 2019) for a clear prohibition of age discrimination and an explicit obligation for states to ensure accessibility of digital services to tackle inequalities and abuse.

A cross-generational issue

A survey published by the Fundamental Rights Agency in 2020 shows that the digital divide between generations is significant and increases with age. Older persons who have not grown up with computers and the internet are less often using them compared to younger generations, the so-called ‘digital natives’.

20 % of people aged 75 years and older use the internet at least occasionally, in comparison with 98 % of 16-29-year-olds (FRA report)

However, such conclusion should not be taken for granted. Moritz Adler, Policy Analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) explained during our international online conference in September that statistics show that not all young people are “digital natives”; 50% need more advanced digital skills, e.g. with regards to protection of privacy. We see that the link between the use of internet and digital literacy should not be made too quickly.

In a context where only 33% of the total population – and only 8% of persons between 65 and 74 – have more than basic digital skills, improving digital skills for the whole population should be a major policy priority. Yet – as we explained in our response to a recent EU consultation on digital education – further efforts to effectively reach out to older persons are needed, in particular older people living in rural areas, those with physical limitations, such as sight, mobility or dexterity problems, or with chronic health conditions.

Although we may expect a narrowing digital divide in the future as result of a cohort effect, the issue of digital literacy will most likely concern future older generations as well, since new tools will emerge and challenge current knowledge and skills. This is why lifelong learning and intergenerational interaction need to be strengthened structurally.

In addition, we need to take into account the many other key factors that amplify the digital divide, e.g. gender (2020 Gender Equality Index), low income, education, family situation, and isolation.

Looking forward

On 9 October, the Council of the European Union adopted conclusions on the human rights, participation and well-being of older persons in the era of digitalisation which offer strong hooks for future policy development at EU and Member States level. They notably call to ensure the accessibility of public services, in particular health, social and long-term care services, while making sure the non-digital services are maintained. They also insist on special attention that needs to be paid on the rights (including data protection) and needs of older persons including older persons with disabilities (point 34). In a joint press release together with our German organisation BAGSO, we particularly welcomed the human rights shift taken by the EU Council conclusions.

The work that has been started as part of the current EU German Presidency will be continued by the following Portuguese and Slovenian EU presidencies as part of the 18-month programme of the trio Presidency.

In parallel, other EU initiatives to be released in 2021 will also be key from a digitalization perspective. Obviously the Green paper on Ageing should echo the Council Conclusions. The new European Commission’s long-term vision for rural areas will most probably address the issue of digitalisation in remote areas, the EU disability rights strategy will be essential notably in relation to e-Accessibility and the inclusion of persons with disabilities.

Last but not least, we expect the work around the accessibility of online banking and financial services to continue, as the inaccessibility of those services is putting seriously at stake the autonomy and inclusion of older persons.

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