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Jack Kirby; Created The Silver Surfer as Marvel Comic character in 1966

The everyday wisdom is that although silver surfers are catching up, the kings and queens of new technologies are the under 30s, in the main. Nobody who is ‘old’ can surely navigate the web? And if, somehow, they do send an email, order something online, download a pdf file and open it…. they are frequently patted on the head patronisingly.

Of course for some older people, to do that would be a big achievement. Many fear it is all too complex for them and shrouded in mysterious jargon. However, to assume that all golden oldies are unable to master it, is wrong.

Equally to state categorically that all young people are at home with technology and that it is second nature to them, is false. New evidence suggests that the generalisations are inaccurate and due an overhaul.

Confusions Affect All Ages

It seems that there is a small minority of under graduates who do not utilise email and are ‘confused’ by the array of technologies that higher education affords, for example. Few students can bear to be without their mobile phones, and many will be distracted by social networking while they are supposed to be studying, so it’s not so much the phone device that pits them off, it’s the emailing.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has arrived at this conclusion after asking students about their studying habits. Dr Christopher Jones, Open University, led research and interviews with 2000 first year students at five UK universities.

Dr Jones was quoted on Total Investor Today as saying: ‘our research shows that the argument that there is a generational break between today’s generation of young people who are immersed in new technologies and older generations who are less familiar with technology is flawed’.

He claims that is the diversity of how young people use their technology that makes too simplistic the concept of a ‘high skills net generation’ astute in the arts and sciences of the digital age. Instead, he found small contrasts between ages and genders, although men were often more confident than women in spreadsheets, graphics, audio/video and maintenance/security of hardware.

In-depth knowledge was generally absent among younger users, 97.8% of whom possessed a mobile, 77% a laptop and 38% a desktop computer. Unsurprisingly, the phone was the device they would miss most, admitted by 83% of respondents.

Older/mature students (25 years and above) tended to be less engaged in texting, messaging, downloading video than their younger counterparts. Less than 5% of the younger students never used social networks. Younger used technologies for social life; older for study and work.

It was also discovered that only 21% of all students contributed to blogs, 12% to wikis and just 2% accessed a virtual world. Bedrooms, libraries and study areas tended to be used most, despite the advent of widely available mobile technology. Distractions around were absorbed and discounted by most students.

Silver Surfers

Anybody over 50 is regarded as ‘silver’ and if he or she uses digital technology, then he or she has become a new demographic, an ‘older’ digi-beneficiary. There is a Silver Surfers Day, ‘the biggest national campaign to promote the use of digital technologies by older people’ which was launched by Digital Unite in 2002’.

They reckon over 150,000 older people have tasted what the digital world has to offer. Strangely and perhaps to acknowledge that older people are slower, the 2012 day was held over 5 days in late April!

Other marketing is aimed at the over 60s, with some offering discounts for computers, subscriptions, broadband and software updates. Even online dating is available! One site, The Silversurfers’ Seventy brings together 70 sites for the over-70s to sample.

They inform visitors that many older people ‘grapple with their own computer, aware that nowadays the Internet is becoming necessary to get things done’.  Picking up the phone is no longer as simple as it was, they argue, and perhaps reduced mobility has highlighted the need to master the web. The sites they have chosen are ‘practical, helpful and generally of interest to the more mature person’.

Those sites are given a ‘teacups rating system’ according to how complex or simple they are. Just because a person was in school before decimalisation, calculators, mobile phones and adults playing games on consoles, does not mean they have to be excluded from the digital world.

Golden oldies can also access communication, shopping, information, hobbies through technology, and are doing so in increasing numbers. It is estimated that over the next decade, the contribution to the economy from pensioners will top £80 billion a year.

Today’s 60+ are the generation who have enjoyed more freedom financially, new ideas, travel, culture and education over their lives than any before. The web is their passport to new worlds too.

Ironically, The Silver Surfer is a superhero character in the Marvel Comics series, first created by Jack Kirby back in 1966, when Walt Disney died, The Beatles released Revolver album, Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence reached Number 1, the Aberfan coal slurry disaster killed 29 adults and 116 children, drink-driving laws began in Britain and England won the World Cup in 1966! Ancient history to so many now.

Total Investor Today. April 2012.
Digital Unite.
The Silversurfers Seventy.

Image: Alan Light