Is age really the issue in later life?
As part of its ongoing open consultation, Nominet Trust brought together a group of experts this past week to think about how technology might be used to realise new opportunities - and address the persistent challenges such as social isolation, access to adequate care and pensioner poverty – facing people in later life. We weren’t looking at how adding digital might make existing services more cost-effective or efficient; nor were we seeking specific solutions. Instead we were hoping to define some areas that would benefit from social innovation with technology.
Under the guidance of social reporter guru, David Wilcox, and his colleagues Drew Mackie and Steve Dale, small groups developed some propositions and tested these against fictional characters that they had created (one group is a good bet for next year’s Booker, given the intricate and compelling plot that they created around their protagonist). From these discussions, some key themes began to emerge.
What struck me from these themes is how irrelevant age is. So many of the issues - and how we might address them with technology - are the same, irrespective of whether you are 12, 22, 52 or 82. The circumstances may be different but the issues are very similar.
Take ‘transitions’, which has emerged as a key theme throughout our consultation. There is no doubt that people in later life are often faced with multiple transitions whether it is a result of retirement, bereavement, re-locating to live with their children or moving into a care home. Digital technology can offer considerable support during these transitions, not least in the form of online networks and communities. This echoes Nominet Trust’s work with young people where we are finding that online peer support networks can make a big difference whether in the transition to secondary school or into work or training.
Another key theme identified in the workshop this week was the need to recognise the very differing circumstances, interests and attitudes of people in later life. With increased life expectancy, those we categorise as ‘older’ can span an age group that stretches from 55 to 95 and above. ‘Old age’ can describe people in good or poor health, active or sedentary, lonely or leaders of their communities. With over 40 years of difference between the lower and upper ends of this age-span, we need to avoid one-size-fits-all solutions and instead recognise the individual. Again, there are strong parallels with Nominet Trust’s work at the other end of the age spectrum where we actively support initiatives that recognise the myriad of starting points that young people have, building on their very differing interests and aspirations to create more meaningful and relevant approaches to learning and engagement.
It was also striking to hear the groups at the workshop talk about the risks of a deficit model, looking at older people as a problem that needs solving rather than considering the continuing contribution that people in later life can make to society. Older people are a hidden source of innovation whose assets – time, commitment and insight – can play a critical role in the design and delivery of new services. There are already more people over 65 than under 16. By 2025, half the UK’s adult population will be over 50. We need to recognise the opportunity that this ageing demographic presents. Again, this has echoes with young people who are often seen as empty heads that need filling or as unemployed statistics for whom jobs need to be found. Nominet Trust’s Digital Edge programme supports initiatives that use digital technologies to draw out young people’s talents, to create new forms of employment and rewards, and to encourage greater economic and social participation. In the same way, as a society we need to think imaginatively about how we tap into the rich resource offered by people in retirement.
In this European Year of Intergenerational Solidarity, it seems fitting to find that young and old are facing very similar issues and that there are strong parallels in how we might address these, using digital technology. We need to step out of our silos and recognise the tremendous opportunities afforded by digital technology to create new communities and networks of support, irrespective of age, location or background.
How you can get involved in this exploration
We are developing this programme in the open and hope that many people will contribute and help shape a shared understanding of the opportunities for using digital technology to best support older people.
If you have something to contribute, here’s how you can add your voice.