Connecting Across Generations: One Size Will Not Fit All

by David Honig on March 10, 2011

Technology is rapidly becoming an integral part of life across every generation. The Pew Internet & American Life Project recently reported that the vast majority (90 percent) of Americans now own a cell phone, while significant numbers also own either a laptop or desktop computer (70 and 57 percent, respectively). Younger adults (those under the age of 35) have a demonstrated preference for increased mobility, choosing laptops over desktop computers and using their cell phones to access a variety of applications such as Internet, e-mail, music, games, and video. Older adults are less likely to own these types of devices and remain far behind when it comes to broadband adoption. Overall, however, Pew reports that there has been an upward trend in technology use across every generation.

Despite this positive advancement, a sizeable gap in technology adoption and utilization remains across generations. This begs the question: How can we ensure that every American, regardless of age, race, or circumstance, has access to – and understands how to use – the incredible number of innovative products and services currently available?

First and foremost, it is imperative that policymakers recognize that broadband adoption efforts must be tailored to specific demographics. One size will not fit all. Innovators are certainly recognizing this, as user group-specific technology organizations and initiatives are rapidly emerging. One such organization is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, where researchers are designing and producing an array of revolutionary products for older Americans that aid them in maintaining their health, independence, and quality of life. Many of these innovations are targeted at aging Baby Boomers, a segment of the population that will contribute to a doubling of the senior citizen population over the next few decades.

Another group focused exclusively on increasing broadband adoption for senior citizens is Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), a nonprofit organization based in Brooklyn, NY. By providing training and focusing on social engagement, health, financial security, and creative expression, OATS is attempting to change the way Americans age by leveraging the transformative power of broadband.

One Economy and the Broadband Opportunity Coalition share a similar goal, only their focus is on low-income and minority groups who remain on the wrong side of the digital divide. One key aspect of this joint effort is a nationwide broadband awareness campaign that will target its messaging at these particular groups of non-adopters.

Yet another targeted broadband adoption effort can be found in New York City public schools, where the city’s Department of Education is using $22 million in stimulus funds to create a program dedicated to bringing broadband and laptop computers into an array of middle schools across the city. This program provides students and their families with computers, training, and subsidized in-home broadband connections. The goal of the program is to bolster broadband adoption in low-income households and ensure that the students are able to fully participate in the 21st century workforce.

Overall, broadband adoption efforts are most successful when they are tailored to address the specific needs of individual demographic groups. There are many impressive programs already in existence, but we need more – many more. In order to close the digital divide once and for all, policymakers must encourage more of these initiatives through additional funding opportunities and practical policies that create additional vehicles for bringing more people online.

  • David Honig is MMTC’s President and Executive Director. He co-founded the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) in 1986. MMTC has represented over 70 minority, civil rights and religious national organizations in selected proceedings before the FCC, and it operates the nation’s only full service, minority owned media and telecom brokerage.

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  • Guest

    So true. Each unique population has different needs and expectations of technology, as well as apprehension about learning to use it. Identifying these needs and expectations for each group will often lead to innovation and figuring out how to overcome barriers to use will steer us towards universal broadband adoption.

  • John_Q_Public

    This post really captures how much work is left to be done to connect every American to broadband. But the post also does a great job of highlighting some of the more innovative approaches to closing the digital divide in the country. Hopefully, more of these programs and initiatives will be launched in coming years.

  • John

    Thank you for highlighting yet another component of the digital divide: age. And thank you for highlighting such great programs that are addressing the digital divide from numerous angles. It will take a multiplicity of such efforts to bring more Americans online. Thankfully, we have such great examples to help lead the way.

  • S. Witter

    Love the graphic — and the post! It’s so true that policymakers can’t expect one broadband-related solution to work for everyone. It may take more of an effort, but tailoring programs and policies towards individual demographic groups IS the answer. It’s the only way to close the longstanding digital divide.

  • Bill Edmonds

    Older adults often are keen to subscribe to broadband — they grew up spending more time reading that watching TV, they have grandkids and other family they want to connect with, and they have the time to explore the Web for information they need and can use.

    My mother-in-law, soon to be 91 years old, just this weekend was asking about broadband and whether she could get a connection in her apartment. Many of her friends are already connected.

    She is not, however, interested in using a cell phone to access the Web — the screen is too small.

    She wants an iPad.

  • G Louise

    I think about this all the time… My mom has a cell phone and uses the computer to buy random objects off the web (which I hate), but I can’t see her with a smart phone. It might be too much. How can people like my mom learn to use this ever changing technology better?

  • It is possible

    Age is a serious issue that needs to be considered in closing the digital divide. My mother just learned how to use a laptop and this is only because all her children are digital literate.

    I am glad the national broadband awareness campaign will include messages targeted to senior citizens.

  • Luc

    The government must have a targeted market approach. One size does not fit all even though its sometimes the easiest fit it’s not always the right fit.

    Many populations have certain reasons why they prefer not to adopt. It can range from relevance to cost.

    The One Economy campaign is a good first start at approaching individual clusters of people and explaining the importance of broadband services. Great Article!

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