Digital skills, for life
12.6 million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills. 5.3 million people have never used the internet- and just over half (2.8 million) of these people are aged 75 years and over.
In a world where the average adult user in the UK spends one day per week (25 hours) online, and 59% of users consider themselves ‘hooked’ to their connected devices, it’s easy to imagine a near future where all our interactions, transactions and general tasks of daily living move online.
New technological solutions have to be driven by what people in later life need and want – not simply what’s technically possible.
Last week the government launched its new digital strategy outlining its plan to keep the UK at the forefront of the digital revolution.
It is therefore a welcome sight to see a clear recognition of this skills gap in the strategy. The strategy outlines various different initiatives to tackle this including free basic digital skills training to all adults who need it. However, whilst a promising start, this provision doesn’t stretch quite far enough.
Digital skills for all?
The digital strategy focuses on creating a skilled and capable workforce, which is of course essential to the UK remaining a leading digital force. But what does that mean for the millions of people in later life who no longer work and have never used the internet before, or the hundreds of thousands who used to use the internet but no longer do?
This question becomes even more important when you see the vision for UK businesses and government services. The strategy outlines a significant investment in training, infrastructure and innovation in digital, supporting the ever-growing momentum towards digital businesses and services for all.
One argument I’ve heard a few too many times already is “we have to go with the majority and just accept that some (older) people will never go online”. However, as essential services move online, we cannot simply put aside the needs of the millions in later life who cannot access them in this way.
Those in later life stand to gain the most from many of the digital innovations this strategy will support. Take for example new technologies to extend healthy and independent living. But to benefit from these technologies, people need to be able, confident and willing to engage with them.
Too often, it’s assumed that if you simply teach someone a few basics, then this will snowball into a full and sustained use of digital technologies. But that’s not the case for everyone.
Getting the most out of digital
We know that some are more likely than others to engage with digital – income level, health status and household composition all play a part. We also know new users of digital have a lower and narrower usage and that sustained usage requires ongoing learning and support. To enable people in later life to fully engage with the digital world we need to have a much more nuanced and sustainable approach to inclusion, going far beyond one-off taster sessions. New technological solutions also have to be driven by what people in later life need and want – not simply what’s technically possible.
That’s why we are about to launch a project with people in later life, exploring their motivations and concerns, and what helps and hinders them in going, or not going, online. We will seek to understand where digital can really help, where it might not and how we can help older people to get the most from digital in a positive way.
This research will then help us to understand how to support more people in later life to use digital solutions and keep using them – and how to support businesses and government to develop truly inclusive digital services.
The drive towards digital access and skills for all is an ambitious and welcome agenda, but we must ensure that people in later life are included on this journey.