Social media use among older adults.

Johanna Skilling

Head of Planning, Ogilvy Health

Sixty-nine-year-old JJ has three devices open. She’s surfing the web on her MacBook Air while watching the Giants on her iPad mini and texting with friends on her iPhone.

Eighty-seven-year-old Alan is only rarely parted from his iPad and Alexa. How else would he keep up with his portfolio—and order from Amazon?

And yet, somehow culture hasn’t caught up with the reality that digital devices and platforms don’t care how old you are. As Barbara Barbosa Neves and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Sociology in April 2018: “older adults continue to be portrayed as a homogeneous group characterised by technophobia, digital illiteracy, and technology non-use.”

It seems strange. Today’s 50-year-old (born in 1968) was only 21 when Tim Berners-Lee launched the internet in 1989, and a mere 30 when Google got its official first investment in August 1998. (Add 10 for today’s 60-year-old.)

So, have they adopted the technology that was launched in the early years of their adult lives? Yes, they have—and for those with college degrees and a household income (HHI) over $75,000, make that a most emphatic yes. Barbara Shipley of AARP revealed recently that “the 50+ audience is much more tech savvy than a lot of marketers give it credit for. Most people don’t realize how multichannel and multidevice this audience is.” Here are just a few numbers from the many reports available about technology use in this very savvy demographic:

Over 90% own a computer or laptop, and virtually all of those are online. About 75% are online daily. And close to 50% spend 15 hours or more online each week—the highest use of any age group, including—wait for it—millennials.

70% have a smartphone, and for those with the aforementioned college degree and HHI of at least $75,000, that number climbs to 81%. Virtually all of them know that their smartphones’ capabilities go way beyond a simple phone call: they use it to IM, text and email, not to mention access apps, browse online and check in with their social media accounts (82% have a social media account).

And 1 in 4 mobile shoppers in the US is 55+, right in line with their share of the US population.

And they’re multitaskers: 75% of mobile device owners use more than one device at a time.

When it comes to health, writer Alex Slack reports that:

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78% do online research after seeing an interesting ad, including videos they see online

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60% think AI is going to improve their healthcare, including AI-assisted surgery

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57% are interested in using telemedicine

As Belle Frank, CSO of Y&R Health, writes, “Ageing is selective and affects people differently. So, the lessons for marketers...are obvious. Don’t think about the 50+ as a homogeneous segment of old people.”

Especially for those fortunate enough to enjoy a higher income and educational status, most folks between 50 and 75 are tapping into the digital realm in numbers comparable to their younger counterparts. For those older than 75, today’s statistics suggest that, as a group, they are less digitally savvy. Still, almost half of those 80 and older are online, and clearly those numbers will rise as today’s younger people age.

The truth is, whether we realize it or not, whether we act on it or not, social norms are changing. And don’t forget, the oldest Gen Xers are already fast approaching 55. The revolution is here.