September 9, 2001

Wired Seniors

A fervent few, inspired by family ties

Senior citizens comprise 13% of the U.S. population, but just 4% of the U.S. Internet population.  Since their numbers are so small, there has not been much research about what these “wired seniors” are doing online and how they feel about the Internet.  It turns out that seniors who have Internet access benefit greatly from the resources available online – communicating with family, researching health information, tracking their investments – all from the comfort of their home or senior center.  So why aren’t more older Americans going online?

The Pew Internet & American Life Project surveyed 26,094 adults, 18 and older, between March and December 2000. This large sample provided an opportunity to talk to 4,335 people aged 65 and older, of whom 670 were Internet users.  This has given us insights into what motivates seniors to go online and what they do when they get Internet access. 

A wide “gray gap”

Lots of seniors engage with life by reading news or pursuing a hobby, but very few have followed the lead of younger Americans and shifted those activities online.  Most seniors do not use computers and do not think they are missing out on anything by not going online.

  • While 56% of all Americans go online, only 15% of Americans over the age of 65 have access to the Internet.
  • Fully 81% of people who say they definitely will not go online are over 50. Fifty-six percent of those over age 65 say they definitely will not go online, compared to just 6% who say they definitely plan to go online.

Senior elites are enthusiastic surfers

Wealthy and educated seniors are most likely to go online.  Many of these extraordinary seniors have been coaxed online by their children and grandchildren.  They have become enthusiastic Internet users who love email and use the Web to gather all kinds of information that helps or entertains them.

  • Wired seniors are more likely than their offline peers to be married, highly educated, and enjoying relatively high retirement incomes.  More senior men than senior women use the Internet.
  • 84% of wired seniors say they first got Internet access for reasons unrelated to work or school.  Of those, 48% say they were encouraged to do so by family members – a higher percentage than any other age group. 
  • Nearly 3 in 5 online senior citizens (56%) say that the Internet has improved their connections with family. 
  • Wired seniors are devoted Internet users – 69% of wired seniors go online on a typical day, compared to 56% of all Internet users. 
  • The top Internet activities among seniors who go online: 93% of wired seniors have used email; 58% have gotten hobby information online; 55% have read the news online; 53% have searched for health and medical information online; 53% have browsed the Web “just for fun”; and 53% have checked weather updates.  Younger Internet users are more likely than older users to identify work-related research or shopping as top Internet activities.

Retirement makes all the difference

Work or school motivates almost half of all Internet users to go online, so it is logical that younger Americans are more likely to go online than senior citizens.  But it seems that retirement has an effect not just on connectivity, but also on users’ enthusiasm for Internet activities.

  • An American between 50 and 64 years old is three times more likely to have Internet access than someone over the age of 65 (51% vs. 15%). 
  • In contrast to wired seniors, “pre-retirement” Internet users (aged 50-64) match the overall Internet population in their use of the Internet for email, getting general and political news, checking weather, and doing research for their jobs. 
  • While 68% of wired seniors say they would miss the Internet if they could no longer use it, fully 75% of Internet users between 50 and 64 years old feel that way. 

While today’s senior citizens are the least likely to go online, the cohort behind them is among the most wired.  Internet users aged 50-64 are likely to keep their Internet access even after they retire and this “silver tsunami” may be the generation that takes advantage of all the Internet has to offer them as they get older.