Due to increases in life expectancy we are now facing what could be the longest ever retirement period in history. With this welcome trend comes new challenges, such as the need to meet increased demand for health and aged care services at a time when the ratio of working aged people to retired people is declining. Further disruption, in the form of exponential developments in digital technology, could exacerbate these challenges, since the automation of work is likely to push less digitally literate older workers into early retirement.
But digital technology is not simply an exogenous factor that we are disrupted by. As has always been the case, our ability to flourish into the future will derive from the way in which we harness technology to overcome our challenges and create new opportunities. This report seeks to convey this potential, capturing insights from international experts and high-level representatives from across Australian society to understand how the capacity and energy of older Australians can be enabled by digital technology.
Such a broad question requires consideration of a multiplicity of factors and viewpoints; hence we sought a range of perspectives for this research. Thirty-eight interviews were carried out, with representatives from all levels of government, a range of peak bodies, aged and health care providers, seniors’ advocates, researchers and education, recreation, finance, transport and technology providers. The interviews explored three key questions:
1. How might greater reliance on digital technology negatively affect social and economic participation in later life?
2. What are the key opportunities that digital technology might create when it comes to supporting social and economic participation in later life?
3. What actions and/or resources are needed to ensure that the risks are minimised and the opportunities can be realised?
The manifold opportunities highlighted in the interviews centred around digital technology’s capacity to minimise traditional barriers to social and economic participation, including physical and cognitive limitations, geographic distance, social, intellectual and financial capital, information and education and lack of connections. By addressing these barriers, digital technology was seen to open up an array of opportunities that could be adapted to the diverse values and needs of people in later life
However, participants acknowledged that the enabling capability of digital technology could also have unintended negative consequences. For example, over-reliance on videoconferencing, home monitoring and telehealth services could actually result in older people spending more time on their own. And along with enabling more efficient connections and access to information, digital technology brings new privacy and security risks. Finally, some workers might experience the more flexible work arrangements enabled by digital technology as more precarious or onerous than traditional employment arrangements.
We conclude that three priorities need to be addressed in order to maximise the potential of digital technology with respect to lifelong participation.
Digital inclusion: The ability to access and use digital technology will be a basic requirement for social and economic participation in the future. If we do not ensure that everyone has the resources, confidence and skills to engage with digital technology we increase the risk that many older Australians will be unable to participate on an equal footing with the rest of society. Access to affordable and efficient digital technology will be vital, as will fostering confidence and competence in older Australians regarding this technology. Furthermore, efforts to support digital inclusion need to respond to the diversity within this population, with interventions tailored towards giving people the skills to engage with technology in the ways that are of value to them.
Digital empowerment: Whenever we assume that Australians will have a passive or reactive relationship with digital technology we constrain their potential to participate in the future. Rather than being affected by digital technology, older Australians can be more effective through digital technology. The power of people and technology is realised when humans use technology to connect with each other, to solve problems, and to achieve that which is of value to them. This represents the highest form of digital literacy and is where we need to be aiming collectively.
Digital connections: The combination of improved life expectancies and digital technology means that the potential to participate and contribute in later life is more significant than ever. To make best use of this potential we need to improve the linkages between individuals’ interests and capacity (supply of effort) and the valued activities for improving our society (demand for effort). The grandchild who needs caring for and the grandparent who lives in the same city are inherently joined up. However, digital technology provides the connective medium for realising many other opportunities to participate. Once these connections are made, individuals with resources, skills and expertise will be able to choose from a wide range of opportunities, whether by participating in a standby global emergency response taskforce or starting up their own business enterprise. However, there will be fewer options for individuals with less social, intellectual or financial capital. Effort will need to be dedicated towards identifying a broader suite of opportunities and/or providing alternative financial support for these individuals.
CSIRO’s Data61 is connecting with interested parties who seek to further this line of work. Our goal is that this research should inform a national forum involving key stakeholders. We hope this research along with their combined expertise and resources will spark initiatives which empower Australians to make greater use of digital technology for individual, social, economic and environmental benefit.
Mason, C., Fleming, A., Paxton, G., & Singh, J. (2017). Lifelong Participation Through Digital Technology. CSIRO EP165189, Brisbane.