If a pandemic-driven acceleration of technology adoption among older adults characterized 2020, then 2021 in some sense can be seen as a year when tech introduction became tech habit.
Despite the year bringing a return to some level of normalcy for many people — with in-person socializing increasing, holiday gatherings resuming, and restaurants welcoming returning customers — older adults’ use of technology to help them stay connected with others remained a cornerstone of social interaction in 2021, AARP’s latest Tech Trends and the 50-Plus study found. Three in four people age 50-plus say they rely on technology to stay connected, with those in their 50s (76%), 60s (79%), and 70s (72%) all exceeding 70%.
Using Tech for Entertainment and Day-to-Day Living Ticks Up
In keeping with those trends, the survey results revealed year-over-year continued engagement in most forms of digital communication. Text remained steady at 92% in 2020 and 92% in 2021, video chat stayed fairly even from 70% in 2020 to 67% in 2021, and social media dropped slightly from 78% to 74%. An older communication option, email, remained more or less unchanged, from 90% to 89%.
Overall, older adults continue to reach for their devices. The significant rise in the use of smartphones and tablets recorded in 2020 for such activities as making online purchases, ordering groceries, banking, and engaging health services continued in 2021, as did the increased use of a multitude of apps.
In addition to wanting to stay connected — which was the top motivator for all older adults 50 to 70-plus — they have turned to technology to be entertained and manage day-to-day living, among other motivators. For the 50-plus overall, 66% use technology to connect with others, 59% use it for entertainment, and 47% find it helpful to manage responsibilities. Many also use technology to stay healthy (43%), to learn a new skill (38%), or to pursue a passion (36%). Unsurprisingly, embracing technology to maintain personal independence rises with age: 22% those 50–59, 29% for those 60-69, and 35% for people 70-plus.
As with any age group responding to the menu of ever-changing tech, adults 50-plus continue to adopt technology with an appetite to learn. Leading interests among the 50-plus include learning how to manage smart-home technology (23%), stream entertainment from sites like Hulu or Netflix (22%), and video chat with friends and family (22%).
Along with the burgeoning use of — and familiarity with — technology among older adults, they see shortcomings, specifically with regard to inclusivity. Two in five adults 50-plus don’t feel technology is designed with older adults in mind, citing the offerings’ complexity, poor user experience, and insufficient training materials. And the older a person is, the more inclined they are to feel that technology is not designed for them. Nearly one in four (39%) of those 50–59 don't feel technology is designed with people of all ages in mind, compared to 40% of those 60–69 and 45% of those 70-plus.
As for other challenges, older adults and those living in rural areas continue to have limited access to high-speed internet. And even among adults with internet access, more than half (56%) say cost is a problem.
Ready for More
Still, interest in technology among older adults continues to expand, and perhaps in new ways. Many, for instance, are not just playing catch-up on current technology but awaiting new advances, with 64% of 50-plus adults interested in at least one type of upcoming advancement. In addition, older adults continue to spend on technology. Most (70%), in fact, made a tech purchase in the past year. That's on par with the 72% purchase rate for 2020, when the pandemic-fueled acceleration kicked in, continuing to leave 2019's prepandemic benchmark of 51% far behind.
Meanwhile people’s spending on technology remains significantly higher than prepandemic levels, at $821 compared to $394 in 2019. By 2030, the 50-plus market is projected to swell to 132 million people who are expected to spend on average $108 billion annually on tech products.
To see how data from this study can help brands reframe aging, check out our data story, Is Your Brand Missing Out on the 50+ Market?
The online survey of 3,025 adults age 18 and older (n= 2,063 50-plus) was conducted September 14–October 14, 2021 in English and Spanish using Foresight 50+ by AARP & NORC. The survey took about 19 minutes to complete and was weighted according to demographics for U.S. adults age 18–plus, 50-plus, and by generation.
Kakulla, Brittne. 2022 Tech Trends and Adults 50-Plus. Washington, DC: AARP Research, December 2021. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00493.001
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2021 Top Tech Trends of Older Adults
Tech spending in 2020 among adults 50+ is up 194% (from $394 to $1144) to modernize, update, or create a better experience online.Find Out More