Implications of Engaging an Older Workforce: The Role of the Internet and the Issues of Connectivity, Accessibility and Usability

Date Posted
March 27, 2008

In the recent release of the Productivity Commission Research Report (2005) the Australian Government recognised the upcoming problem of the ageing workforce and the situation of the Baby Boomers reaching retirement age. This paper seeks to describe the issues involved with using the Internet to assist in maintaining the participation rate in the workforce of Australia’s ageing population as proposed by the Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks.

“Time and again through our history, we have discovered that attempting merely to preserve the comfortable features of the present, rather than reaching for new levels of prosperity, is a sure path to stagnation.” (Greenspan, 2004)

Background

Ageing Population

Medical Advances and Life Expectancy

As recently as 60 years ago, across the world, many people would die from the common cold or become disabled from a infected gash. In recent years medical knowledge and capabilities have gown at an exponential rate and we have seen things that were once life threatening now healable with a small tablet or injection. Naturally this is wonderful for mankind and has resulted in an increase in life expectancy, particularly for those in first and second world countries. As a society, however, in some ways we have been slow to grasp the full implications of this phenomenon (Productivity Commission, 2005).

Baby Boomers and Birth Rates

The Baby Boom is defined as “a dramatic increase in fertility rates and in the absolute number of births” (PRB, 2005). This baby boom occurred in the period after World War II in most developed western countries (as opposed to developing countries) and this generation is defined as the Baby Boomers. There are several characteristics of the Baby Boomers including: increased wealth, superior education, lower fertility rates, expensive spending habits and more recreationally focused (Keister and Deeb-Sossa, 2001).

Retirement

Retirement, as a concept dates back to Roman times and has been adopted by many cultures with varying degrees of enthusiasm. However opinions differ about what is considered elderly and when people are unable to work or “deserve” to retire from their various duties. A retirement with a pension is considered a right of the worker in many societies.

Changes in the Workforce

In recent times employment structures have changed as a result of exponential technological growth and as the workforce becomes more advanced and more capable of sophisticated jobs. The labour force has been gradually shifting from primary roles, like farming and fishing, through to the new quaternary roles, involving research and development (Internet Geography, 2005). This trend is causing an increasing need for education and re-education. However, for many people over 50 this is a concept that is foreign to their experience.

The greatest change in the dynamics of the workforce in the last five to ten years is the introduction of the Internet as a multi-purpose tool. The Internet is increasingly becoming the platform in which business, personal and educational activities take place, and the medium for the provision of information and communication.

This role that the Internet plays is causing a “digital divide” of between those who are connected to it and those who are not (or chose not to). Increasingly services are becoming less expensive and more convenient online than offline, putting those without access at a disadvantage.

Implications in the 21st Century

A recent report by the Productivity Commission showed that the proportion of Australians over 65 will double in the next 40 years and that the percentage of working Australians in the work force will drop by over 7 percent which is “a margin that would have large effects on Australia’s growth prospects”.

The problem we face in the 21st century is a combination of:

  • our ever-increasing life expectancy due to medical advances;
  • not adjusting out retirement age according to the life expectancy;
  • the spike in our population due to high birth rates followed by low birth rates;
  • the lifestyle of the Baby Boomers;
  • the trend of early retirement;
  • retirees choosing to cease contributing the workforce following retirement;
  • retirees unable to contribute because of lack of re-education; and
  • discrimination of service to those without Internet access or poor Internet skills, affecting older citizens.

Government Response

Retirement

Prior to the 20th Century it was the responsibility of citizens to take care of themselves in their old age, and when they could no longer work their families would have to take responsibility for them. Then in 1908 the government brought in the old age pension with the age set at 65 for men and 60 for women. Perceiving the need for a level of self funded retirement, in 1976, the Australian government published the Superannuation Act 1976 (ComSuper, 2004) to take a step in resolving the problem.

Disability Discrimination

Recently the government responded to The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 with Disability Standards for Education 2005 that has been in progress since 1995. This is a big step towards involving many elderly people who are in some way disabled (which is much more common at old age) it also makes education more accessible which will also in turn make it more usable for those without disabilities too.

Productivity Commission Report

In the recent release of A Third Wave of National Reform the Productivity Commission stated about two-thirds of the $65 billion each year in national income generated by this reform “are estimated to arise from maintaining the participation rate as the population ages” (Productivity Commission 2005). This amount of benefits is astounding and highlights the importance of the reform to the Australian economy.

The Internet’s Potential as a Resource for Seniors

The Internet has great potential as a resource for elderly people. Those who are already using it have gained benefits ranging from social and informational to educational and financial. In a study by the Nielsen and Norman Group (2002) “email was the main Internet application used by seniors”. The other main uses for the Internet were research (hobbies, special interests), news, tracking investments, researching medication and medical conditions and to shop and bank online (Coyne and Nielsen, 2002)

Two social impacts that are common in old age is the lack of mobility and also depression (Hewish, 2004). The Internet can provide great benefits for those with both these issues. The communication technologies associated with the Internet can help those with mobility problems to connect online and achieve a wide range of tasks online. The communication and publication technologies such as email, blogs and online communities can be great methods of connecting and socialising when restricted to being at home.

The Internet can help decrease the rate of depression in elderly citizens. When elderly citizens feel productive, appreciated and purposeful it drops the depression rate substantially (Dobrof and Mellor, 1999). If elderly people are contributing to an online community, working online, or using the Internet as a tool to organise social events it is very likely to directly affect the rate of depression.

The Internet is a great source of information, often titled the “Information Superhighway”, and almost anything can be found on it now. This can be a potential resource for seniors. With the information at their finger tips they can be more informed individuals about anything ranging from their government rights, workshops for seniors, dates of social events to movie times, news, stock prices and jokes.

“With the internet becoming the communication tool of choice for fundamental services like medical information and education, the digitally excluded will be significantly disadvantaged when trying to access services and information,” (Hughes, 2005). Information is the source of education, whether it is designed for that purpose or not. With properly designed tutorials and courses the Internet can be used as a tool to educate the elderly in things ranging from how to use the Internet itself to photo editing, and even tertiary education.

The Department for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) released [email protected], a promotion for people to get connected to the Internet for positive financial outcomes (DCITA, 2000). The promotion was based on a study in which they found that at the time 70% of Internet users surveyed saved time using the Internet at home (therefore consequently saving money too) and 39% had direct savings like cheaper prices. The majority (94%) of those surveyed felt that the convenience of communication through the Internet benefited their household.

Other financial benefits of elderly Australians may include reduced costs for:

  • transport, due to many services being available online;
  • reading material, instead of buying books or subscribing to magazines or library fees;
  • informational services, such as news papers;
  • phone bills, saving on social and informational communication, such as movie times and phone directory;
  • transactions, such as banking and purchase of goods; and
  • consumer products, in cases where cheaper prices can be found online.

As the Internet is increaslying used by elderly people they will gain a confidence to rely on it as a resource. This can ease their reintroduction to the workforce partly by saving them time and money as mentioned above. However it has immense potential to increase their participation in the workforce whether through direct employment or voluntary employment such as mentoring.

Participating in the Workforce

The Internet can be used to help seniors participate in the workforce in many different ways. Nielson (2002) states that “when it works for them, the Internet is already an enriching part of many seniors’ lives”. The better it can made to “work for them” the greater will be the incentive for seniors to risk participation in the workforce.

The Internet can be used to educate and re-educate seniors for areas in the workforce which they did not previously work. Many retired people used to work in primary and secondary industries, which are hard to work in with lack of mobility, and are also ceasing to exist due to technology. The Internet can be used to retrain these individuals. For example a fisherman could retrain as a web designer, a farmer could retrain in viticulture, a mother in teaching home sciences and a store hand could take up a career in eBay resales.

The Internet is a potential portal for older Australians to share what experience they already have as a person. For example they can share their knowledge online, do product testing, give feedback on services, take part in discussing government polices and also use it as a conduit for mentoring of the younger generation.

Mentoring is a wonderful service and contribution to the workforce that is still to reach its full potential. “Retiree mentors find it an enriching and rewarding experience for themselves, and mentors benefit as much as proteges” (PC Public Service Agency, 2004). If the use of the Internet helps more retired Australians take on mentoring it can be one of the great steps in advancing our economy and achieving the governments proposed aim of increased productivity (on behalf of the mentored) and increased participation (for the older Australians).

Mentoring should be an essential part of the third wave of national reform and, according to the Lindenberger Group, Baby Boomers are the best ones for the job (Lindenberger and Stoltz-Loike, 2005).

Use of the Internet is also ideal for many seniors as their mobility reduces as it gives them the potential to work from home. For some older people it would be difficult to get to their place of employment let alone do a physical job. However, the Internet may provide the only solution to this problem.

Issues with the Internet for the Older Population

Connectivity

For many older Australians who rely on a pension and/or self-funded superannuation cost is often a big issue for many things, not least Internet access. They also need to see a benefit from this outlay. It is also commonplace that older citizens often move away from metropolitan areas because of these same financial reasons. This makes it more difficult and more expensive for them to be connected to the Internet.

Education is also a connectivity issue for older Australians, as many of them are not familiar with the Internet and the associated technologies. If they are not educated in how to use the Internet at the most basic level (let alone efficiently) it becomes impossible for them to use the Internet as a tool. In addition many older Australians will need to be educated in the benefits of using the Internet. (Nelson, 2004)

These issues of location, cost and education must be resolved for any progress to be made in connecting older Australians to the Internet. The government must be aware of the implication that lack of connectivity amongst older Australians is the first and most basic issue to be resolved. It may be that incentives may need to be offered to these people if the Government wishes to achieve it’s goal of engaging the older workforce.

Accessibility

As people age often new disabilities arise and therefore hearing and seeing disabilities are most common in older people. Many websites are inaccessible to people with these disabilities, particularly those with vision impairments. People with arthritis need to be considered when too much typing is needed.

According to James Gallagher, author of the websites A-Z of Deafblindness and A Deafblindness Web Resource, computers and the Internet are many deaf, blind and deafblind people’s “gateway to the outside world” (Gallagher, 2005). If this is the case then it is absolutely necessary that at least government websites are accessible and that commercial websites are encouraged to follow the accessibility standards (W3C, 2005)

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” Tim Berners-Lee (W3C, 2005)

Usability

According to research conducted by Jakob Nielsen (2002) “current websites are twice as hard to use for seniors than for non-seniors”. The research also showed that the older generation is much more turned off by poor usability. To increase the incentive for older people to be on the Internet and using it efficiently all government sites should be designed for seniors’ usability. It is also highly advised that the government promotes awareness of the need for aged-user-centred design in the commercial websites.

There are two main aspects of usability that need to be addressed, these are design and content usability.

Design Usability

Primary research (Freeman, 2005) showed that one of the biggest problems in web page design for seniors is readability. Text size was considered the most important. For many websites the text was found to be too small for almost all those surveyed. Some of the seniors who were experienced enough to change the text size could not achieve this on many pages due to poor coding that did not follow recommendations.

Graphics was also raised as being very helpful if they are in the correct context and well accompanied by text. This group found that too many pictures were off-putting especially when unrelated to the content or poorly placed. Logical structures were highly important to these senior users and lack of logic was often a cause for error. For effective navigation hyperlinks had to be obvious, not cluttered and it is imperative that they followed predictable colours. It was considered highly desirable to have a different colour for visited links, as many seniors did not know if they had already been there.

Content Usability

Writing for the Web (Nielsen et al, 1999) discusses the important changes that must be made in writing content for the Internet. Content usability is even more important to consider in reference to the elderly as in general they are not Internet savvy and many have impairments, which make it hard to read. Realistically they also have more problems with the tasks that require them to rely on memory,

Content on the Internet must be well written, without 50% of the words that would be used for traditional print (Nielsen et al, 1999). It should be easily scannable through the use of such techniques as bullet points, tables, text alignment, text emphasis (bold, coloured, italicised, underlined), headings and hyperlinks.

Another content consideration is that many of the retirement age Australians are those who moved to the country after WWII and therefore speak English as their second language (ESL). In the case of ESL seniors it is even harder for them to integrate the Internet into their lives unless sites are well written, therefore easy to understand and easy for translating programs to interpret. (Nielsen, 1998)

Solutions

This paper has so far discussed the ageing population and the nature of the Baby Boomers, which has brought us to the problems we face now and in the near future. Benefits of the Internet and the issues that we face with using it have also been discussed. However to move forward the continuous model of Enquire, Educate and Engage may be adopted.

Enquire

The best way of assessing how to use the Internet to assist older Australians, and in turn increasing productivity and participation is to enquire of the users themselves (actual and potential users). The process of enquiring starts with those who are retired, those who are coming close to retiring and those in the heat of the workforce.

Once the first stage of enquiry is completed, the education and engagement steps are taken which then lead back to more enquiries; eventually the Internet is used in this process for the enquiries. Policies, acts, legislation, standards and incentives are developed as a result of this process. Most importantly, elderly people are part of the decision making process.

Educate

After enquiries have been made into the needs of the elderly Australians the Internet can then be used efficiently to educate them in the areas that are identified. The first step in the education must be teaching older Australians how to use computers and the Internet; steps have already been taken in this direction though the BITES (Basic IT Enabling Skills) initiative.

The Internet now has quite advanced teaching technology that is only going to evolve in the near future. Educating can be done from Interactive tutorials and websites to detailed readings and University/TAFE courses. Steps after educating them in Internet use can be from training in completely new skills or refining old ones.

The Internet can be a tool for exploring new areas that older Australians have not explored before, opening up a new world to them and enabling them to see participation in the workforce in a new light. For those who are experienced in a field they can actually contribute to the educating process and help in designing courses or mentoring. Of course they can also be educated into a more specialised area to contribute at a higher level.

Recently Universal Design (CAST, 2005) has been quite topical in many universities and now schools. If the Internet is to be used as a tool for educating elderly Australians these standards should be followed.

Engage

This whole process is aimed at achieving the government’s goals of increased participation and productivity (Nelson, 2004) and that is essentially what is achieved by effectively engaging the older Australians in the workforce.

The re-educated retirees will be able to engage in the workforce directly, by taking up a new career in the industry, and indirectly through things such as mentoring and policymaking.

An effective way of first engaging them in the Internet may be through cleverly designed portal that gives them clear places to start, a home base. From such a portal they could find information, education, web services, government services, online communication, news updates, job advertisements and a place to express, connect and essentially engage.

It is important however that the participants see the positive results of the enquiry stage. They will not be encouraged to take the next steps of education or engagement if they feel that issues raised such as connectivity, usability and accessibility have not been addressed.

It is also essential that this continues but also expands it’s focus. While many older people may be influenced by altruistic motives, generally they will need to see positive benefits for themselves to be encouraged to increase their participation in the workforce. Similarly they will need to see the Internet as a “tool for life” not just a “tool for work”.

Bibliography

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