Digital Equity for all ages? Not while ageism rules (Part 4) Digital solidarity – intergenerational connections and ageism

Digital Equity for all ages? Not while ageism rules (Part 4) Digital solidarity – intergenerational connections and ageism

By Susan McGrath, Senior Policy Advisor, EveryAGE Counts

As the COVID-19 pandemic is playing out, the increased use of digital technology in all age groups is growing as an important factor in intergenerational solidarity (social cohesion between generations).   

Intergenerational solidarity relies on factors such as: emotional closeness; frequency of contact; accepted obligations; agreement about values; geographical proximity; and exchanges of support.  Most of these dynamics, it is argued, can be strengthened by ‘digital solidarity’ between generations.  

For example, the exchange of support between generations has been crucial in the pandemic for some older people with low levels of digital capability who have turned to adult children and grandchildren (or younger friends and neighbours) for assistance with digital technology and going online.  And even some older people with existing good levels of digital literacy have reached out within their families and friendships for assistance and confidence-building, to use unfamiliar online communication platforms or hard-to-navigate online services.  In workplaces that shifted to remote working, there have also been stories of similar intergenerational exchanges to navigate stepped-up online systems.

In some cases, these forms of support – or just the general motivation created by the pandemic crisis – have then laid the groundwork for greater frequency of contact between generations through, for example, more regular use of virtual communications between generations of family members, in workplaces or in community life. 

The rise in instances of digital solidarity is especially hopeful, as going some way towards countering the intergenerational wedges that have also emerged during the pandemic.  In ‘a parallel outbreak of ageism’, everyone over about the age of 70 has been portrayed helpless, frail and unable to contribute to society, and often blamed for the privations of lockdowns and other restrictions endured by all in the pandemic.  This has led to a dangerous widening of the divisions between generations, so all means, such as digital solidarity, that can strengthen intergenerational relationships are welcome.  

At EveryAGE Counts, we especially welcome the growth of digital solidarity, given that intergenerational connection is central to countering ageism and to valuing all stages of life.  The research and our lived experience tells us so.  The more familiarity that all age groups have with each other through shared lives and mutual exchanges, the fewer sweeping, age-based stereotypes, biases and discriminations there are.  In addition, we welcome measures and actions that bring greater digital inclusion to older people’s lives, with all its potential benefits and the degree of protection it offers against personal, social, civic and economic marginalisation. 

But before we embrace the idea that digital solidarity is the technological/relationship fix to intergenerational disconnection, there are some key questions we need to consider. 

Firstly, just how widespread have been the acts of intergenerational digital solidarity?  Secondly, was the interaction between younger and older always a positive experience that strengthened relationships and challenged ageist perspectives of older people’s competence – or did they sometimes reinforce ageist stereotypes and assumptions?  Thirdly, how embedded have digital communications across age groups become and will these changes weather the end of the pandemic crisis?  And fourthly, has there been lasting, greater digital inclusion of older people emerging from the crisis and the assistance given across generations?

The first three of these questions will need research and reflection over the coming few years to begin to answer.  So too will the fourth question, but we do have some decent signposting on this issue. 

The latest Australian Digital Inclusion Index (2021), hot off the press, agrees that the circumstances of life under the pandemic have given rise to improvements in digital inclusion of mid-life and older Australians.  The biggest jump in digital inclusion within this demographic occurred amongst those 75 and older – possibly partly reflecting their much lower digital inclusion pre-pandemic.  Nonetheless, there is also great variation among older people even within this improvement, according to factors such as gender, where we live, our education levels, whether we are First Nations people, whether English was our first language, our incomes and our housing situations.

Overall, the Index concludes that while some important gains in internet use are evident, the impact of pandemic restrictions to date seems ‘to have reinforced many of the existing contours of digital inclusion and exclusion’.  While, for example, older Australians did expand online activity, they were much less likely than their younger counterparts to so, maintaining a gap between the generations. 

So, to sum up, the growth in digital solidarity between younger and older is a welcome and valuable development, to be supported and built upon.  Intergenerational solidarity is ultimately a win-win for everyone.  But we need to ensure that intergenerational digital solidarity is effective in both increasing the digital inclusion of older people, while at the same time countering ageism in intergenerational relationships and interactions. 

The federal Government’s Be Connected Program offers a good platform for this dual aim.  Family members, friends and community members can access resources and training through the program to assist older people to become more capable and confident in the use of digital technology.  This would be the perfect time to review the success of the program in (and share lessons about) building healthy intergenerational relationships and countering ageist narratives about older people’s competence, at the same time that digital knowledge and skill transfer takes place.  

Let’s make the most of the growth in digital solidarity – potentially an important positive to have emerged for older people from the pandemic.      

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