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Why digital-first strategies shouldn’t leave older Canadians behind

There was a time when we used to make fun of our parents and grandparents for not knowing how to set the clock on a VCR. Now it’s tempting to make fun of them if they still have a VCR.

A recent report from Statistics Canada confirmed what a lot of us probably assumed about the online habits of older Canadians, but it also offers a warning of sorts to businesses that may be transitioning to digital a little too aggressively.

Whereas some people in the 65-74 range may have barely touched a keyboard 10 years ago, StatsCan’s data shows that overall Internet usage in this demographic has shot up a lot between 2000 and 2010. As of two years ago, 29 per cent of Canadians over 75 and 60 per cent of those aged 65 to 74 used the Internet at least once in the previous month.

More telling, however, is what they’re not doing online. Compared with the 87 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds who download music once a week, less than 10 per cent of the aging Boomers were doing so. The same goes for movies: In 2010, about 10 per cent of Canadians 65 and over watched movies or videos on the Internet compared to almost 80 per cent among those age 18 to 24.

Mary K. Allen, the StatsCan analyst who published the findings, said the research focused on the 65 to 74 age range because that was the group more likely to be healthy enough to have control over their technology usage. As they get older, health-related issues may skew the degree to which they would use such technologies. “It’s really hard to predict usage over time,” she says.

That may be so, but in contrast the shift in formats of entertainment products from analogue to digital is happening with an almost heart-stopping inevitability. The music industry seems less and less interested in manufacturing the CDs that the majority of older Canadians continue to prefer. With the departure of BlockBuster in Canada and Rogers's decision to stop renting DVDs, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to watch movies at home if you don’t have an account with Netflix or Best Buy’s CinemaNow service. Can these sectors really afford to cut off so many potential customers?

Clare Brett, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in technology education, pointed out that beyond mere access, older Canadians may be faced with financial considerations.

“They’re not necessarily going to buy or be able to buy a whole bunch of new technologies where they probably already have things to watch movies or listen to music,” she said. “I think for a lot of older people, they stay within their comfort zones.”

Businesses are told by all the experts to get better at accommodating disruption to their business models, and in some cases digital versions of their products are cheaper and more profitable to produce.

There is often a get-on-the-bandwagon mentality that ignores what StatsCan is telling us: that the mainstream market is made up of many different age groups who will demand continued choice of how they consume content. There is a sense that, because of the Internet, a door is closing and the entertainment industry is stampeding towards the digital door that is opening in its place. It’s worth bearing in mind that for a substantial slice of the population, that first door will remain ajar for some time to come.