Tuesday 30 June 2015

Connectivity in later life: the declining age divide in mobile cell phone ownership

By Chris Gilleard, Ian Jones & Paul Higgs

The divide between working and post-working life has long been thought considerable – both in terms of income and social exclusion.  Old people - retired people - have been seen as excluded from public life, their horizons confined to the social relations of family and neighbours.  We have argued that later life is changing; that it is richer and more varied than in the past and no longer restricted to the confines of kin and near neighbours.  One obvious source of change is the decline in later life poverty, whether measured in terms of income or consumption.  Another is in the rise in home ownership. Another is in changing community and social relationships, which is the arena of change that we chose to focus upon in this study.  We live increasingly in what Castells has called a ‘network society’ that   connects people well beyond the limits of their neighbourhood.  A variety of technologies from mobile phones to laptops enable people of all ages to keep in touch with spatially distant kin, help old friends maintain their friendships and create the conditions for new friendships to form. Furthermore, all this is rendered possible despite any restrictions in physical mobility. 
While some writers have argued that age differences in cultural familiarity with Information and Communication Technology has created new forms of exclusion – a digital divide between the pre- and post-Internet generations – we thought that because the new ICT is as much ‘home based’ as ‘work based’, such divisions are unlikely to be strong or sustainable.  In this study rather than focusing upon the Internet as a source of community and communication, we chose to examine trends in mobile cell phone ownership among older people.  We drew upon the individual data files from the General Household Surveys of 2000 and 2006 and its successor, the General Lifestyle Survey of 2009, all of which record information about ownership of various household goods, including mobile phones.  The existence of information about other aspects of the respondents (such as educational background, gender, household composition and income, and health) as well as age enabled us to explore both age/cohort differences in mobile phone ownership and differences within age cohorts – such as those associated with educational background, gender or the presence of young people in the household. 

As anticipated, we found rising levels of mobile phone ownership during this period. These were greater among people over fifty than among those under fifty.  Further, levels of mobile phone ownership rose more steeply among people in their seventies than people in their fifties. Generally those older people in less favourable social circumstances (renters not home owners, those with low income not high incomes, those who left school before 16 not those who continued their education, etc.) showed a consistently faster growth in phone ownership.  By 2009, the large divide in ‘connectivity’ that we observed in 2000, between older and younger people and between more and less advantaged older people had shrunk.  Within less than a decade, the capability that mobile phone technology offers people to keep in touch is no longer the source of division and exclusion it once was.  While it would be remiss to ignore the fact that we excluded the oldest old (people in their eighties and nineties) from our study, the critical point remains that ‘old age divides’ are shrinking as fast as they appear in our network society.

Read the full Sociological Research Online article here.