• China's ageing population makes it important the country digitally enables the elderly.
  • Globally, tech companies are trying to train the elderly up, giving in-store support with digital payments.
  • Advanced technologies are being specifically adapted to the elderly, with a view to improving their quality of life.

Many young people have embraced the convenience of digital technologies such as online shopping, car hailing, digital payments, and telemedicine. But many elderly without a grasp of the latest knowledge are at risk of being left behind.

Several news reports in China during the outbreak of COVID-19 put this issue in the spotlight: an elderly woman who wanted to pay for her medical insurance with cash was refused due to concerns that her cash might be carrying the virus.

The woman, who had not set up mobile payment, was left alone in the service centre at a loss.

In another case, an elderly man without a phone was asked to get off the bus after failing to show the driver his health-status code via the app used at all public places in China.

These incidents are stark reminders of the widening digital gap for the elderly.

China: an ageing population puts a spotlight on the digital divide

The challenge is not unique to China, but it is particularly pressing for the country given the rapid transformation of its massive population of 1.4 billion into an aging society.

Around 2022, China is projected to become an “aged society” with 14% of the population above 65 years old – some 200 million people. It would typically take nearly a hundred years for many countries to reach this stage, while it will only have taken 21 years in China.

What’s even more staggering is that by 2050, the number of Chinese elderly is estimated to reach 380 million, amounting to nearly 30% of the country’s overall population.

With just a small population of the elderly online, more needs to be done to provide access and guidance before the problem exacerbates with the rapidly rising aging population.

Pandemic pushes the elderly out of offline comfort zone

According to statistics from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), out of the 274 million mobile phone accounts of elderly users (those 60 years old and above) in China today, about 134 million are using smart phones to browse the internet. This means approximately 140 million still lack access to it.

The pandemic, however, has pushed a great number of elderly people online, in China and globally. The Chinese government issued plans in November last year to help elderly people overcome barriers to using smart technology.

Meanwhile tech companies, such as e-commerce company JD.com, are stepping up their efforts to ease the transition. Here are three major trends in this arena:

1. Taking online in-store

Brick-and-mortar stores have started to arrange assistants in dedicated zones to help elderly customers make sense of everything from digital payments to robot services. These are all services that many young people, who grew up with the internet from an early age, take for granted – but they can also be learned.

At JD’s omnichannel supermarket SEVEN FRESH, elderly customers are guided by staff to place grocery orders online, that are then delivered to their doorsteps at a specific time. Similarly, in JD’s offline pharmacy, customers can sit on a sofa inside the store and wait to collect their medicine, pay for it with the help of in-store assistants, and walk away with professional healthcare advice.

“We are keen to use and benefit from these new technologies, but getting to grips with them is no easy task for us,” said Ms Zhang, 78, an empty nester who tried to use a self-help health screening robot in a JD pharmacy store.

Her words speak to the difficulties many elderly people face. “By using this machine, I have not only experienced advanced technology, but also gained confidence,” said Ms Zhang, after having mastered the robot.

In terms of online services, many elderly customers shy away from voice systems or chatbots. In light of this, China’s top three telecom operators recently announced a speed-dial system to transfer users above 65 directly to human service personnel.

Furthermore, upon the request of MIIT, adaptive versions of more than 150 apps and websites in China are being built, featuring simpler interfaces, fewer pop-up adds and more anti-fraud support.

2. From louder smartphones to voice-activated home appliances

Tailormade smartphones play an important role in easing elderly people’s transition into the digital space. Phones with big buttons, larger font size and high-volume speakers have popped up recently.

Last year, JD launched China’s first 5G smartphone for the elderly in partnership with ZTE. The phone is equipped with services such as remote assistance, synchronised family photo sharing album and fast medical consultation services – handy for both the elderly and their children.

Importantly, it enables adult children to manage their elderly parents’ phones from afar – something that is becoming more necessary as families are increasingly separated by the demands of work in a location far from home. (JD data found that 70% of elderly consumers believe children are indispensable in their care process and 68% want to spend more time with their children, but this is not always possible.)

Besides customised smartphones, JD and other companies are exploring a variety of ways to adopt advanced technologies to improve elderly people’s lives.

These include: voice-activated IoT home appliances for users with limited mobility; an AI-powered speech recognition system that can communicate in a variety of dialects; and a big-data based health management system that can provide more accurate health advice.

3. Enabling the elderly a good investment for brands

Training goes a long way to abating the fear surrounding new technology. Last year, JD organised classes for the elderly on how to use digital devices, starting with basics like downloading apps, and increasing in complexity to cover how to line up for a hospital appointment virtually, scan QR codes and use mobile payments.

This has economic benefits too. With more and more elderly finding their footing in the digital world, they are adding fuel to the already booming silver economy.

During 2020, JD saw more elderly consumers start shopping online due to COVID-19; and they’ve kept up the habit since, appreciating the added convenience and plethora of choices. This has led the company to use big data to work on more products designed specifically for elderly consumers.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about ensuring access to the internet for all?

In 2018, internet connectivity finally reached over half the world’s population. Yet some 3.4 billion people – about 50% of the world’s population – are still not online.

Although much progress has been made in closing this digital divide, the challenge remains overwhelming, complex and multidimensional. It requires a collaborative, multistakeholder approach to overcome four key barriers to internet inclusion: infrastructure; affordability; skills, awareness and cultural acceptance; and relevant content.

The World Economic Forum launched Internet for All in 2016 to provide a platform where leaders from government, private-sector, international organizations, non-profit organizations, academia and civil society could come together and develop models of public-private collaboration for internet inclusion globally.

Since its launch, Internet for All has achieved significant on-the-ground results globally - including launching four operational country programmes in Rwanda, South Africa, Argentina and Jordan.

Read more about our results, and ongoing efforts to ensure access to the internet for all in our impact story.

Contact us to partner with the Forum and shape the future of our digital economy.

But it’s about much more than just learning how to use the technology. With a better grasp of e-commerce, elderly parents are now turning around and making purchases for their children. Some are even joining flash sales campaigns, participating in the highly popular new phenomenon of group buying, and even grabbing digital red envelopes.

And, in diverting themselves from loneliness, especially during the pandemic, they are turning to livestreaming, short videos and singing apps for entertainment.

Behind these skills are newfound confidence, freedom and connection; the idea that they are “too old” or that “technology is just for young people” is simply a thing of the past.