It looks like the elderly of the future will be wired.
While there is a tendency to view the Internet as a young people's medium, it is actually becoming a key communications conduit for retirees. A recent survey reported by Robert Jordan, president of Houston-based International Demographics, found that most new Internet growth is coming from older age groups--including the Baby Boomers. That finding is consistent with the results of a February 2005 national survey by the Oasis Institute of St. Louis, which showed that 64 percent of adults age 50 to 64 are Internet users. Among adults 65 and older, 31 percent use the Internet, up sharply from the 20 percent in 2000 and 22 percent in 2004 reported by the PEW Internet and American Life Project of Washington, D.C.
"These findings correlate well with our experience," says Mark Calhoun, managing principal of Etelligent Consulting in Overland Park, Kan. "More and more, our [planner] clients give their clients access to Web sites so they don't have to mail reports at all. They just send emails of notification that client reports are ready, allowing the end-users to access the data at their leisure."
In the wired senior population, it is notable that women have achieved parity with men. In 2000, according to PEW, the gender ratio of wired seniors was 60 percent men to 40 percent women. But by February 2004, the ratio had evened out to 50/50, where it has remained.
"My sense is that you need to break down the Internet usage statistics by wealth," says Kip Gregory, principal of The Gregory Group in Washington, D.C. "If 31 percent of the total senior population in 2005 was online--and that number is certainly higher today--then you can bet that the preponderance of people in a planner's crosshairs are probably online." He attributes this to their better education and higher net worth--acknowledged drivers of Internet use. In fact, says Gregory, it has been several years since he's heard anyone refer to technology and the Internet in terms of a "senior gap."
Wired seniors are often as enthusiastic as younger users when it comes to the major activities that define online life--principally email, which 94 percent of wired seniors have sent or received. What's more, in recent years, pundits have seen vigorous growth in the number of Americans 65 and older performing such key Internet activities as e-shopping, information searches, and online banking.
Planners tell Calhoun that the majority of their retirement-age clients want to eliminate junk-mail clutter and, because they may live at two or more locations during the year, they prefer communications systems that accommodate their mobility. Hence, the Internet's growing appeal.
Of course, not all seniors take so readily to technology.
"About half of our retired clients use their computers only for email; they resist banking online or even opening their account statements online," says Diane Pearson, a wealth advisor at Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Legend Financial Advisors. "And probably about 10 percent of our clients have no computers or email access at all."
Confronted with such technophobia, some planners will buy their reluctant clients hardware and software, and even serve up onsite tech support and training. They will do whatever it takes to ease foot-draggers into the 21st century. That's how vital it is to them that their clients send and receive email, open PDF document attachments, and view their Web-based account statements online. And, according to Gregory, all the major firms now offer a tech support line for planning clients or have a similar capability in place.
"Today, virtually all my clients--about 80 percent of whom are retired--are online, whereas half of them weren't when they first started working with me," says Rick Ashburn, a columnist and president of Ashburn Investment Counsel, based in Lafayette, Calif. "I take the role of teaching my clients to use technology very seriously in order to make better use of their time and mine, even if that means that I buy and configure their equipment," he says. "I can do many things for them, but I make sure they understand that they also have a job to do on their end, such as checking their email every day."
Aiding the Internet uptrend among seniors is vendor technology, which is increasingly secure and mature, flexible and responsive.
"We do all our trading through TD Ameritrade," Pearson says, "Up until this past year, our clients didn't have the option of dropping their paper copies and getting their statements solely online. Now they do."
Retirees want to make their lives simpler, and the Internet--with its speed plus its potential for simplifying transactions and eliminating paper--helps them achieve that goal.
"We've found that the more you do online, the more comfortable you are with the technology, and the more ways you want to use it," says Calhoun. "And that's true for users of all ages, seniors and retirees included."
Judith Harkham Semas is a freelance business and finance writer based in San Jose, Calif. She may be reached at email@example.com.