The unconnected senior citizens of Asia

Telenor Group believes that mobile internet is a catalyst for growth and that it should be accessible to everyone. Through our vision of “Internet for All” we are committed to building a digital future for all the people of Asia.

Written: May 2015

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Research note from Telenor Group

Telenor’s Asian markets have seen an unprecedented rate of mobile data growth and demand and GSM Association data shows that mobile broadband connections in the Asia Pacific region are set to almost double to 2.1 billion by 2017.[1]

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While our Asian markets grow and internet penetration increases, Telenor remains sensitive to segments of the population that are being left behind by the digital revolution. Significant among these are senior citizens. All across Asia, the number of people aged 65 and above is expected to grow dramatically in the near term.[2] This rising generation of individuals who did not grown up with technology and who are not in a position to easily acquire new technical skills will be at a considerable disadvantage as the world moves online – not only younger loved ones who naturally use technology to communicate, but also commercial and public services from basic information to paying bills and receiving healthcare.

As aging populations are anticipated to be a major factor in the economic and social development of the entire region in the near future, it is important that we as societies remain aware of senior connectivity, both as a means of preventing social isolation and increasing and prolonging productivity among this segment of the population. Indeed, encouraging digital inclusion is not only socially conscious, but it can also be profitable: already, sophisticated marketers in Japan – one of the most rapidly aging economies in the world – are beginning to see the value of tailoring products specifically to the needs of the senior segment.[3]

Unfortunately, from data gathered by Telenor from our local Asian business units, it is evident that elderly populations throughout Asian markets are less engaged with the internet, particularly via mobile. A demographic breakdown shows that only 10% of Telenor’s 45.6 million subscribers in India are over 45 years of age. Meanwhile, of mobile phone users in India overall, only 6% are over 50 years of age. This difference is exacerbated for mobile data users, with only 1% being 50 years or older. Generally, non-data users have a lower income profile and higher age than the average mobile user.

Telenor’s surveys also found that the top reasons consumers cited for not using mobile data are related to perceived utility and complexity of the services. Of this demographic, 29% said they have no reason to use the mobile internet and 24% reported that using the mobile internet is “too complicated”.

In Bangladesh, Telenor’s local subsidiary Grameenphone observes a distinct drop-off in the number of our customers over the age of 55, with only 2% of our user base being over 60 years of age. In other words, only about one million of Grameenphone’s 52 million customers are above 60. Data volumes drop half for those over 60 compared to the overall customer base, with older women even less well-represented than men – only 4.5% of women over the age of 65 use data, in contrast to 7.5% of men the same age. Overall, less than 1% of Bangladeshis surveyed over the age of 65 use a smartphone – consonant with our findings in India, the vast majority of the elderly still use basic and feature phones. 

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Likewise in Malaysia, DiGi, Telenor’s local business unit, reports that only 3.9% of the local user base is over the age of 60. On the other hand, data usage is strikingly higher in this higher per capita income environment: 38% of subscribers in the 60+ segment use smartphones (and almost half of users in the 0-60 segment), with 31% of this older demographic using mobile data. Data usage in Malaysa (GDP per capita 10,538 USD) is far higher than that observed in India (1497.50 USD) and Bangladesh (957.8 USD): clearly national prosperity has a strong correlation with the prevalence of mobile internet usage. 

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Neighboring Thailand meanwhile presents an interesting picture in terms of a slightly expanded user base in the oldest demographics: dtac reports a full 6% of users being over 60, although a mere 2% over 65. This possibly reflects a more prosperous senior generation in a country with an average life expectancy of 74.2 years, as compared to only 60.2 in India. Usage within these demographics too presents an interesting contrast to India and Bangladesh. The figures show that data penetration among the elderly is comparatively high, at 56% of users over 60 and 50% of users over 65 using data. Smartphones, at 50-55% among the two upper age groups, far outnumbered feature phones, and mirrors the situation in similarly middle-income Malaysia. Among the top two demographics, the male/female split, while pronounced, is nevertheless encouraging, with 19% of Thai female users over 60 years of age and 15% over 65 using data.

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Clearly data penetration is higher in Thailand’s higher per-capita income setting, although such levels among the elderly may also have to do with cultural issues – grandparents buying smartphones for teenager children, and having the mobile registered as their own – but this would need to be borne out by further research.

Elderly exclusion from the mobile information revolution is to some extent true throughout the developing world: Pew Research’s study of internet usage across emerging and developing nations demonstrated that younger people (18 to 34) are more likely to have accessed the internet than their older counterparts in every country polled, including differences of more than 15 percentage points in all but three countries studied.[4] The correlation of prosperity and internet usage is also reflected in Pew’s findings in Asia, which reveal that 14% of Thais and 17% of Malaysians over the age of 50 use the Internet or own a smartphone, versus 7%, 5%, and 2% of the same demographic in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, respectively; the figures should be compared to those of China, in which a full 25% of the 50+ segment report regularly using the internet or owning a smartphone.[5]

Such lower internet usage among higher age groups is also broadly consonant to the rest of the world: in Europe, for instance, only 18% of internet users over a three month period aged 45-54 connected to the internet from mobile devices and only 11% of users aged between 55 and 74 did so; most elderly internet users aged 65 to 74 (79%) access the internet from home only; a situation shared by 53% of users aged 55 to 64.[6] Clearly mobile internet remains less popular among older internet users even in the developed world.

At the same time, given the challenges expected to emerge from Asia’s rapidly aging population, and the growing importance and affordability of mobile internet (often the only available access in developing markets), these effects will no doubt be felt all the more in this part of the world. The internet as a conduit for encouraging continued social participation and productivity can be a vital tool for senior citizens. All stakeholders, from government to families to operators should be cognizant of this impending crisis of connectivity, and be poised to respond.

From the hardware point of view, some manufacturers have already taken steps to offer handsets with larger icons and buttons, taking into consideration the physiological realities of aging.[7] Guidelines for website design too can ensure greater accessibility to the elderly, as have been implemented by the Government of Hong Kong.[8] As the same time, ICT mentoring programs for seniors, as Telenor has successfully rolled out in Norway to encourage mobile data use, may also be effective in this part of the world. Families and loved ones of course have an important role to play in the mentoring process. We must all take measures to ensure that the benefits of the internet are truly enjoyed by all, not just the young.

Sources and Methodology

Data on India was compiled by TNS Gallup on behalf of Telenor Group Industrial Development and GfK on behalf of Uninor. Bangladesh, Malaysian, and Thai statistics compiled and extracted from national surveys and customer data by Telenor Research, DiGi, and dtac, respectively. Thailand data represents postpaid only.

[1] GSMA, The Mobile Economy Asia Pacific 2013, GSMA, June 2013

[2] See CNBC, “Asia’s aging crisis explained in one graphic”, Thursday, http://www.cnbc.com/id/101198566, published 14 Nov 2013

[3] The Economist, “Ageing Consumers: Chasing the Grey Yen”, April 11, 2015, p. 60

[4] Pew Research Center, “Internet Seen as Positive Influence on Education but Negative on Morality in Emerging and Developing Nations”, http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/03/19/internet-seen-as-positive-influence-on-education-but-negative-influence-on-morality-in-emerging-and-developing-nations/

[5] Pew Research Center, Spring 2014 Survey, “Technology in Asia” (forthcoming)

[6] European Union, Digital Agenda Scoreboard 2012, pp. 9-10

[7] K. Chen, Alan H. S. Chan, and Steve N. H. Tsang, “Usage of Mobile Phones amongst Elderly People in Hong Kong”, Proceedings of the International MultiConference of Engineers and Computer Scientists 2013 Vol II, IMECS 2013, March 13 – 15, 2013, Hong Kong, http://www.iaeng.org/publication/IMECS2013/IMECS2013_pp1016-1019.pdf

[8] See website of the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer: http://www.ogcio.gov.hk/en/community/web_accessibility/