E-Commerce Leaving Older Americans Behind

A recent survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) shows that almost 40 percent of computer users aged 45 and older lack the confidence to shop for goods and services online.

A lack of Internet skills among many Americans born between 1945 and 1964 — a key demographic known as the “Baby Boom Generation” — is apparently the primary reason for this age-oriented “digital divide.” Of the 39 percent of respondents who described themselves as unsure of themselves when executing transactions online, 24 percent said they are “not at all confident.”

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 40 percent of adults 45 and older, or 35.6 million people, have computers in their homes. Of the AARP respondents, 81 percent use computers at home and half have access to computers somewhere else.

“A significant proportion of computer users age 45 and older are potentially at risk in an increasingly technologically-driven commercial environment,” the AARP said. “The demands posed by electronic financial record-keeping, while probably within the capability of seasoned Internet users, may test the proficiency of sizable subgroups of the population with computers.”

Computer users 65 and older, those with lower education levels and those earning $50,000 (US$) or less per year were significantly more likely to doubt their online proficiency than the younger survey participants, the AARP said. This uneasiness comes despite the lack of any widespread experience of shady practices online, the AARP said.

Only three percent of those surveyed said they had ever been defrauded in an online transaction.

Privacy is Top Priority

Among those respondents who said they have never made a purchase online, nearly one quarter cited concerns about privacy as a key reason for their inaction. Nearly all of those surveyed said any personal information they supply during a business transaction should remain the property of the consumer and should not be shared with other businesses without that consumer’s permission.

Forty-five percent said they would not permit businesses to share their financial information with other businesses under any conditions. About a third said they would consider allowing their information to be shared if they were notified in advance and had the clear option of declining.

Fuel for Lobbying

As a result of the generally low online comfort level among older Americans, the AARP is drumming up support among its members for bills pending in the U.S. Congress to make electronic signatures on documents a legitimate, but not mandatory, means of sealing online transactions.

A Senate-House conference committee is being formed to reconcile the differences between two such bills that have passed their respective houses — H.R. 1714, the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, and Senate Bill 761, the Millennium Digital Commerce Act.

In the AARP survey, 59 percent of respondents said they believe businesses should not be allowed to require consumers to use electronic contracts for business transactions. About 32 percent said they do support that approach.

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