This shift, alongside advances in digital technology, was the starting point for our report, which seeks to start a national conversation about ageing, work and participation. By 2031, it’s projected around one in five Australians will be 65 years old or over. We must leverage the capacity and energy of older Australians, but how?
Over the course of 38 interviews with industry stakeholders, it became clear that digital technologies such as internet-connected devices and online communication tools could have an enabling effect.
But the research also highlights obstacles. People who are 65 years or older currently have the lowest level of engagement with the internet. As face-to-face consultation is swapped for cost-effective online health services, older people could become isolated. And while new jobs in the so-called “sharing economy”, like driving for Uber, offer flexible sources of income for retirees, they’re also more precarious than traditional employment.
Professor Philip Taylor of Federation University, an expert on the relationship between age and the labour market, said the aim is:
…equipping people to respond well to changes in their environment over their working lives, rather than … assuming at the age of 55 we can stick you on some sort of scheme and hope for the best. That takes a massive rethink of learning and training in Australia.
Drawing upon examples provided by experts from across civil society, industry and research institutions, we identify five ways digital technology could change our experiences and opportunities in later life.
1. Minimise the impact of physical and cognitive ageing
In the future, rather than retreating to institutions, older Australians could live in smart, connected homes that discretely monitor their daily routines and health status. Automated transport systems and mobility-focused technology, including exoskeletons, could also help people remain mobile.
Assistive technologies will allow people to remain active in the workforce for longer. Chief executive of Suncare Community Services, Russell Mason, described a young man who was confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy but running his own video-editing business using a switch device.
On the other hand, those who are less skilled or comfortable with such technology, often older workers, will likely have more difficulty retaining and finding such employment.
2. Bridge geographic distance
Digital technology can remove geographic barriers by enabling instant communication and sharing of data. Older people can stay in touch with family over Skype, or connect with doctors via telehealth conferencing. Citizen science platforms like Zooniverse allow people to participate in global research teams from their home.
However, reliance on online communication should not come at the expense of in-person interaction. Such connections need to be valued and supported if we do not want older people to become isolated.
3. Harness social, intellectual and financial capital
Digital technologies allow us to use the assets acquired over a lifetime in new ways. New marketplaces such as Uber, Ebay, Airtasker and Airbnb could help generate income from under-used items, whether a car, power tools, a skillset or spare rooms.
But the digital economy is similar to the traditional economy – income-generating opportunities are greatest for those with specialised skills or sought after assets. Older people with more limited means could be disadvantaged if we don’t create opportunities for them to generate a sustainable income in this new economy.
4. Deliver information and education
As automation takes over tasks currently performed by human workers, older people will be vulnerable. Studies suggest they tend to be more affected by technology-driven downsizing and are often less likely to find alternative employment.
For those older workers who need to retrain, the ability to access education via online channels will be critical.
Digital technology is being used to enrich the educational environment (for example, using simulation and augmented reality tools) and to allow students to access course material at the time and location of their choosing.
For those that want to keep learning for its own sake, some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, including Stanford University, now offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that allow anyone to access lectures and course content.
5. Make connections
Digital technology can also facilitate new connections by linking people with similar interests and needs. In this way, it can allow people to work more flexibly, find a soulmate, or contribute to a global task force.
Digital platforms empower individuals to start their own microbusiness by linking them with clients and niche markets. The Better Caring platform, for example, enables personalised care and support arrangements for the disabled community and older people by matching the needs and location of clients and workers.
Realising the potential
Some of the experts we interviewed believe the disruptive impact of digital technology has the potential to transform our experience of later life.
Professor Marek Kowalkiewicz, PwC Chair in Digital Economy at Queensland University of Technology, was one such participant. He said:
Getting retired means being able to pursue completely new dreams, finally having impact on the world… Maybe moving from what most of us do, which is trying to fulfil the expectations of society by getting a job, having children, building a house and so on, to living your life to its fullest.
Our report is intended to raise awareness of the opportunities and the risks, and start a national discussion about lifelong participation in a digitally enabled society.
Florida State University’s Professor Dawn Carr posed the challenge this way:
What do we care about, what are our values, what do we seek to accomplish… what is science telling us for having a really good life and then how can technology facilitate that?