17 May 2022

Two megatrends are converging exponentially and on a global scale: technological advancement and population ageing. This phenomenon presages considerable changes in the socioeconomic landscape and cross-sectoral business models.

Ageing is an inevitable part of life, affecting everyone. It is therefore essential that we foster a healthy and active ageing experience for present and future generations. Fortunately, we are ageing in a digital world. We have tools to help us live longer, maintain active and healthier lives, and make socioeconomic contributions to society that can enable us to live our lives to the fullest.

Technological advancements have radically changed our world. Work, education, leisure, socializing and so many other activities take place in the digital space—wouldn’t we want to continue accessing all of the benefits of such technology as we get older? We should begin by eliminating the misconception that older generations don't use technology, as many are becoming technologically savvy. To promote a culture of healthy ageing, in which older people are fully included in the digital economy, it is vital that we promote digitally accessible technologies and digital skills tailored to the needs of the ageing. In implementing such accessibility, the involvement of end-user representatives is critical.

Information and communications technologies (ICTs), if built with digital accessibility requirements and universal design in mind, can make a fundamental difference in creating inclusive, age-friendly digital environments and communities. While health services are the most developed resource for older adults, many other areas remain underdeveloped, such as leisure and entertainment. ICTs can provide valuable access to public and private online services for purchasing goods online instead of going to stores; paying taxes; completing financial transactions safely from home; and learning new skills via e-learning platforms. E-health and wellness apps enable older persons to manage their health and maintain independence. Technology is increasingly critical for social inclusion, enabling ageing people to maintain close contact with family and friends, and overcome social isolation and loneliness. During the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has been shown to offer endless opportunities for learning and interaction through innovative applications, such as augmented and virtual reality and artificial intelligence. The key to success is to develop human-centred technology that can be used by as many people as possible. Click here for more on the work of the International Telecommunications Union in digital inclusion.

Accessible ICTs can help people overcome many age-related barriers in vision, hearing, dexterity and cognition. Screen readers/text-to-voice and voice-to-text virtual assistants are examples of such features. We all use various accessibility tools including voice messages, text-to-speech, or video captioning, all of which are driven by smart technology. With further digital transformation sweeping the world in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that the opportunities opened by ICTs are equally and equitably available, affordable and accessible to all people regardless of their age, gender, location or ability. Moreover, the skills necessary to use technology are essential in enabling all end users to integrate into the digital world and ensuring everyone’s inclusion and participation in digital societies and economies. Click here for more on ICT accessibility.

Older persons are increasingly adept at the use of digital technologies. Congerdesign/Pixabay

When designed in accessible formats with universal design in mind, ICTs can help create inclusive and age-friendly environments that promote healthy living for today's and tomorrow's older persons.

There are many challenges to ensuring that technologies truly empower older people who wish to be connected, and provide alternate solutions for those who want to remain offline or do not have a choice. Hopefully, many incentives will trigger rapid change. The “silver economy” is estimated at $15 trillion, and the global market for elder care technology is worth more than $13 billion. The public and private sectors recognize that the ageing population represents an appealing opportunity, particularly for the technology industry and digital services.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that creating multigenerational workforces and giving older workers more opportunities to work could increase gross domestic product per capita 19 per cent over the next three decades. Therefore, all stakeholders must capitalize on the opportunities presented by the ageing digital revolution.

How can the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations system support such objectives?

Raise awareness

ITU included within the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) the Special Track on ICT and Older Persons, which took place from 2 to 6 May 2022 and was attended by over 550 participants worldwide. This year, the theme of World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (17 May 2022) is "Digital technologies for older persons and healthy ageing”.

Use platforms to collaborate, advocate, leverage efforts and show the way forward

As a result of a joint effort under the United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing 2021-2030, we increased impact by developing thematic policies and advocacy briefs such as “Social isolation and loneliness among older people”, published in conjunction with the World Health Organization and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. We have also led impactful, cross-sectoral dialogues with leaders and experts to share knowledge, challenges, solutions and ways forward, for example, during the WSIS Forum 2022 through the multi-stakeholder High-level Dialogue.

Digital devices can provide everyone, including ageing people, with opportunities to learn new skills and and pursue social interaction. Kampus Production/Pexels

Provide guidelines and strengthen capacity

The issue of ageing in a digital world is addressed within the digital inclusion work of the ITU Telecommunication Development Sector. Our work encompasses awareness-raising, developing guidelines on policies and strategies, sharing good practices, and strengthening ITU members’ and stakeholders’ capacity to turn this challenge into a great opportunity. Two primary resources were developed to support this global effort: the report on Ageing in a Digital World—From Vulnerable to Valuable and the online self-paced training “ICT for better ageing and livelihood in the digital landscape”, available in English, French and Spanish. These resources are provided free of charge and in digitally accessible formats. The United Nations partnership in the forthcoming Virtual Roundtable Series "Mainstreaming Knowledge on Ageing: Bridging Paths towards Strengthening Protection and Participation" is another example of how the United Nations can lead this global effort.

Ageing is a privilege, and ageing in a digital world is an opportunity. Everyone’s work could make a difference, but only by working together can we create change and attain an active, healthy and happy life for older adults of today and tomorrow.