Aging, Employment and Digital Divide Essay
Aging has become one of the most controversial issues in the contemporary American society. This issue is especially significant taking into consideration technological advancements of the recent years. Even though computer-user rates are growing fastest among Americans 50 and over, this age group remains the least likely to use computers and the Internet (discounting 3-8-year-olds). Currently, rates of computer and Internet use climb steadily from childhood until the prime workforce years (20s through 50s), level off, and then fall after about age 55. (Fadem, 1999) This plateau effect among elders will disappear as currently computing Baby Boomers continue to advance in age (cohort effect) and more new users continue to adopt the technologies at all ages. Adoption clearly will come more slowly to Americans who are currently retired, have small incomes, and have not previously been exposed to computers or the Internet through the labor force or other means. This means that, on the whole, African American, Hispanic, and some other nonwhite elders will experience especially disproportionate adoption rates. (LeBlanc, 1997)
Effective public policy for curing the Digital Divide must include attention to these Americans, many of whom are single women, racial minorities, and residents of central-city or rural geographic areas. One means by which the Divide can be addressed is through policies that encourage the participation by elders in the workforce to the degree that they desire and need to do so. Training programs that help older workers remain current with technology and help nonworking elders retool to fulfill desires of reentering the workforce can provide a much-needed missing link between the technology haves and have-nots in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond.
The aging of today’s Baby Boomers will do little to address the Digital Divide in more developing nations. Older adults living in the developing world are especially likely to belong to the Digital Divide’s “have not” group. In a study of elders living in the Asia-Pacific region, researcher Anne Cooper-Chen found that people 65 and over are much less likely than younger people to use computers and the Internet. She found four general reasons: the likelihood that they neither knew English (the dominant language of the Internet) nor were familiar with Western language characters; the probability that they were not well educated and therefore discouraged from learning new technologies; the likelihood that they lived with their children, obviating the need for the Internet’s perceived social benefits; and their more easy adaptation of cell phone technologies, which represented a more familiar communication form. (Fadem, 1999)
Policies that grapple with the technological needs of an aging world will need to be international in scope but locally meaningful. They will require increasing attention from national governments and international nongovernmental organizations-such as the United Nations and International Labor Organization (ILO)-as policy regulators, enforcer watchdogs, and propagandists. Existing laws and policies vary but generally do little to promote technological literacy and access for elders as citizens and workers. (LeBlanc, 1997) Improved policies that promote adoption of technologies by elders must be sufficiently nuanced to acknowledge cultural differences in experience along such axes as disability, gender, and social class.
Disability is a crucial issue. As others have pointed out, new technologies can serve as an important equalizer for disabled citizens and workers-but they can also serve as additional barriers. (Scheidt, 1999) Thirty percent of Americans between 50 and 64 and more than half of those 65 and over have one or more disabilities (difficulty walking, difficulty seeing, difficulty hearing, difficulty grasping, or learning disability). (Scheidt, 1999) Among all 50-64-year-olds with a disability, more than half have never used a personal computer, compared with less than 30 percent of those in the same age group with no disability. The gap for those 65 and over is also severe.
Gender critically informs the economic status of older women in the contemporary aging world. Women in their 50s and beyond, who are much less likely than men their age to participate in the official labor force and who are much more likely than either men or younger women to live below the poverty line, are unlikely to see improvement in their diminished health, workplace status, and financial resources. Significantly, older women around the world do participate in considerable numbers in the unofficial labor force, however. While they are much less likely than younger women to work in the Information Technology (IT) sector or work with new technologies of any kind, they likely perform routine duties related to the family that undergird the computer-related productivity of their society.
In more developed countries, women’s work force participation at ages 55-64 is sharply increasing. For example, only about a third of Swedish women in this age group were in the labor force in the early 1970s. By the early 1990s, well over half were in the work force. (Minkler, 1996) In many contexts, labor force participation by older women is especially necessary, with a widening gender gap in old age caused by a greater increase of longevity for women. This is complicated by the increasing prevalence of single older women living alone in the developed world, as divorced and never-married Baby Boomers begin to populate older groups. (Minkler, 1996)
The need to work in the so-called retirement years is much more pronounced among African American women and men than it is for their white counterparts, whose net worth tends to be much greater. Increasing sectors of older Asian and Hispanic American workers are expected by 2008, reflecting migration and birth trends. Such changes will contribute to an overall aging workforce; because recent birth rates have been quite high in Hispanic and black sectors of the population, however, the overall picture remains one of an older, white workforce and a younger one of color, with women figuring increasingly prominently in both groups. (LeBlanc, 1997)
For men, significant differences exist. First, in the developed world, a two decade-long trend toward “early retirement” has now stopped or, in many countries, even reversed. In the United States, for example, 73 percent of men aged 65 and over were in the labor force in the early 1970s. That number fell to 55 percent by the early 1990s but now is slowly climbing again, as men increasingly find retirement systems insufficient to support them, especially in light of increasingly expensive lifestyles favored by Baby Boomers and a less romantic stereotype of early retirement as a golden time. (Scheidt, 1999)
In fact, many men leave one occupation in their 50s or 60s only to take on new forms of work that allow them flexibility of mobility and income. For example, the pages of Web sites devoted to professional consulting services are clogged with the résumés of middle-class white men who have left corporate positions (or been downsized) only to seek new opportunities as their “own boss” or through short-term contracts with organizations. (Scheidt, 1999) An increasing trend is for such men to retire from a company and continue in service to that organization on a contract basis, saving the corporation money on benefits that the retiree no longer needs and unshackling the worker from the requirement of being on site full time.
Policy groups such as the International Longevity Center-USA and the United Nations argue for official remedies that will pave the way for greater official labor force participation by older persons, especially women and those with disabilities, because such government and corporate protections will decrease the likelihood that elders will live in poverty and be denied access to the so-called good life. Among the remedies mentioned are such initiatives as preretirement skills training for middle-aged women, who might stay in the labor force if they are better prepared for changing employment opportunities, and a transparent benefits structure, which will prevent some people from retiring before they can actually afford to do so. (Minkler, 1996)
Such remedies will need to be introduced within policies that are designed to counter widening educational disparities between the generations, as the Rand organization, a public policy group concerned with social equality and fiscal fairness, has argued. Even though the current generations of elders are better educated than any of their predecessors, they are, in many cases, competing in the workforce with junior employees who are themselves increasingly better educated.
As a related matter, elders potentially find themselves on the wrong side of the Digital Divide, across the chasm from younger generations who came of age in a computer-literate society. If significant changes in approaching the continuing education of older workers in the area of information and computer literacy do not occur soon, the “graying” of the developed world, especially in countries such as the United States, will further underscore the ravages of the Digital Divide.
Even as more people 50 and over take to the Internet, digital inequities among the generations are made more profound, as concentrations of resources are pumped into K-12 education for young people while older adults receive scant “training” opportunities. (Fadem, 1999) Furthermore, as the proportion of ethnic minorities grows among an aging population in such countries as the United States, digital disparities among aged citizens will increase: people who will be 50 and over a decade from now are, on the whole, more likely to be well educated and technologically literate than the previous generations of elders, but this is much less true for ethnic minorities who remain disproportionately represented in the underclass.
Most economists agree that the world cannot sustain large numbers of early retirements, and critical scholars note that such systems unfairly penalize both working poor elders and the diminishing younger cohorts who are less likely to recoup their investment in old-age supports. (Baltes, 1996) One of the reasons that people retire early is their perceived need for greater flexibility and mobility in late life due to personal circumstances, whether it is a desire to winter in warmer climates, be around grandchildren, or simply not have to report to the cubicle every weekday from 9 to 5 after thirty years of having done so. Increasingly, especially for women, early retirement is a means of finding the time to care for an older relative or for grandchildren. The jump from full-time employment to pension collection is severe for many people, both economically and psychologically. Stepped-down participation, in which organizations offer reduced work schedules and greater opportunity for telecommuting, could help both workers and strained economies.
Policymakers must be careful not to eliminate pension availability indiscriminately. A majority of men over 60 may not need their pensions, but three out of four of the world’s women would fall well below the poverty line without theirs. (LeBlanc, 1997) A capricious approach to elongating work life, without attention to individual needs and differences, would further imperil elders who have already been made to feel vulnerable by the dominant trope of “productive aging,” a scholarly construct made popular in media discourses that preach the values of dedication to work and vitality in order to achieve “success” in old age. Such expectations devalue other meaningful pursuits of elders, such as relational family experiences, and unfairly hold marginalized elders accountable for their own “failures.” (LeBlanc, 1997)
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