Aging While Living in a Digital World

Editor’s Note: This Generations Today column, “Aging While...” is sponsored by AARP Foundation. It focuses on creating and advancing innovative solutions that help older Americans build economic opportunity and social connectedness.


When Betty McKennon, 83, needs to deposit a check, she walks down the hall of her New Jersey retirement complex to an ATM-like machine. If she needs help, she presses a button and Kevin, who works at a distant bank, pops up onscreen to guide her through the transaction. Betty owns a desktop computer and a Kindle Fire but finds technology can be daunting. That’s why when she used the ATM for the first time, Betty instructed her friend, “You stand here and tell me what to do.”

Betty might not need Kevin’s help if digital tools were easier for older adults to master and older adults were more confident that they could do so. A recent AARP Foundation-sponsored study by the Financial Health Network, in collaboration with Chase Bank, provides insight on how financial innovators can design products that older, low-to-moderate income older adults will use, improving their financial health. Researchers found that many adults older than age 50 feel that fintech (or financial technology, such mobile payment apps and cryptocurrency) isn’t meant for them due to negative stereotypes, a lack of educational resources, and the belief that such products don’t provide the granular control over their finances that they desire.

Today, 56 million lower-to-moderate-income older adults in the United States struggle with one or more aspects of their financial lives–from insufficient emergency savings and income, lingering debt or inadequate protection from medical shocks. Becoming digitally fluent can help such older adults address these challenges, assisting them to build emergency savings, manage cash flow and debt, track payments and protect against fraud. During the pandemic, being digitally fluent can allow older adults to protect their health by ordering groceries online and reduce their social isolation by connecting with loved ones virtually.

Financial services innovators can ease the barriers to technology adoption for older adults and help them build a path to stronger overall financial health. We offer several recommendations from research that can guide them on this path.

Eliminate Stereotypes and Stigma

The good news is that older adults are already leading more digitally connected lives. Today, 67 percent of older adults use the Internet, while as many as 86 percent of adults in their 50s and 81 percent in their 60s own smartphones. As of 2019, older adults were adopting wearables, smart speakers and smart home technology at almost the rate of those ages 18 to 49.

Yet, 75 percent of adults older than age 65 don’t feel confident about going online. Many have internalized the stereotype of the tech-challenged older adult. Combined, these factors deter the lower-to-moderate income older adult from adopting fintech solutions. It is why, in 2019, despite using smartphones daily, nearly two-thirds of those older than age 50 had not used them for banking or financial transactions in the previous three months.

According to the interviews, older, low-income adults feel stigmatized by their lack of savings and unmanageable debt, viewing them as signs of financial incompetence or personal failure. They don’t think fintech products are meant for “people like them,” perhaps because they are accustomed to relying on alternative financial services such as check cashing or payday loans.

Reinforcing these stereotypes and stigmas, older adults don’t see themselves represented in the marketing and messaging of fintech products and services, bolstering the notion that tech is not meant for them. Tech innovators who employ images of older adults in their marketing, and frame aging in a positive light, can help them overcome this barrier. Emphasizing that a product can be customized for a wide range of needs, preferences and uses also helps older adults envision themselves using such products.

Put Users in Control

Older adults with constrained incomes want to be fully in control of their money, personal information and ability to manage their finances. They perceive fintech tools such as automated payments and seamless connections between their bank accounts and billers as risky.

Exposure to Fraud The report found that lower-to-moderate income older adults worry that using fintech tools and services may expose them to fraud. In fact, older adults are highly vulnerable and targeted more frequently than any other age group. As many as 17 percent of Americans ages 65 and older reported they have been the victim of financial exploitation. Despite negative perceptions and fears, fintech tools can provide significant fraud protection by putting account information and services at users’ fingertips, enabling real time fraud alerts.

Value Certainty Over Convenience Because lower-to-moderate-income older adults often lack short term savings and are vulnerable to unexpected expenses, they value certainty over convenience in their financial lives. For instance, many have detailed systems for tracking income and expenses, pay bills in person and rely on paper receipts to prove a payment was made. Moving their financial systems online makes many elders anxious that they might lose access to their information due to changing passwords or interfaces. Automated bill payment or account transfers could mean loss of the ability to closely monitor and control the flow of money to and from their accounts.

Older adults want to learn to use tech in a way that builds independence and proficiency.

Fintech products that make older adults feel they can control their personal information and money flow are more attractive. By providing services older adults are likely to value, such as deposit confirmations, while being cautious about automation that takes financial control out of their hands, financial innovators can speed older adults’ transition from analog to digital financial systems.

Empower Users

Lower-to-moderate-income older adults want to be capable, confident and autonomous users of financial and other technology on their own terms. Many say they feel as if technology is being forced upon them by workplaces, institutions or younger generations. Encouragement by younger family members to try new devices or applications can be viewed as unwanted pressure and could backfire. One older adult in the study rejected her daughter’s suggestion to download an app on her smartphone–only to later explore the app on her own.

Lower-to-moderate-income older adults want to learn to use tech in a way that builds their independence and proficiency. Some older users’ sense of competence and control is undermined when they do not receive enough support in learning and using financial technology. For instance, some lamented losing access to tutorials and other guidance they discovered when launching an app but were unable to find again.

The research showed that voice recognition technology could assist older adults to engage independently with technology. Smartphone features such as voice-to-text typing helped those who struggled to see or type on a small screen, and voice assistants or smart speakers helped them master technology by communicating in a way that felt natural. Fintech innovators will help lower-to-moderate-income older adults adopt their products by providing the support that older users seek to learn and navigate technology.

Foster Connections

Adults older than age fifty highly value their communities and social connections. Many learn how to use new digital products and services from younger family members, coworkers, peer networks, community centers, church groups or online forums.

Even tech-averse participants expressed more of a willingness to adopt products vouched for by these trusted networks. One older woman who had been wary of online payments willingly tried a digital tithes app promoted by her church. During services, congregants walked her through the process on church-owned tablets, but she processed the donation on her own mobile device. As she explained, “speaking to someone in person gives you more confidence.”

Tech innovators can harness the power of online communities to share information about their products or services. They can recruit older adult tech “superusers” to become product ambassadors and help recruit within their networks. Peer referrals signal that the product or service is trustworthy and can bring value to their lives. Superusers also are useful as they may be able to provide personalized support during the onboarding stage.The pandemic has provided new impetus for lower-to-moderate income older adults to tackle financial challenges by managing their financial lives from the safety of their homes. Financial health innovators must carefully design and market their products and services to this group to capitalize on this opportunity.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson is the president of AARP Foundation, in Washington, DC.