Smartphones will be a key someday… as older people hang up the car keys for good. The Boomers just don’t know this yet. The technology offers untapped capabilities for transportation as people age-in-place. With a phone in hand, aging Baby Boomers will be able to summon an Uber vehicle, join a car club, reserve a share car, and plan their schedule around the arrival of the next bus or train.
The problem is that there is still a gap, perhaps a gulch, between owning a Smartphone and using its applications. Owning a Smartphone is correlated with income, education, and, of course, age. Using its applications is correlated with something beyond that. For the moment, it is a generational divide.
The Pew Foundation does an annual survey of Smartphone ownership. In 2013, they found that 56 percent of the U.S. population owned one. A third of the population had an older, conventional style cell phone, and only 9 percent had no cell phone at all.
BOOMERS AND SMARTPHONE OWNERSHIP
But, this is a case where Boomers were not trend-setters. More than 4 out of 5 young people, ages 18 to 34 owned a Smartphone. Among the youngest of Baby Boomers (those born 1954-1964), the rate was about 50% (Pew’s estimate, of 55%, includes a younger cohort born between 1964 and 1968).
Among bona-fide, mid-age Baby Boomers, ages 55 to 64, Smartphone ownership was only 39 percent. Among those 65 and older, which would have included two years of the Boomer cohort (born in 1946 and 1947) Smartphone ownership dropped to 18 percent.
For younger people, the main barrier to buying a Smartphone was income, but among older groups, the barrier was lack of interest or need. There is another factor too. Among non-users, ages 50 to 64, the Pew research finds that 12 percent say that the Smartphones are too complicated or hard to learn. The percentage agreeing with that statement is about the same for those age 65+.
BOOMERS AND SMARTPHONE APPS
But, even if Boomers own a Smartphone, and less than half of them do, they do not use it so smartly. The following statistic, from a 2012 Pew report, is sobering.
In the last 30 days , only 20 percent of those ages 50 to 64 used their phone for turn by turn navigation, and the rate fell to 6 percent among those ages 65 plus. Pew reports that using the navigation function, and other Smartphone features, is related to household income and education, as well as age.
It is an irony that so few Boomers use Smartphones for navigation, when so many drivers seem to take out their phones, as soon as they get in the car, to make voice calls (or worse, text) as they drive.
But, that said, for young people, pulling out their Smartphones to summon Uber, check the weather, or book a restaurant is as natural an activity as searching through the phonebook is to an older generation. It is worthwhile noting the people doing the programming for these applications are probably about the same age as the young people using them. That may explain some of their design and process.
SMARTPHONE APPS WILL MATURE!
“Killer apps” is an expression that used to describe a must have/must download application. For the Boomer demographic, the transportation and navigation functions have not become killers…or slayers. YET. Part of the reason is that only about one-half of this age group have a Smartphone. Among those who own one, the majority has not seen the advantages. Another reason may be that the way that apps work. Their customer interface is not that accessible for those 50 and older. Among the oldest age group, the use of maps and pins, say to summon an Uber, is a fairly daunting task. The screen may seem small, and the buttons confusing.
For a different age group, say middle- aged Boomers, the steps may be clearer, but the privacy concerns figure higher. Among the youngest group of Boomers, a Nextbus application may still feel fairly foreign, when it is just faster and quicker to jump in the car.
All this will evolve, as app developers age and develop more “mature” interfaces. In the short term, a bigger device, like an I-pad or tablet might be purpose loaded with connections to transportation providers and information. In the longer run, it is good to know that the Smartphone can be there as the key, when Boomers need to search for a new one.