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Universal problems

May 2013

Those of us who are over 65 are taking to the internet in numbers, if the latest research from the Office of National Statistics is to be believed.  In fact, oldies are flocking to cyberspace faster than any other group, which is just as well, as we are being forced to do more and more online, whether we like it or not.

A case in point is the government’s plan for a Universal Credit, which kicks off in April this year. It will merge lots of benefit payments into one, but will have to be claimed and managed online.  This would be all very well, except that the government’s very own statistics seem to show that many of those most likely to need the money (the poor, elderly or disabled) seem to be just the group who are least likely to have any experience of, or access to, the internet.

It’s true that oldies are developing more computer knowhow.  In the last six years, the number of us using a computer every day has increased by a striking 222%, compared with a 45% increase amongst younger people.  Similarly, the grey pound has been very evident; online shopping by the over 65s has doubled, compared to an increase of only 24% by everyone else.

I’ve been a little surprised to discover what the ONS has discovered we buy online.  Years ago, when the internet was fresh and new, I was convinced that no sensible person would ever buy clothes online.  I was as wrong as I could be; clothes are, in fact the most popular purchase online for all ages and genders.  Still, as the man said, prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

There have also been big changes in what we are up to online since 2006.  Sending emails remains the most popular use, which surprises me a little, given the massive growth of the likes of Facebook and Twitter which bypass email altogether, but the really big growth has been in the popularity of making internet phone calls (like Skype) which are up by 300%, followed by reading news or newspapers (up 135%) and listening to radio or TV (up 124%).  We are also being more proactive; the number of individuals selling things online has almost doubled since 2006.

Before we start feeling too smug, it would be as well to consider that millions of adults in the UK have never used the internet; over seven million, in fact.  This number is falling (it was over eight million a year ago), but what is more worrying is that the people that make up this group are increasingly made up of those over 65, those with disabilities, and the very poor.  I imagine that the number of older non-users will diminish with time (as the younger ones get older) but the proportion of disabled and poor non-users has been stubbornly steady for some years.

It is just these people, I assume, who will make up many of the potential recipients of the glossy new internet based Universal Credit; perhaps they will all be eligible.  There is, therefore, a genuine risk that those who are most in need of the money will be just those who will find it the hardest to reach.  It’s an unhappy paradox.