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Internet and Technology Use

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It seems obvious that there will be a strong generational aspect to people’s use of technology – our comfort and interest will be highly influenced by the context we grew up in.  The pace of change in internet and communications technology makes it difficult to get a truly generational perspective of these patterns over a long enough period – nearly all the tools we take for granted today didn’t exist even a few years ago.  But we can get a good idea of trends (and likely futures) from new reanalysis of Ipsos MORI data that stretches back to 2007.  

 

Starting with internet use (in the chart above), as we might expect younger generations are more likely to access the web several times a day. Three quarters (77%) of generation Y did in 2013, with generation X closely following at 68%. Half of baby boomers (49%) use the web several times a day, while just 16% of the pre-war generation do so.  

 

The chart also makes clear that the proportion of frequent internet users is growing on this measure for all generations – but at very different rates.  Younger generations are seeing the fastest growth; generation Y is up 33 percentage points since 2008, while both the pre-war generation and baby boomers are up just six points over the period. 

 

A similar but more extreme pattern can be seen for mobile internet access in the chart below.  Again, generation Y are the biggest users - more than half (54%) now use the internet on a mobile device, up from just four percent in 2007. Just under half (45%) of generation X now use the internet on a mobile device, compared with 20% of the baby boomers and just three percent of the pre-war generation.   This is a massive spread of levels of mobile connection, with the generations fanning out, and the pre-war generation remaining virtually untouched.

 

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These are clearly relatively early days for mobile internet (even by the standards of the technology world), and we have a few years to go before we see a settled pattern.  In contrast, some other digital activities appear to have already reached saturation point within each generation – just at very different levels.   

 

For example, levels of use of social networking sites appear to have plateaued within each generation, as the chart below shows. Here again, each successive generation is more likely to be a user than the previous, with generation Y on top (71% use social networking sites, forums or blogs) and pre-war at the bottom (just eight percent).


But the key point is that all have flattened off, with only a few percentage point increases in each generation over the last couple of years.

 

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This same pattern can also be seen for downloading/streaming music, where there has been relatively little growth for all generations for an even longer period and each generation has settled at a different level, as the chart below shows.

 

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However, there are some activities that break this strict generational hierarchy.   In tablet ownership, for example, generation X leads the way at 32% in 2013, with the baby boomers (23%) almost level with generation Y (26%). The level of growth between 2011 and 2013 shows the fast-paced nature of modern technology trends, with the highest growth of 25 percentage points in ownership among generation X (up from seven percent in 2011).

 

This is likely to be due to lifecycle effects. Many technology market pundits have commented on the impact of the high prices of tablets to date, with the wealthier older generations more likely to have the disposable income to purchase them (although this is of course shifting all the time). 

 

 

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There is a similar generational order for online grocery shopping, with generation X on top, as they have been since 2008 (24% now buy groceries online), ahead of generation Y (17%) and the baby boomers (11%). Just one in twenty (five percent) of the pre-war generation shop for groceries online.  

 

Again, lifecycle effects will be important here, as generation X are now at the prime age for having families, where online shopping will be much more attractive.  Interestingly, we’ve measured a slight decline in online grocery shopping among the baby boomer generation from a peak in 2010, which may also be a lifecycle effect, as more of this cohort move into retirement.  

 

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The pattern is slightly different again with more general online purchasing and financial activities, such as banking.  Here the clear picture is of the three younger generations not being greatly apart in 2008, and this not changing much through the period – but with the pre-war generation being left out and behind.  

 

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Overall then the generational patterns of technology use are much as we would expect – but not entirely. The digital divide is very real, but this generational view makes clear that on some measures this will die out with our current oldest generation - they will be the last generation that is almost entirely untouched by many aspects of digital technology.  

 

But it also shows that there are significant proportions of the population from all age groups who are not engaged in a range of activities – and the flat generational lines suggest this will not change as much as we may have expected even a few years ago.  

 

Authors: Harry Carr, Peter Dangerfield, Katie Harris, Laura Matkov and Eleanor Pettit.

 


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Bobby Duffy

Bobby Duffy

Managing Director
Social Research Institute
Ipsos MORI


Visiting Senior Research Fellow

King's College London

 

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