Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe: The digital exclusion of older adults

Over the years, digital technology has dramatically changed our world and our way of life. And it will no doubt continue to do so in the future. Digitisation brings many benefits, but these same benefits deepen the gap between those who have access to them and those who do not. In addition to the large gap between rural and urban areas regarding access to high-performance connectivity, the differences in crucial skills for using available digital solutions are also acute.

SORS data confirms this, showing that ten per cent, or 74,776 households, did not have access to the internet in 2020. Two-thirds of respondents said they did not need the internet, and 47 per cent cited a lack of knowledge about the use of technological devices and platforms as one of the reasons why they do not access the internet.

Digital skills in different age groups

It is no secret that there are significant differences in the levels of digital skills between age groups. While it seems that the younger generation was already born with mobile phones and tablets in their hands, many older people today have spent their working and personal lives without exposure to digital technologies or routine use of a computer and, therefore, without the need to acquire digital skills.

So how should this fact be addressed? The answer is offered in the form of lifelong learning, but not all age groups are included, even in this case. To a large extent, lifelong learning programmes and various digital competence training programmes target working-aged people to empower them and expand their range of employment and self-employment opportunities.

It also seems that we have not fully mastered the concept of lifelong learning; the solutions in place today are only used occasionally or in case of need, and not constantly, as is suggested by the very meaning of the word “lifelong learning”. Regardless of all well-written and accepted documents and strategies that address lifelong learning perspectives.

In addition to implementing a “campaign” of lifelong learning, the problem is that this does not (at least in practice) cover all age groups even though, by definition, lifelong learning would be expected to cover everyone from children and young people, those in active working life, as well as older people. But not all age groups are covered or, more precisely, people older than those of working age (over the age of 64) are generally excluded from these education plans.

Population age structure indicators in EU (January 1st, 2020). Eurostat.
Population age structure indicators in EU (January 1st, 2020). Eurostat.

Strategies and goals often do not include all ages

It should be noted that often not all ages are included in these strategies and goals set for acquiring digital skills or (more generally) in research. This can lead nowhere but to the digital exclusion of a large group of people, given the fact that more than a fifth (20.6%) of the population of the European Union was aged 65 and over in 2020, of which just under 6% are over 80 years of age.

According to Eurostat, only one in four Europeans in the 65-74 age group has basic or advanced digital skills, compared with two in three in the 35-44 age group, three in four in the 25-34 age group and four in five among young people aged 16 to 24 years.

Within the vision for Europe’s digital transformation by 2030, the European Commission has set an ambitious goal of having a minimum of 80% of the population acquire at least basic digital skills. Initially, people over the age of 75 were omitted, and when stating the 2030 targets, among other things, said: a minimum of 80% of the population aged 16-74 acquiring at least basic digital skills.

On December 24th, the Office of the Government of the Republic of Slovenia for Digital Transformation published a draft of the Digital Inclusion Promotion Act on the eGovernment (eUprava) website. The Act divides the population of the Republic of Slovenia into eight target groups for which incentive measures are intended: preschool children, compulsory school children, secondary school pupils, participants in higher education programmes, university students, teachers at all levels of education, adults, and pensioners (Article 9). The division of groups is necessary for measures to be adapted to the specific needs of individual age groups of the population; this is explained in the bill’s introduction.

Among the Act’s goals is the acquisition and raising of the level of basic digital competencies of the population so that at least 80% of the population in the Republic of Slovenia, aged between 16 and 74, has basic digital competencies by 2028.

It is impossible to see a doctor without a pre-arranged appointment. Photo: Thodonal.
It is impossible to see a doctor without a pre-arranged appointment. Photo: Thodonal.

Why is it essential to address the digital skills of the elderly?

Of course, we are not trying to say that people over the age of 70 (or anyone who doesn’t need it) should be tormented by the basics of programming. Still, the fact is that without basic internet skills, they cannot be equally involved in society, nor can they access essential services.

Let’s look at a very basic example. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was possible to simply walk into the doctor’s office, even without an appointment. Of course, you had to wait in line for a long time, but this possibility existed. Today, it is impossible to see a doctor without a pre-arranged appointment. And how to make an appointment? To reach the doctor’s office via phone call is more the exception than the rule. So, the only option left is to send an email.

What about those who don’t know how or don’t have a computer or a smartphone? If they are lucky, one of their younger relatives or friends is willing to help them. But asking someone for help again and again can be annoying. These individuals find themselves in the same dilemma, even if they just need a new prescription or want to make an appointment for a vaccination.

Even those elderly involved in institutional care were excluded from society during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, it turned out that the elderly in nursing homes did not have access to communication devices for long-distance calls. Relatives were not allowed to enter nursing homes, and the elderly were left without contact with their loved ones.

Access to digital services and the ability to use them has become necessary. The web is not only a way to access a doctor but also a way to get news, shop, and contact family members and friends.

However, warnings and instructions on safely using the internet must be included when basic internet skills are taught. The elderly are often the victims of fraud and abuse on the internet.

The web is not only a way to access a doctor but also a way to get news, shop, and contact family members and friends. Photo:
The web is not only a way to access a doctor but also a way to get news, shop, and contact family members and friends. Photo:

Why is it necessary to address the fact that digital is simply not of interest to everyone?

As mentioned above, the speed of change has increased since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is more online shopping and virtual access to general medical practitioners. On the other hand, in some places already, and coming soon to others, there will be more and more physical shops and service providers who are unwilling, or at least reluctant, to accept cash.

Restrictions on social interaction have raised concerns about loneliness and isolation, especially for those who do not use digital technology. Therefore, it has become more critical than ever to consider the situation of those who are not digitally engaged; either those that don’t have the chance to be digitally engaged or those who are simply not interested.

While most people can benefit from digital technology, those who cannot or do not want to be online should be able to access services and support in a way that suits them. Even if the pandemic encourages more people to use digital technology, some will never come online, and perhaps some will even stop using it for one reason or another.

Some only know how to, or only want to, use the web to some small extent. Being able to make a video call to stay in touch with family does not mean that older individuals also have the skills, confidence, and trust to also deal with finances online or access administrative or other services. People need to be able to access information, keep in touch, manage their finances, shop and access public services in a way that suits them.

They built the world we live in today. And it is not right to leave them excluded and alone.

Key words: digitalization, elderly, digital skills, goals, strategies, research


This article is part of joint project of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and the Anton Korošec Institute (INAK) Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe. This project receives funding from the European Parliament.  The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union institutions/Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies/ Anton Korošec Institute. Organizations mentioned above assume no responsibility for facts or opinions expressed in this article or any subsequent use of the information contained therein.