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Connectivity in Later Life: The Declining Age Divide in Mobile Cell Phone Ownership

by Chris Gilleard, Ian Jones and Paul Higgs
UCL; University of Cardiff; UCL

Sociological Research Online, 20 (2), 3
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3552

Received: 10 Mar 2014 | Accepted: 27 Jan 2015 | Published: 31 May 2015


In recent decades changes in social connectivity have become key features in the changing contexts of later life. Communities of propinquity no longer seem to be as determining of social relationships as they once were. Mobile cell phone technology and the Internet have redefined what it means to 'keep in touch'. Some authors have argued that these new forms of connectivity have created a 'digital divide' between those who have become active adopters of these technologies and those who have not. Using data from the British General Household Survey (GHS), we examined trends in mobile phone ownership amongst people over fifty during the period 2000 - 2009. Compared with the pace of change in ownership of other household technologies such as personal computers, dishwashers, fridge freezers and microwave ovens, the take up of mobile phones amongst those aged 50 and over has followed a much sharper rise. Based upon these findings, we suggest a more sceptical stance towards the ICT 'generational divide' which needs more detailed interrogation. Future research should consider the possibility that the divide may be a more short lived phenomenon, as successive cohorts of people aged fifty and over are becoming active participants in individualised networked communities.

Keywords: Mobile Cell Phones, Digital Divide, Generations;, over Fifties, General Household Survey


1.1 While the mobile cell phone possesses elements of both fad and fashion, its role as innovative technology has 'revolutionised' many aspects of social relationships (Gronow 2009: 136). Along with the personal computer (PC) and the World Wide Web (WWW) it has enabled new forms of social connectivity, laying the foundations for what Castells has termed 'the network society' (Castells 1996, 1997, 1998). This transformation in society, and the changing connectedness associated with it has had 'mass' effects (Wei and Lo 2006). The aim of this paper is to investigate if those effects have passed some groups by – rendering them marginal to the new 'virtual communities' – and whether over the first decade of the twenty first century – there are any signs that such marginalization has become a permanent feature of society. In particular we shall examine the extent to which older people have become permanently disconnected from the network society, in material terms by not having access to or not owning a mobile cell phone.

1.2 The mobile cell phone emerged as a 'product' for mass consumption around the same time as the personal computer - during the early 1980s (Dickerson and Gentry 1983, Ryan 2010). In 1984, the US firm, Motorola, introduced the first hand-held portable cellular phone to the American market; a 'black brick-sized device [that] was not easy on the elbow' (Agar 2004:42-3). The UK followed a year later with equally brick like phones from Cellnet and Vodaphone. Although Scandinavian countries developed mobile telephone networks during the 1960s, they served only a small proportion of the population and had limited impact upon relationships within the broader society (Agar 2004). Throughout the 1980s, mobile cell phones remained uncommon goods, the tools of business people and the toys of 'celebrities'. With the arrival of the digital cell phone in the 1990s, these smaller, colourfully designed mobile phones with in-built microprocessors transformed the mobile cell phone from an elite to a 'mass market' product equipped with an expanding range of capabilities (email, internet, gaming, cameras, GPS receivers and applications) (Kalba 2008).

1.3 At the turn of the twenty first century the mobile digital cell phone along with the internet and the World Wide Web provided the core elements of a 'network' society whose reach was instant and global. This new 'connectivity' meant that conversations from any location could be had with people thousands of miles away whilst simultaneously 'ignoring' those who were only inches away, thereby creating new forms of interaction and connectivity and 'cellular', individualised communities. Portable mobile phone communication is un-tethered from professional services and unbound by space or location. Because they are global, instantaneous and ubiquitous, these digital technologies are changing the character of human interactions in both physical and digital worlds. While the changes in connectivity and mobility associated with 'first' or 'traditional' modernity took many decades to embed (from the 19th century railway to the 20th century motorway; from the nineteenth century telegraph to the twentieth century telephone exchange) the digital connectivity and cellular mass mobility of 'second modernity' (Beck et al. 2003) have taken place within a matter of years.

Later life and digital divides

2.1 While some have celebrated the new connectivity of the network society, others have argued that the digital technologies associated with the mobile cell phone and the PC have created new and strengthened old social divides, between those who are active and engaged participants and those who are not (Jaeger 2004). Levels of engagement, however, need to be understood as more than a division between ownership and non-ownership, 'use' and 'non-use', and should also take account of differences in levels of digital literacy in a rapidly evolving technical field (Bawden 2008). Some of those divisions are familiar – such as those associated with income, ethnicity and gender and have been identified in UK research (Dutton et al. 2009), in USA survey data (Jansen 2010), and in comparisons across Europe (Tacken et al. 2005). A 'digital divide' treated simply as differences in ownership/use of PCs and mobile phones has been examined by a number of variables, including income, ethnicity and gender (Norris 2001), by geographical region (Hashizume et al. 2009) and by status groups (Graham 2008, 2010). One of the most significant divides noted has been the emergence of a 'generational divide' in mobile phone use and ownership i.e differences in use and ownership by birth cohort (Karnowski et al. 2008). But it is important to note that studies of digital inequality have been extended to address not just differences in access and ownership but in the quality of products, their applications and the meanings attached to their use (DiMaggio et al. 2004).

2.2 Unlike earlier divides that have been followed or widened by technological change, this 'generational divide' seems to have emerged as a relatively recent phenomenon, following along the horizontal fractures of age group and generation as much if not more than the vertical fractures of social class and status and threatening to exacerbate the potential for the 'Internet generation' to become a new line of political fracture (Turner 1989; Edmunds and Turner 2005: 572). Social divisions created in part through differing generational trajectories in social and economic advantage and disadvantage may be amplified through generational differences in modes of interaction with technology.

2.3 Using an explicitly 'generational' model of technology adoption, DoCampo and colleagues, have distinguished three distinct historical periods during which the style of interacting with consumer products has changed, from 'a mechanical style up till the [nineteen] thirties or forties, an electro-mechanical style up till the early eighties and a software style since then' (DoCampo et al. 2001: 26). Older people, they suggest, suffer from a generation-related lack of experience with software style devices, having grown up with experience of 'mechanical' or 'electro-mechanical' user interfaces which has resulted in the generational divide around software based technologies (DoCampo et al. 2001: 28). Such views reflect Borgmann's earlier ideas about historically situated 'technological horizons' which limit people's expectations and acceptance of new and emerging technologies (Borgmann 1984). These horizons are thought to constrain the kinds of technology that 'older people might find acceptable and usable' (Turner and Turner 2010: 1; see also Ziefle and Bay 2005).

2.4 Such generationally located 'digital' divisions suggest that while the young can now keep in constant touch with each other wherever they are, through the evolving technologies of the internet and mobile phones, the majority of older people are left stranded in increasingly isolated neighbourhoods with limited and reducing connectivity with local kith and kin (Oksman 2006; Sourbati 2009). Attempts to re-order or rehabilitate this divide have tended to adopt a patronizing style, viewing older people as 'passive' users whose needs are best conceptualised by treating mobile phones as 'assistive technologies' compensating for the deficits and disabilities of age (Kurniawan 2008; Chau and Turner 2006; Gao and Koronias 2010; Gaul and Ziefle 2009). Others have argued that since domestic ICT use "is not only a minority activity among older adults but also highly stratified by gender, age, marital status and educational background" (Selwyn et al. 2003: 561), bridging this divide can only be addressed by active public re-education and reskilling of older people and/or the reshaping of ICT to adapt to older people's needs. Using the same survey instruments as Selwyn et al these findings have been replicated in American and Israeli populations (Heart and Kalderon 2011), implying a certain constancy to these generationally limited technological horizons and reinforcing the idea of age group divides associated with an inherent passivity in the habits and attitudes of older people whose origins lie intrinsically in their historically located agedness.

2.5 Nevertheless, the changes brought about by these new forms of information and communication technology (ICT) are evolving. The rapidity of their take up and their changing modes of use may not support their role as 'agents' in structuring the emerging social divisions of age and generation. For example, analysis of US data has found that social networking use among older internet users has increased in recent years although many older people remain isolated from digital technology (Madden 2010; Pew Research Centre 2014). Although there is undoubtable evidence of an age divide in mobile phone access (Adams and Fitch 2006) research suggests that the 'digital divide' may be narrowing (Shrewsbury 2002). Of course, such so-called 'generational divides' are mediated by many factors, including social economic and cultural difference (Sourbati 2009); expertise effects (Arning et al. 2010) as well as existing normative age associated changes in ability (Charnes and Boot 2009), all of which might be anticipated to sustain and stabilize such divides despite – or even because of – the speed with which mobile technology is evolving, on the grounds that older cohorts are chronologically older, less educated, less likely to be exposed to employment and leisure related ICT expertise, and with less discretionary spending power and peer pressure to buy into these new technologies.

2.6 The aims of this paper are to critically examine the 'generational' or 'age group' nature of this digital divide, drawing on data on mobile cell phone ownership. Whilst age differences in the ownership and use of digital technology were very noticeable when such technologies were emerging, these differences should not be considered as fixed intrinsic features of ageing and neither are they the inevitable consequences of an un-traversable divide in technological horizons. While the 1960s generational gap between young and old did plausibly represent a major break in the lifestyles, attitudes and economic circumstances of the 'post-war' generation, subsequent cohorts are in many ways much less distinct in what might be termed their generational 'habitus' than the 'pre-war' generation (Gilleard and Higgs 2005; Higgs and Gilleard 2010).

2.7 Consequently, while there may be evidence of greater use and ownership of mobile phones amongst younger, better off and better educated people at the beginning of the twenty first century, these distinctions may change, and possibly show signs of attenuation such that, a decade on, the original divide may have lessened considerably. Such patterns are difficult to research as indicators of ownership do not necessarily correspond with use. Data on ownership and use needs to be considered against a background of rapid technological change, as the digital divide also spans differences in digital literacy (Neves et al. 2013) and the increasing heterogeneity of older groups is a key factor in the patterning of technology use (Gell et al. 2013).

2.8 Nevertheless as distinctions between the generations in general levels of consumption (Higgs et al. 2009; Jones et al. 2008) lessens, so the socio-demographic and socio-economic distinctions in mobile cell phone ownership between members of these older generations may also decline. To examine whether there is evidence of such changes we draw on data of household ownership of mobile cell phones and other technologies from the General Household Surveys to explore whether or not (a) there is evidence of a decline in the digital divide between age cohorts/generations in Britain over the first decade of the twenty first century and (b) whether any such decline that is observed is confined to the ownership patterns of younger, healthier, and wealthier groups of older people.


3.1 The data analysed in this paper are derived from the individual files of the 2000 and 2006 General Household Surveys and the 2009 General Lifestyle Survey[1]. The 2000 file is based on a population of 19,266 individuals drawn from 8,220 households. Of these, everyone under the age of eighty (n=18,631) was included in the analyses. The 2006 file is based on a population of 22,924 individuals drawn from 9,730 households. Of these, again, everyone under the age of eighty (n=21,981) was included in the analyses. The 2009 file is based on a population of 18,988 individuals drawn from 8,200 households. Of these too, everyone under the age of eighty (n=18,102) was included in the analyses. Since the number of people in these surveys aged over eighty is considerably smaller than that of other age decade groups it was decided to omit this group from our analyses. Within each of these three periods we have examined ownership of mobile phones by people aged in their fifties, sixties or seventies contrasted with those aged eighteen to fifty[2].

3.2 In addition to data on ownership of mobile phones we included in our analysis the following independent variables: gender (male, female), housing tenure (renting versus owned/mortgage), health (presence versus absence of a long term limiting illness), income (net income quintile of the household), household ownership of a PC, educational status (finished education before 16, finished education between 16 and 18, and completed education after age 18 years), the presence versus absence of under 16s in the household and household size (one person, two person and three or more person households).

3.3 Data analysis included testing for differences in access to a mobile phone by the above predictor variables, using Chi squared tests; and t tests to test for the significance of differences in the percentage difference observed for each of the predictor variables, at each point in time. Logistic regression analysis was undertaken to test for the presence or absence of significant second order interaction effects with year to test whether the predictor variables effect varied significantly by year (not reported in full but available from the authors). Stepwise logistic regression was undertaken to test for the relative significance of each of the predictor variables.


4.1 Our analysis focuses on access to mobile phones since the survey data does not allow us to distinguish between ownership, use and digital literacy, However in the initial survey, there is clear evidence of a divide in 'access to connectivity' between the generations. While over three quarters of the under fifties in the 2000 GHS survey had access to a mobile phone (77%) less than half of the over fifties had such access (44%). Six years later, the over fifties were catching up and in the 2006 GHS survey, over three quarters (79%) of respondents aged 50 and over were now 'mobile'. This figure rose slowly to 84% by 2009. Looking in more detail at those aged fifty and over, Figure 1 illustrates the increasing levels of ownership over the period for the three selected age decade groups. As the figure shows there was a clear divide at the beginning of the century but as rates of ownership increased that divide became attenuated. Most of this change occurred in the earlier half of the decade.

Figure 1

4.2 How does this particular decline in the digital divide relate to the take up of 'domestic' technology more generally? As we have shown elsewhere, from the 1960s to the 1990s there was a progressive 'catch up' amongst the older generation in ownership of various key consumer durables (Higgs et al. 2009). As Figure 2 shows, by 2000, there was less of a 'generational divide' in the take up of such 'modern' domestic technologies as the microwave, dishwashers and fridge freezers compared with mobile phones (and home computers/PCs).

Figure 2

4.3 We next compared change in rates of ownership of PCs and mobile cell phones amongst the under and over fifties during the period 2000 to 2009. The results are shown in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3

4.4 The growing parity in mobile cell phone ownership between the over and the under 50s over the period was matched, more or less, by increasing parity in PC ownership. By 2006 the majority of over fifties had access to both a mobile phone and a PC and by 2009 some three quarters did so.

4.5 Such trends are not restricted to Britain. Although rates of mobile cell phone ownership in the US still vary significantly by age group, ownership has increased from under one third of households in 2000 to 82% in 2010, with a 57% ownership rate amongst the over sixty fives (Smith 2010). In South America, household ownership of mobile phones has also increased consistently over the period 2003-2009 (Fernandez-Ardevol 2010a). In Europe, Eurostat data indicate that in 2008, 87% of the 16-74 year old population use mobile phones – with slightly lower rates (72%) amongst 55-74 year olds. Across the 27 EU countries there are marked international variations. In Scandinavia, for example, mobile phone ownership amongst people between the ages of 55 and 75 is little different from that of under 55 year olds. The gap is slightly greater in Central and Western Europe but there are marked age/generational disparities in Poland and the Balkan countries; Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia and Romania (Fernandez-Ardevol 2010b).

4.6 In the UK case the data suggest that the contingency of an age/generational divide changes over time as well as in space. Any generationally based technological horizon 'if it exists seems to be porous and flexible' (Turner and Turner 2010:9). In Britain, the contingent nature of the age/generational divide in digital technology use reinforces findings we have noted in relation to PC ownership and Internet use, illustrating the contingency and fluidity of these 'digital community' divides (Gilleard and Higgs 2005).

Where lies the divide?

5.1 The growing parity in 'access to connectivity' observed between the generations, it may be argued, conceals disparities within age groups leading some amongst the more privileged of the older generation to maintain 'parity' with younger generations whilst others fall further behind. In this last section, we examine some potential socio-demographic and socio-economic sources of differential ownership within the older cohorts – and specifically the impact on ownership of gender, educational background, income, health status and the presence vs. absence of children (under 16s) within the household.

5.2 Table 1 shows the different rates of mobile cell phone ownership amongst those aged between fifty and seventy nine years of age stratified by socio-demographic and socio-economic variables for each year (2000, 2006 and 2009) together with the relative rate of change in ownership between these years. The analysis shows that in 2000, for people aged 50-79, ownership of mobile phones was more common amongst those who had children under sixteen in their household, the better off, home owners, those with no limiting illnesses, those with at least some tertiary education and men. However, these differences had all reduced by 2006 so that even the distinction between the poorest and the most well off had fallen from over 100% (105%) to less than a third (29%).

5.3 The last two columns in the table give the percentage change across the decade. These figures show that the most rapid rise in access/ownership has been amongst those who in 2000 were least likely to own a mobile phone; thus, women have increased their ownership more than men, those with a limiting long term illness more than those without, those who rented more than those who owned their home, those with limited education more than those with extensive education, those who were income poor more than those who were income rich and those without children in the home more than those with. Just as the divide between young and old has narrowed so within older age groups it would appear that socio-economic divisions have also narrowed.

5.4 T test values of the significance of the percentage differences between each predictor variable were calculated, comparing '% differences' in the 2000 survey with those of the 2006 and 2009 surveys. The t values are shown in columns 5 and 6. As can be seen all were highly significant (p<.0001). Chi square values for the difference between those with and those without access to mobile phones declined significantly across all the predictor variables. For gender, they declined from a highly siginificant X2 value of 31.2 (p<.0001) in 2000 to a non-significant value of 0.4 (NS) in 2009. For the other variables, although the size and significance of the differences declined they were not eliminated. For limiting long term illness, X2 value fell from 40.2 (p<.0001) to 10.5 (p<.001); for housing tenure, from 163.8 (p<.0001) to 40.7 (p<.0001); for education, from 105.2 (p<.0001) to 49.7 (p<.0001); for income, from 519.8 (p<.0001) to 151.0 (p<.0001); for household size, from 585.1 (p<.0001) to 105.6 (p<.0001) and for under 16's in the household, from 72.5 (p<.0001) to 5.9 (p<.05).

5.5 Further analyses (details available from the authors on request) using logistic regression were employed to test for the significance of second order interaction effects between year and each of the predictor variables (gender, limiting illness, housing tenure, education, income, household size and the presence versus absence of under 16s in the household) first independently and then employing a step-wise entry model using SPSS v20.0. In all cases in the independent analyses, the interaction terms between year and the main predictor variables were significant (p<.001). However, when a stepwise model was used, neither of the interaction terms for gender, for long-term illness or for the presence of children in the house were significant, indicating that changing trends in mobile phone ownership could best be accounted for by variation in the other predictor variables (educational status, housing tenure, household size and income quintile). Such analyses nevertheless confirm that the observed structural differences in mobile phone access varied significantly – i.e. attenuated – over the period.

Table 1: Change in Mobile Cell Phone Access/Ownership amongst people aged 50-79 yrs. Old
Table 1a
Table 1b
Table 1c

*** t-test for the significance of the difference in the percentage difference in access/ownership for each predictor variable, by period (2000 vs 2006 vs 2009): p<.0001


6.1 The present paper is part of a number of ongoing analyses that we have been conducting of the changing nature of later life in late modern society. One key element in that change lies in the changing nature of community and the expansion of social networks beyond the local neighbourhood and its community of propinquity toward the less spatialised connectedness that domestic ICT enables (Gilleard and Higgs 2005; Gilleard, Hyde and Higgs 2007; Gilleard and Higgs 2008). Whilst we are not suggesting that communities of propinquity are disappearing as sources structuring social relationships in later or indeed in any period of life, we consider the rise of 'network society' as affording the conditions for alternative social relationships that reduce some of the structural influences of the neighbourhood. In this context, digital divides provide more transient influences separating households and communities than the communities of propinquity that characterized Western society in the classical era of modernity. Our findings confirm this suggestion by demonstrating that the 'generational' divides associated with the new digital technologies are less concrete and more transient.

6.2 The difference in general levels of 'access to connectivity' between the age groups has consistently lessened over the course of a decade. Alongside this reduction in the 'generational divide' has come a similar reduction in the socio-demographic distinctions in mobile phone ownership within the over fifty population. These results were evident in 2006 and continued in the same direction through to 2009 suggesting that they represent progressive trends in mobile phone (and PC) ownership, taking place despite the very different economic circumstances of the period 2007-2010, compared with the economic boom in the period 2000-2006.

6.3 That said, there are several limitations to our analyses. The data are based on cross-sectional studies and the GHS may over-estimate levels of ownership compared to other studies of this kind. Further, despite the GHS/GLS sample size being amongst the largest of its kind in Britain, it was not designed to address technology use and consequently our analysis is based on household ownership of (and therefore access to) phones, PCs and other goods and cannot address the extent, intensity or characteristics of use nor can they address the meanings attached to such use by the people interviewed. Moreover we are unable to interrogate any patterning associated with market segmentation within the digital technology sector (for example between users of smart phones and other devices). Such evidence that there is from other smaller scale studies suggests that older people are generally more cautious in their use of mobile phones and tend to use fewer functions on their mobile cell phones, primarily those related to the address book function, calling and texting (Chen et al. 2013). However, despite initial caution, studies suggest that 'the mobile phone is accepted in the activities of everyday life, and [older] people are more inclined to take it with them as they leave the house' (Plaza et al. 2011:1979).

6.4 With these provisos the findings do serve as an illustration of how contemporary digital technologies can quickly create and subsequently modify 'generational' divisions within a relatively short period of time and certainly less than the thirty years period traditionally assigned to a 'generation' (Abrams 1970). If mobile cell phones are a key indicator of the 'networked' society, the present study suggests that, in Britain at least, though such networks emerged largely within the younger generation they are now rapidly engaging people aged over fifty. Rather than being limited by some intrinsic age or generational 'technological horizon' this and other qualitative studies suggest that most over fifties find mobile cell phones 'useful, social and enjoyable' (Conci et al. 2009: 63). It is perhaps too simplistic to see technology diffusion in terms of younger groups as 'adopters' and older groups as 'laggards' (Wang et al. 2010). While studies still find greater age to be associated with lesser use this observation is moderated by other factors including expertise effects (Arning and Ziefle 2009), type of technology (Feist et al. 2010) and factors such as income, work status and marital status (Rice and Katz 2003).

6.5 More speculatively, perhaps, the existence of such changes in mobile cell phone ownership (and presumably use) over such a short period of time also implies an active take up of ICT by people aged fifty and over, a change that is occurring without any significant developments in the 'adaptability' of the technology for 'seniors' nor any major civic programmes aimed at re-educating or re-skilling the over fifties to become more 'mobile' citizens. Whilst the limited take up amongst the over fifties during the latter decade of the twentieth century seems likely to have been hindered by differences in educational background, income and gender and the presence or absence of others, particularly of young people, in the household, those barriers appear now to have been more or less overcome by the majority. In Britain, at least, the 'generational' divide in access to mobile cell phone technology, almost as soon as it has emerged, has begun to fade. Such findings suggest that 'intrinsic' factors thought to create a generational digital divide - such as age or generational habitus - are by no means insurmountable barriers to people in their fifties sixties and seventies becoming part of our 'networked society'. Whether or not this applies to differences in 'digital literacy' (i.e the various uses and applications of mobile phones as well as distinctions between forms of technology such as smart phones) remains to be explored.


This paper arose within a project entitled 'Connectivity, place and elective belonging: community and later life' funded by AHRC Connected Communities Research Programme (REF: AH/J501642/1).


11 The 2000 GHS data may have slightly over-estimated the level of mobile phone ownership. The Family Expenditure Survey for 2000 indicated that just less than half (46.5%, n=6,637) of all households sampled had a mobile phone - while the GHS that same year indicated just over half had (57.7%, n=8,221).

2 We excluded those aged over 80 from the analysis as the numbers in the sample were considerably smaller than all other age groups.


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