50plus: Smartphone fever takes hold

June 2018

After retiring a good 20 years ago, Masako Wakamiya, who comes from Japan, could have simply taken it easy and enjoyed her retirement. Instead, she bought her first computer, taught other senior citizens IT skills and, at some point, realized that there were hardly any gaming apps for older people. Today, the 83-year-old is among the world’s oldest app developers, as recently reported by the  „Frankfurter Neue Presse“ among numerous other publications. “Hinadan” – the online gaming iPhone app developed by Masako Wakamiya, is hugely popular among senior citizens in Japan, having already been downloaded 80,000 times. It is not known whether older Germans would also use an app like this, which is available in English too. But, in theory, there could be growing numbers of these apps, as the number of smartphone owners over the age of 50 has been trending clearly upwards over the past six years. Ever more people in this age group are being won over by the benefits offered by smartphones. 

Checking if any ingredients for your evening meal are missing just before reaching the checkout at the grocery store, letting your kids know that you’re running late or spontaneously deciding to meet a friend for dinner – without a cellphone all this would be very difficult. The generation of over-50s have long been aware of the benefits of cell phone communication. For quite some time now, respondents aged 50-59 have above all been familiarizing themselves with smartphones. As early as 2012, the share of cell phone owners in this age group was 93%, before growing to 96% in 2014 and stagnating at this high level since. In view of this high starting point, there is hardly any room for improvement in terms of cell phone ownership – at least among respondents at the younger end of the age groups over 50. Today, 97% – so practically all 50-59 year-olds – own a cell phone. In terms of the 60-69 year-olds, the share has been on the rise since 2012, climbing ten percentage points to its current level of 90%, while the 70+ age group has seen its share rise by 17 percentage points to 71% across the same time frame. These are the findings of the most recent “Consumer Study” conducted by the GfK Verein on the subject of mobile communication, in which for the fourth time in succession approximately 2,000 German respondents, among others, answered questions on this subject.

Both traditional cell phones and smartphones are becoming ever more popular among the 50+ generation – and in connection with this, growth rates are also significantly higher than is the case with cell phones overall. Currently, more than three quarters of respondents aged 50-59 own a mobile phone which also allows them to surf the internet, record video clips and take photos, while simultaneously offering satnav and calendar functionalities. More than one in every two respondents aged 60-69 has opted for these mini computers that fit neatly into our trouser pockets, while the equivalent figure is around one in five for the 70+ age group. The picture was quite different six years ago: in the most senior age group (70+), the share of smartphone owners was extremely low at just 0.3%, while the figures for 60-69 year-olds (4%) and 50-59 year-olds (7%) were not all that much higher either. Since then, however, these respondents have become a little older – and they have kept hold of their smartphones. This cohort effect is certainly not the only reason, but it is a decisive one explaining why the number of smartphone owners among older sections of the population has risen so rapidly.

Phoning and texting? Not good enough for me!

The age group of 50-59 year-olds has in particular been making ever more frequent use of smartphones, which offer internet access among many other extra features, over the past few years. As early as 2014, nearly one in every three respondents in this age group owned a smartphone; however, by 2016, this had climbed massively to nearly 60%, before another increase to the current level of 77%. It is pretty certain that one of the reasons why the highest smartphone usage growth rates among the youngest age group of respondents aged over 50 is that they began using this technology before their 50th birthday and continue to do so today. Moreover, this age group is aware of the benefits of communicating via iPhones and other smartphone variations from their professional lives. Those who stay in contact with their boss via SMS while on the move on a daily basis or who email a colleague an updated presentation on the train would presumably also appreciate being able to quickly catch up with people via their cell phones in their private lives too. A similar picture is likely to emerge among the 60-69 year-olds, who today regularly still work or have only recently entered retirement: while in 2014 the proportion of smartphone owners was 13%, this had trebled to nearly 37% by 2016. Today, more than one in every two 60-69 year-olds – 58% to be specific – owns either an iPhone or one of the many Android-based alternatives. Those who have already celebrated their 70th birthday are, in contrast, not as likely to have made the switch to a smartphone. It can be presumed here that these respondents more often tend to use landlines, or perhaps they are more likely to hang onto their trusted, familiar cell phone which they have been using for a long time. However, we can in no way dismiss senior citizens as technophobes or Luddites. After all, this age group has experienced huge growth in terms of smartphone users over the past six years. In total, 4% of respondents aged 70+ were smartphone users in 2014. Although it may sound low, this figure has increased more than tenfold in comparison with 2012. By 2016, it had risen again to 14%, while today it stands at 21%.

Can you actually remember the last day you spent without going online at all? Without quickly scanning your favorite news website in the morning, checking the weather forecast in the afternoon or briefly checking when your latest online order will be delivered? Younger people in particular are often practically always online, yet even older generations are catching up in this regard. The 50-59 year-olds are very much to be regarded as ardent internet fans: in total, 91% said in the most recent survey that they had surfed the internet at some point over the previous four weeks. Six years ago, this age group led the way among those over the age of 50, although the value of 72% at that point is way below the current level. In terms of the 60-69 year-olds, internet usage is also on the rise. While in 2012 one in every two respondents in this age group confirmed that they had been online at some point in the previous four weeks, this factor had risen slightly to 55% by 2014, before a significant rise in 2016 when 68% of respondents aged 60-69 said that were active internet users. Since then, the number has risen again – albeit somewhat more moderately. Today, nearly three quarters of respondents aged 60-69 regularly use the internet. The oldest age group – respondents aged 70+ – is much more reserved in comparison. The proportion of internet users in this age group initially rose from 17% in 2012 to 29% in 2014, before eventually hitting 38% in 2016. Since then, it would appear that the saturation point has almost been reached in this age group. The most recent survey showed only a very minor increase of internet users above the age of 70 (39%).

Quickly checking a train connection, reading a newspaper article or composing an email – for a long time now, people have been completing these online tasks away from their laptop or PC at home. Even people above the age of 50 are turning ever more frequently to their cell phones when they want to use the internet. This is reflected in a time comparison with 2012. In response to the question as to whether they had accessed the internet via their smart phone over the past four weeks, 85% of respondents aged 50-59 answered in the affirmative. Six years ago, this figure was just 23%. Since then, the share has risen continuously. Among respondents aged 60-69 who are active online, a lot has changed since 2016 in terms of surfing the internet on a smartphone. After modest growth rates of 14 percentage points between 2014 and 2016, this value has since risen by 38 percentage points. The largest increases have been recorded among internet users above the age of 70: after a very sluggish rise over the past few years (up to 17% in 2016), 69% of respondents in this age group today use their smart phones to access the internet.

“Customers wait in line for the iPhone X” – this was a headline from an article for „Welt“ online in November last year. Waiting in line together with other consumers for the latest Apple iPhone has almost attained cult status over the past few years, above all among young people. It is probably safe to say that this hasn’t quite caught on among older generations of cell phone users. Yet there are similarities between the two generations: for example, both evidently see their cell phones as an indispensable aid for everyday life. This is reflected in the respondents’ agreement on various statements concerning the relevance of cell phones and smartphones. While the values recorded here were higher for younger respondents, it is clear that respondents aged 50-59 really value their mobile devices. For many, it is above all the ability to be contacted that counts: in this regard, 70% of 50-59 year-olds, nearly one in every two 60-69 year-olds and almost one in three cell phone users over the age of 70 agreed with the statement: “I am most easily contactable on my cell phone/smartphone”. Respondents over the age of 50 praise the time-saving functionality offered by mobile communication to almost the same extent. More than one in every two respondents (59%) aged 50-59 are certain of one thing: the ability to be online anywhere via cell phone, smartphone, laptop or tablet is beneficial in terms of time management. Overall, 41% of 60-69 year-olds and 21% of respondents aged 70+ agree with this. In actual fact, modern cell phones are true organizational masterminds – among other functions, they serve as meeting planners, satnavs and address books all in one. In total, 40% of cell phone users aged 50-59 value precisely this multi-functionality. They subscribe to the theory that our whole lives can be organized using a cell phone. Nearly one of every four respondents aged 60-69 is in agreement here. However, those over the age of 70 evidently rely on other measures to plan their everyday lives. Or perhaps they simply have fewer events to coordinate? In any case, just one in ten respondents over the age of 70 views their smartphone or cell phone as an organizational aid for their everyday lives.

Landlines remain important to older generations; younger people stick to their cell phones

Those who place great value on being easily contactable must first of all ensure that people have their cell phone number. More than one third of respondents aged 50-59 also do this, making sure to provide friends, family members and new acquaintances with their mobile number – and not, as the case may previously have been, giving out their landline number. At least 37% or 50-59 year-olds agree with the corresponding statement. As the age of the respondents increases, this value decreases: for those aged 60-69, the equivalent value is just 18%, while it is only 13% in the 70+ age group. Presumably, older consumers are more often to be found at home and are therefore more used to talking on a landline. According to Stiftung Warentest, a German consumer organization (see also: techbook.de), they may perhaps also value the fact that the connection quality is (allegedly) sometimes better, as well as a general feeling that landline telephones feel nicer against the ear, which especially for longer telephone conversations serves to increase comfort. Respondents aged 70+ are also the most likely to cope with losing their cell phone. Only 7% of this age group would find it more traumatic to lose their cell phone or smartphone than their wallet. The younger the cell phone user responding to this survey, the more problematic they would find losing their cell phone: for respondents aged 60-69, 15% would have greater issues dealing with a stolen or misplaced smartphone than losing their wallet or purse. As many as one in every four respondents aged 50-59 subscribes to this particular theory.

It is highly likely the importance of smartphones will rise further over the years to come – if only because people in their late 40s today who are familiar with using iPhones and the like will then also be included in the 50+ age groups. However, technology is likely to play an even more important role among even the oldest respondents in the more senior age groups, who are 70 or even 80 years-old today. After all, many of these respondents have children and grandchildren who are very familiar with using smartphones and can explain how they work to their grandmothers and grandfathers. Those unable to rely on the help of their families may find support in many cities and communities where school students are helping senior citizens get to grips with smartphones. Masako Wakamiya would presumably be a fan of this. At the 2017 Apple Developers Conference in California, she appealed to her generation to embrace new technologies: “In the age of the internet, our daily lives are affected if we stop learning.”


Data source: GfK Verein, Consumer Study (2012, 2014, 2016, 2018); For more information about this study please contact Ronald Frank (ronald.frank@gfk-verein.org).

Responsible for the article and contact person for any queries regarding Compact: Claudia Gaspar (claudia.gaspar@gfk-verein.org).


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