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Supporting Digital Skills Development and Access for Older Workers

Man using laptop

Thriving in the future of work requires digital skills and access to new technology. This was true before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has become even more important in light of a transformed labor market and shifts in how people access services, including education and training, that the pandemic has driven. This acceleration of the shift to online and remote learning and working brings new opportunities, but it also brings the potential for further inequities in the labor market.

Barriers and Opportunities

Older workers have been both disproportionately at risk of health consequences from COVID-19 and more severely affected by long-term unemployment during the pandemic. The pandemic has also contributed to an expansion in online and remote work that is expected to continue following the current crisis. There is also evidence of increasing use of technology in the workplace and the need for digital skills. Thus, older workers have much to gain from the increased access that online and remote learning and working provides; being able to learn or work remotely can be a good option for those most vulnerable to COVID-19 from a health perspective, while increased learning opportunities can give those at risk of losing their jobs or out of work additional skills.

The Urban Institute recently completed a study to understand the barriers and opportunities that exist for older workers accessing online programs, with a focus on their digital skill levels. Many Americans lack digital skills, regardless of age, and digital skill gaps are disproportionately large for individuals facing other barriers such as limited English proficiency, poverty, and limited education. For older Americans digital skill gaps are larger, although as with the broader population, older Americans from certain groups that have historically lacked opportunities (e.g., certain communities of color and women) on average have lower levels of digital skills than older White male workers (who historically have held the higher-paying jobs). Among those over age 50, White Americans are most likely (18 percent) and Black Americans are least likely (3 percent) to attain the highest level of digital literacy. Closing the digital skills gap for older workers could have an especially large payoff for the skills and earnings of older workers from historically oppressed groups.

One reason to build digital skills for older workers is to make sure they have the opportunity to add value to an increasingly technological world of work. Notably, one finding that highlights older workers’ value and assets is that those older Americans who have basic digital skills or who are digitally literate have, on average, higher numeracy and literacy skills than younger Americans. If older workers lose jobs due to a lack of digital skills, then we are also losing the many other contributions they may make in the workforce. Digital skills, therefore, may be the missing puzzle piece that would allow older Americans to better capitalize on their high-value assets—that is, their literacy, numeracy, and other skills, assets and experience—not only in their jobs but in other aspects of their lives.

Enabling the Opportunities

One way to build digital skills is through practice, yet many people lack access to technology to be able apply digital skills. Older Americans with better computer and internet access have higher levels of digital skills than older Americans who do not, but their digital skills are still lower than younger Americans with the same access to technology. This speaks to the need to continue to promote access to broadband technology, internet, and computer devices that meet the needs of all students and workers.

An important reason to foster the development of digital skills is that jobs requiring higher levels of digital skills tend to provide higher wages. Older workers who are more digitally skilled have significantly higher earnings than those who are less so, and are better positioned to compete for the jobs of the future. That reality, among others, underlines the need for policies and strategies that support digital skills training for older Americans. Opportunities to provide training include through post-secondary education programs and the public workforce system, and by focusing on high-demand occupations with large digital-skill gaps between older and younger workers.

Targeted funding, programs, and strategies are needed to meet the needs of older workers so that they can compete in the labor market, contribute to growth and productivity, and thrive in the future economy as the nation emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

AARP Skills Builder for WorkSM and programs for the AARP Foundation can help older workers and jobseekers build their digital skills. The AARP Foundation offers free Job Search Coaching, Training, and Support for unemployed 50+ workers through BACK TO WORK 50+ and the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). For more information go to or call the Work Resources Hotline (1-855-850-2525).

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