By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers
"Everybody who has at least seven grandchildren, raise your hand!"
I saw a lot of fingers pointing skyward after I asked this question at a meeting of the local genealogy club the other day. The club had asked me to talk about computers and software, and I started out by making a point about the makeup of the group. Most were senior citizens.
My hand was in the air, too. Nancy and I have two grandchildren in Alabama and five in the state of Washington.
So here we were, one old geezer talking computers to the dozens of other ones from the Central New York Genealogy Society in the basement of a local church. No computer savvy there, right? No whiz kids in the audience, no 14-year-olds who can take a PC apart for lunch and break into the Pentagon's missile batteries for dinner, right?
The truth might amaze you. I was assaulted with technical questions, bombarded by the fine points of multiple drives in a single computer, asked what I thought about processor speed, queried about Zip drives vs. the new LS-120 super-floppy drives.
Even at a meeting of a computer club, you won't find many members who have a lot of technical know-how. To discover such eager interest among genealogy buffs is a lesson in both psychology and demographics.
The psychology is what interests me the most. But first we need to understand the demographics. The fastest-growing group in the population is—you guessed it—senior citizens. They're different from all other age groups in a very big way: They have more time to pursue their interests. Their children are grown up and out of the house and their careers in many cases have taken a right turn into retirement. For many seniors, retirement gives them their own time, time to do what they want, after decades of looking after the needs and interests of others.
Another demographic tidbit: Senior citizens are much more likely to be online, communicating by e-mail and browsing the Web, than adults in other age groups. They're also more likely to spend their online time wisely.
A fascinating thing happens when you make information available to people who have both the time to use it and a serious interest in knowing it. They learn. They learn fast, in fact. That's the big psychology lesson when you look at senior citizens and computers.
We already know why kids have no problems learning to use computers. Or we think we know. Kids aren't afraid of things that are new. After all, everything is new at some point when you're a kid. Computers and their arcane software commands are just things to learn.
Adults are usually branded with a handicap. Grownups have problems with computers and software because they're afraid of learning something new—afraid of trying and failing, perhaps, or afraid of embarrassment. Or maybe just plain afraid that every drop of their precious spare time will get swallowed up in the vortex of new and complicated technology.
If that's so, what makes older adults so willing to tackle things that are new? What happens to our fears as we grow older? Do we become kids again?
I don't know. But I do know that getting older is a lot more exciting now than it used to be.