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Blog: Is there a digital skills divide?

Is there a digital skills divide?

If you ask any organisation, it’s likely that one of its major challenges is digital transformation: processes, manufacturing, innovation, communication and more. 44’s Head of Digital, Alan Coates, examines if there’s a digital divide, and if we’re all equally ready for this new digital future.

One of my favourite books at the moment is Freakonomics by Steven Dubner and Steven Levitt, and especially Levitt’s approach to ‘rogue’ economics. It’s something that has really captured my imagination.

Not so concerned with money, the economy or taxes – “it would be total fakery if I said I knew anything about any of those things,” he states – Levitt is more interested in asking questions that nobody has yet asked. Questions such as ‘If drug dealers make so much money, why do they still live with their mothers’ and ‘What is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?’.

And so, in the spirit of Freakonomics, I take a statistical look at whether there is a digital divide, and answer the question: Are we all equally ready for the digital future?

What are digital skills?

In 2015, a report was created by Ipsos Mori for Go ON UK, with support from Lloyds Banking Group. Called ‘Basic Digital Skills’, it explored five key areas by which we can measure a user’s online or digital skill level. The five areas are: Managing information, Communicating, Transacting, Creating and Problem Solving.

According to the report, 77% of UK adults were able to illustrate that they had four Basic Digital Skills, and 81% able to illustrate at least one. This therefore left 19% (estimated at 10.4 million) adults in the UK who had no Basic Digital Skills at all.

Is there a geographical divide?

During a time when digital usage has increased so much, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) measured ‘internet non-usage in the previous three months or more’ as showing a regional high of 27% in 2012 for Northern Ireland, and a low in the same year of 15% in London.

Six years later, they measured it once more and saw that, while the disparity remained, overall non-usage had decreased: Northern Ireland was measured at 14% in 2018, against 7% in London in the same year. Within England itself, we can see differences in the 2018 figures: North East: 12%, North West: 10%, South West: 10%, South East: 8%.

According to the Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Index 2018 (LBCI), there are also regional differences when we measure people who have none of the five key areas that account for the Basic Digital Skills.

– Wales: 19%
– North East: 12%
– North West: 10%
– East Midlands: 9%
– West Midlands: 9%
– South West: 9%
– East: 8%
– Scotland: 7%
– London: 6%
– Yorkshire and The Humber: 6%
– South East: 5%

Is there a gender divide?

The trend for men and women is very similar to the regional divide. Both are showing more digital usage over the past seven years, but a disparity still exists.

Referring to the ONS statistics once more, we see that, in 2011, 5.9 million women were non-internet users, against 4.3 million men. By 2018, both figures had reduced – to 3.1 million for women and 2.2 million for men – with a persistent but slightly reduced gap between the two.

When we measure against the Basic Digital Skills criteria once more, the data tells us something interesting. In 2018 there were 2% fewer men with the full five Basic Digital Skills compared with a 2017 figure of 84%. The number for women has remained flat at 75% for both years.

According to Vivienne Artz, President of Women in Banking and Finance: “… women appear to have the perception that they have lower digital skills than men, when the data demonstrates there is equal capability. It is important that women acknowledge their abilities so as to better access and leverage the opportunities that digital capability offers.”

Is there an age divide?

Douglas Adams, writer of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, famously stated that: “Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.”

Not so, say our friends at the ONS. Since 2011, users of every age from 16 to 74 have been increasing in internet usage up until their most active rates to-date in 2018. Those aged 75+ have been decreasing year-on-year. Seventy-five, Adams might argue, is the new 35.

Internet usage on-the-go (away from home or work) is also interesting to explore. 25-to-35-year-olds are most active at 97%, and 65+ year-olds less so at 39%.

The LBCI examines Basic Digital Skills by age too. In a positive light, there were no 15-to-24-year-olds who had zero digital skills – and 96% had all five.

Mid-table are the 45-54-year-olds, with 8% having zero skills, and 74% with all five. Further down were the 65+ year-olds at 29% and 46% respectively.

So are we all equally ready for the digital future?

I think we have been able to answer that we aren’t. Statistically speaking, a 65-year-old female in Wales is likely to have fewer Basic Digital Skills than a 15-year-old male living in the South East of England.

And yet the figures are improving. According to another report, The economic impact of Basic Digital Skills and inclusion in the UK, by Tinder Foundation and Go ON UK, “the key takeaway is that ensuring that all UK adults learn Basic Digital Skills can bring benefits to everyone in society”.

“By 2025,” the same report concludes, “we estimate a total of 236 million hours could be saved by the 7.9 million people who will receive basic skills training. This is valued at £1.5 billion per year by 2025.”

Taking this into the workplace, the report goes on to say that individuals with all five digital skills will benefit from increased employability and earnings, leading to additional household spend and creating a positive effect on the wider business economy.

“Steven Levitt,” Stephen Dubner writes in Freakonomics about the ‘rogue’ economist, “may not fully believe in himself, but he does believe in this: teachers and criminals and real-estate agents may lie, and politicians, and even CIA analysts. But numbers don’t.”

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