15 million in UK do not make best use of the internet

15 September 2017 Consultancy.uk 7 min. read
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More than 15 million Britons either do not use the internet, or make use of it in a limited way, as revealed by new statistics. With automation increasingly promising to see an overhaul in labour relations, and those lacking digital skills likely to suffer the realignment’s worst effects, this spells trouble for many of society’s most disadvantaged. Meanwhile, as companies press on with transformation strategies, aimed at overhauling their previous business models to cash in on new technologies, the figures reveal that a significant portion of potential consumers still have little or no means of interacting with brands through these avenues.

According to an analysis by consulting firm BCG, the internet economy of the G-20 is worth more than $4 trillion. A further study performed in 2016 by PwC subsidiary Strategy&, in partnership with social giant Facebook, suggested that over 4 billion of the world’s population currently live outside the digital economy. That study went on to conclude that global internet inclusion could lift 500 million out of poverty and increase global economic activity by $6.7 trillion.

Now, the UK’s leading digital inclusion charity, the Good Things Foundation, has suggested that in Britain alone, as many as 7.8 million people do not use the internet in any way, while 7.4 million people are “limited” users who barely make use of it. The “Real digital divide?” paper, backed by BT – a major internet and telecom provider – is based on new analysis of Ofcom’s most recent Media Literacy Survey, and has been conducted by Professor Simeon Yates at the University of Liverpool.

According to Good Things, who work primarily to support people in growing their digital skills to overcome social challenges, around 15.2 million people in the UK do not make full use of the internet, while both non and limited users are more likely to be socially excluded, with 90% of non-users being classed as disadvantaged. This includes people with poor health or a disability, people in social class DE, and people who left school before the age of 16.

Estimated non-user populations for each region England and Wales

Every aspect of business, from advertising to recruitment, is placing a greater emphasis on the digital economy and the internet than ever before. In an age of digital disruption, where a failure to engage with customers through new, rapid technologies could see companies lose market share to innovative new competitors, long-term market incumbents are turning to increasingly online-centric models, which can also help cut costs and maximise profits.

Along with services apps, social media and website innovations are coming thick and fast, creating an environment where consumers can comment and complain to companies via Twitter or chatbots and receive promotional offers from nearby shops based on their phone’s geolocation data. However, alongside the Good Things research, a study from Oliver Wyman also suggested recently that these services may only help 30% to 45% of digital consumers who are the most tech-literate. While this is great for internet natives (the generation born after the inception of the global information network), over half the population most likely remain ambivalent at best, and feel actively excluded at worst.

Usual suspects

However, while it would be easy to make sweeping assumptions along the lines of age groups, it is not just the stereotypical groups who are alienated. According to the most recent insight from Good Things Foundation and BT, while non-users are more likely to be older, with 64.4% aged over 65, characteristics of limited use are displayed across all ages, with 63% of limited users aged under 65.

The non user population split by ages groups

Meanwhile, the regional breakdown of non-users sees most populations based in the West Midlands, the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber regions, each containing a million non-users each. These regions have each been particularly hard hit by a nose-dive in manufacturing employment recently, with repetitive jobs increasingly becoming mechanised to cut costs and up productivity. 99,600 jobs were estimated to have been lost in the West Midlands, alone, the area which saw the largest numeric losses. 

Without digital skills and internet literacy, meanwhile, these individuals are likely to have an extremely tough time finding new employment, particularly with the projection that only 19% of jobs lost to automation will likely be replaced by new, digital opportunities. Employment status is a key issue for limited and non-users. While 65.1% of non-users are retired – an estimated population of 5 million people in the UK – 19.2% of non-users are unemployed. A further 21.8% of limited users are not working or looking for work, and with the rise in web-based employment searches shifting the manner in which work can be found, this further alienates them from potential work prospects.

Social class also leads to some troubling suggestions regarding internet usage. The non-user population is dominated by DE individuals (semi-skilled and unskilled members of the working class, and casual or lowest grade workers, pensioners, and others who depend on the welfare state for their income), with 49.5% coming from that social spectrum. Again, these are the members of society most likely to be hit hardest by the realignment in labour resulting from mass digital disruption, which could see as many as 5% of jobs totally replaced by AI in the future.

The non user population split by social class

People who are offline are also potentially missing out on a wide range of benefits, including access to financial savings and the chance to stay in touch with friends and family, while making better use of leisure time.

Helen Milner, Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation said, “This research is important as for the first time it not only quantifies the number of people who are offline, but also details the barriers these people face - which shows that the issues of digital exclusion are much more complicated than just skills, taking into account access, motivation and confidence as well. We’re committed to helping people to thrive in a digital world, and so it’s crucial that we tackle these entrenched barriers, and develop programmes and interventions that will really support these people.”

Ian Caveney, Senior Consultant in the BT Purposeful Business Team meanwhile commented, “At BT, we already have a number of products and services like our Basic Broadband and online content that supports the disadvantaged, and with the insight in this report we can ensure not only our current offerings support all segments, but it will enable us to develop future product and services too.”

Earlier in the year, BT came in for heavy criticism of its pricing of OpenReach, the company’s high-speed fibre optic service. Following that controversy, it was announced that broadband customers across the UK could be set for huge savings on their bills following a new ruling from Ofcom, as the UK telecoms regulator said it had begun looking to slash the cost of new connections for fibre networks across the country, while clamping down on BT Openreach – the prices of which were said to prevent millions of customers from affordable access to high-quality internet coverage – particularly if they resided in the DE social class category. The news could result in savings of around £100 million a year for customers.