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Digital divide in society is widening

After a year of the pandemic, what are the digital skills of people in Germany like? As a representative survey we commissioned shows: Most of the population did not experience a significant increase in digital literacy, and the digital divide within German society is growing. At the same time, people would like more digital support services.


Foto Tobias Bürger
Dr. Tobias Bürger
Project Manager
Foto Andreas Grau
Andreas Grau
Senior Expert


During the pandemic, home schooling and working from home have revealed the relevance of digitalization and digital technologies for today’s society. Germans have also noticed where digital shortcomings exist when they interact with public authorities.

Conducted by the market research institute Kantar on our behalf, the comparative analysis “Digital Souverän 2021: Aufbruch in die digitale Post-Coronawelt?” (Digital Sovereignty 2021: Starting Off into a Digital Post-Covid World?) shows for the first time: After a year of the pandemic, people in Germany generally appreciate digital technologies and their ability to use them independently more than they did two years ago (2019). This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with public authorities (+8 percent) and financial matters. Conversely, the topic of mobility experienced a decline (-2 percent).

Pandemic exacerbates digital divide

A closer comparison of the data from 2019 and 2021 reveals a digital divide along the factors of age, education and net household income: For four out of ten respondents, using the Internet is more important now than before the coronavirus appeared. Younger people and women consider the Internet more important than older people and men. The higher the level of education, the more important it is for respondents to use the Internet.

Almost half of 14- to 29-year-olds say that using the Internet has become more important compared to before the pandemic. The explanation: This group is often especially dependent on online resources for their education. “In recent months, education has often taken place digitally. The switch to distance learning is thus significantly increasing dependence on the Internet and on all educational stakeholders being digitally literate. As a result, this dependence is reinforcing existing educational differences among students, as well as the different levels of digital skills found among teachers,” explains Brigitte Mohn, member of our Executive Board. 

People in their 30s, 40s and 50s all ascribe a greater significance to Internet use on average than do people 60 years and older. Yet it is precisely older individuals who could benefit from using digital technologies, since it could boost their self-esteem and help them make and maintain more social contacts. The study’s findings also show, however, that the older respondents are, the less important using the Internet is compared to the pre-pandemic era. And the older people are, the worse they say their own knowledge of digital technologies is. The rapid surge in digitalization that people generally assume has occurred and the resulting increase in the importance of Internet use is thus not evident among people 60 years and above.

Wanted: support services

The pandemic has shown how crucial it is for people to have social networks that can provide them with help and advice on a wide range of issues. Especially for seniors, being able to ask family and friends about how to use new technologies is a good way to acquire knowledge and strengthen their own problem-solving skills.

"Independent searches for solutions" is the category that exhibited the greatest increase (+8 percent) compared to 2019. About half of all respondents now use the Internet to look for answers and solve problems on their own. This applies above all to younger people (70 percent) and 30- to 39-year-olds (78 percent). The more advanced their age, the less likely respondents are to look for solutions on their own.

Even though people now solve questions about using the Internet on their own more than they did in 2019, about half would like support services to help them improve their digital skills. More than half would like assistance in the form of instructional videos or online courses (58 percent). Almost half would like options for learning offline, such as at adult education centers or libraries (48 percent). Moreover, 46 percent would find telephone support from a trained computer expert useful, while 42 percent would like to have assistance provided by a computer expert in their own home.

"The pandemic has also shown that it will become increasingly difficult to participate in society without digital skills," explains our expert, Kirsten Witte. "That is why it’s important to provide target- and age-group-specific services that allow users to learn individually. Digital access, support structures and learning options need to be created in precisely those environments where family and friends are not the first point of contact, such as retirement and nursing homes. Joint initiatives need to be developed that offer more possibilities and venues for learning, especially for older people, in everyday settings such as adult education and community centers, libraries and social clubs. To reach young people, digital skills need to be anchored more firmly in the school curriculum."