When Barbara Sloan needs directions to a friend's house, she doesn't consult the Rand McNally map sitting in the car. She goes first to the Internet, just as she does when she needs to pay bills, stay on top of diet news or find patterns to knit mittens for her new grandson.
"I could go to the library but this is so much easier," said Sloan, 56, a retired addictions counselor in Wallingford, Conn. "It's become much a way of life for people my age."
A recent survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that baby boomers like Sloan have much more in common with young adults than with seniors when it comes to Internet usage.
The finding has broad implications for the so-called digital divide, in which older and poorer people and minorities are less likely to have Internet access.
The generation gap, at least, should close by itself as today's baby boomers age.
"Today's boomers may become seniors, but they won't behave like today's seniors do," said Jed Kolko, an analyst with Forrester Research. "They will have carried that history of using the Internet at work and in their past into their senior years."
Janet James, 48, an assistant elementary school principal in northern New Jersey, said she couldn't imagine ever dropping Net access.
"Even if I'm away on vacation, I like to be able to have periodic Internet access," she said. "If I can't access the Internet for a few days, I feel as though I have an itch that I can't scratch."\
Young and old alike?
According to Pew's random telephone-based survey of 2,204 adults in February, 82 percent of boomers — ages 38 to 56 — have used computers, not far behind the 86 percent for the 18 to 37 age group. The figure for age 57 and up is 43 percent.
Boomers were also almost as heavily online as younger adults: 68 percent versus 78 percent. By contrast, only 34 percent of older Americans go online.
Among Internet users, about 85 percent of boomers and younger adults have used the Internet for maps or directions, compared with 78 percent for seniors. Fifty-four percent of boomers and 57 percent of younger adults have looked up phone numbers and addresses online, compared with 47 percent for seniors.
Younger adults and boomers are also alike when it comes to buying a product online and seeking political information, according to the study, which has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Boomers are more likely than younger adults to use the Internet for work-related research, but less likely to use instant messaging or check sports scores.
Susannah Fox, Pew's research director, said habits form when someone uses the Internet both at home and work.
"You are more likely to turn to the Internet for any question, if you need to research a product or go Christmas shopping or if you're going to quickly get in touch with a friend," Fox said.
Previous research from Pew found that eight of 10 seniors who are now unconnected do not think they ever will log on. That's partly because they have never used computers before or have no firsthand knowledge of what the Internet can do.
That won't be happening with Tse-Yu Yeh, a chip design manager at P.A. Semi Inc.
Though only 40, Yeh expects to use the Internet well into retirement. He said he may not be familiar with the latest gadgets, but he'll at least log on through the desktop, the laptop and whatever other technologies come his way during his working years.
One factor that today's boomers will one day share with today's seniors is health. Pew said disability and vision can play a factor in seniors' online experience, and Fox said it remains to be seen whether technology will advance enough to accommodate those needs.