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The abdication of cash: how older people are struggling under the weight of the debit card succession

Is cash king? Not anymore, apparently. Although this trend may not come as a surprise to many readers, the accessibility of cash continues to decline across the UK and Northern Ireland.

Having been overtaken as the primary means of payment by debit cards in 2017, concerns persist over the 2.2 million people in the UK who are still reliant on cash, particularly those who are vulnerable, elderly, and living in isolated areas.

Accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the last three years have seen a pattern of major department store insolvencies, local branch bank closures, and the disappearance of free-to-use ATMs. Where thriving high streets may have once existed, there now remain boarded-up units 1/7 of shops, and an even worse 1/5 of shopping centres, are currently empty. Attracting less and less footfall due to the lack of variety, there seems to be no redemption in sight for the once bustling hubs of our towns and cities.  

Concerns crop up regarding fraud and hacking, with many older people struggling to avoid scams

For those in vulnerable positions, it’s the closure of banks that has caused the most anxiety, as they provide one of the only remaining means of taking out cash without extra charges. With a younger generation who have grown up in an age of online banking and Apple Pay, the absence of friendly bank employees may not seem like a big deal. However, according to the government-issued Access to Cash Review, published in 2019, around 17% of the UK population (representing about eight million adults) would face hardship in a cashless society. The authors of the report warn that, without legislation, the UK is on the verge of “sleepwalking into a cashless society” within the next decade.  

Calls between senior citizens and Age UK, a charitable call centre that gives advice to older people and their relatives, revealed countless devastating scenarios where seniors are left to feel completely isolated in the digital new world. One person revealed: “We pensioners in our seventies feel we are being bullied by our bank where we have been customers for over 45 years. I have never needed or used a debit card. However, [the bank] send them anyway despite us never asking for them, activating them, or using them. This may be unusual, but we just want to have access to the branches where we have always gone … they said in the branch quite forcefully we must.” 

Other concerns crop up regarding fraud and hacking, with many older people struggling to avoid scams. In recent years, many are being targeted by criminals posing as family members in emergency situations and asking for quick loans. It begs the question: what does it say about contemporary society that we have to teach our parents and grandparents to deny the pleas of a son or daughter for fear of financial scams? 

Another popular scheme is courier fraud, where victims are convinced over the phone that they are helping police officers, bank employees, or other authority figures. The City of London Police revealed that over the last year, people in their 70s or older lost more than £12.6 million to this devious system. Although some banks warn that you should never share your personal details via call or text, unfortunately, the growing inability to verify in person at branches may cause the trend to rise.  

An inability to withdraw or use cash essentially entails isolation from society

The Age UK hotline also revealed the desperate yet alarmingly common scenario, where surviving partners are left to learn digital finances for the first time in cases of death or illness. One person rang up to ask: “When a husband is suffering memory loss because of dementia, how does their wife deal with online finance when the other person who has always dealt with the household finances cannot remember username or password?” Despite everything from setting up an online account to bank transfers being a new concept to pensioners, they are expected to adapt despite the lack of in-person assistance.  

In areas where a bank branch is no longer available, travel can prove difficult. With more than 44% of people between 50 and 67 having at least one long-term health condition, sitting on a bus or walking to and from the train station, particularly in inclement weather, is just not possible. Even using an ATM can cause a financial disadvantage when it costs a chunk of money to withdraw a weekly pension, building up throughout the year. Taking South West England as an example, this area has the oldest average age, yet it is the region that has seen the largest number of its banks and building society branches close between 2012 and 2020 

This is not to say that older people are incapable of online banking. That is not at all the case. Many are frequent users of debit cards and live in a cashless world, a percentage that will continue to grow with generations to come. However, for those people that rely on physical currency, an inability to withdraw or use cash essentially entails isolation from society. For some, holding notes and coins and being able to count them out remains the most convenient way to manage their budget why should they have to adapt?  


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