Is ‘age-tech’ a stereotype that misses the larger mark–and market?

Two thoughtful articles this week comment on the difference between the highly touted ‘age-tech’ and products and services that older people actually need and want. The first is by the Centre for Ageing Better’s Jemma Mouland, who quite ably points out that ‘age-tech’ as a category (apologies to Laurie Orlov) inherently screams ‘old’, ‘feeble’, and ‘ill’–while it searches desperately for the ‘silver unicorn’. Yes, older people (and the disabled) do need solutions that help with changes as we age, but even the things that we need tend to be couched in negatives, feel like they don’t fit in our lives, reinforce a feeling of decline, or stigmatize. (The real hot button issues are hearing, vision, and driving.)

Moreover, older consumers often feel left behind or neglected by (formerly) favorite brands or services. A recent UK retail study stated that this is the belief of over 80 percent of 55+ consumers–now edging into the older cohort of Gen X. (One observation this Editor will make is that a huge negative is current clothing appearance, fit and cut.) It’s disappointing to your Editor as a marketer–that means that this group, with 83 percent of household wealth in age 50+ hands, keeps their wallets shut.

MIT Technology Review this month is cited in Ms. Mouland’s article. Building on Joseph Coughlin’s work at the MIT AgeLab in its ‘Old Age Is Over!’ issue, he cites that old age and even retirement is an obsolete construct built on early 19th century beliefs around the depletion of ‘vital energy’ and 20th century social policy around that. The stereotype the latter built was one was either needy–needing social support, or greedy–living the easy retirement life off a pension and looking for early-bird specials.  That tends to frame how we look at older people in employment, in living at home, or in social policy as driving up the cost of care–just a problem to be solved, and certainly not productive or, in Ezekiel Emanuel’s end game, even worthy of anything other than palliative medical care or being part of the political polity.

Mr. Coughlin’s close may be a bit reductionist, but this Editor will take it. “By treating older adults not as an ancillary market but as a core constituency, the tech sector can do much of the work required to redefine old age. But tech workplaces also skew infamously young. Asking young designers to merely step into the shoes of older consumers (and we at the MIT AgeLab have literally developed a physiological aging simulation suit for that purpose) is a good start, but it is not enough to give them true insight into the desires of older consumers. Luckily there’s a simpler route: hire older workers.” And work on making your products and service meet the needs of a broad spectrum of people. Hat tip to Alistair Appleby of Optalis–whose team, in a bit of news, is moving over to Wokingham Borough Council at the end of the month.

Categories: Latest News, Opinion, and Soapbox.

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