Book Review: The Longevity Economy
I’ve spent the last goodness knows how many years trying to persuade colleagues and clients that the traditional way of looking at disability - something that we call ‘the medical model’ - is, and always has been, immensely unhelpful. The medical model sees disabled people as a series of problems waiting to be fixed. Those that can’t be fixed will require ongoing medical therapies and equipment to help ‘overcome’ the disability, impairment or condition.
Not surprisingly, this is not a construct embraced by the majority of disabled people themselves. Those of us who live with impairments and long term health conditions rather prefer the ‘social model’ of disability; this concentrates on removing the barriers in society that inhibit equality and full participation.
Thus, for example, a building with stairs and no lifts or ramps is pretty much off limits to a wheelchair user. While the medical model would probably prescribe a stair climbing wheelchair, the social model would suggest step-free access, and while we are at it, some automatic doors.
I have always been interested in the intersection between disability and older age. As I age myself, this is becoming more and more pertinent. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that the MIT AgeLab had been thinking deep thoughts in this area as well. MIT’s Joseph Coughlin has published a book entitled The Longevity Economy. In this, he chides businesses for marketing products at the senior market that older people don’t actually want. Why? Because many of us are stuck in an outdated narrative of old age which views people over 65 as a series of medical problems waiting to be fixed - in other words, the medical model is alive and kicking for older people as well as those of us with disabilities.
There is, though, another way: a retirement world full of people who are not only consumers but also producers; IT savvy baby boomers who don’t want emergency assistance pendants hanging from their necks, but would rather summon assistance using smart-home speakers, smartphones and even smart watches. This is a world in which businesses that want to survive must recognise that appealing only to the base level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs just won’t wash. Coughlin says that too many businesses concentrate on devices and services whose sole aim is to keep somebody alive rather than appealing to what might actually surprise and delight them: what, he says, is the point of life if you can’t spontaneously go and meet a couple of friends for an ice cream?
Businesses that fail to recognise that the number of older consumers is going to increase massively over the next 30 years, and who fail to acknowledge that baby boomers will not be fobbed off with ‘beige plastic doodads’, are not destined to be long for this world. Baby boomers themselves will have a hand in creating products and services that suit them - something they have always done since achieving adulthood.
If you want a really good example of a spectacular product flop - when a business thought it had identified a problem and created a solution - look no further than the Heinz Corporation: in the 1950s, they attempted to market a range of ‘pre chewed’ food to seniors. They figured that this market would be far bigger than the baby food market: after all, infants had an annoying habit of growing up and eating ordinary food quite quickly; get an older consumer to buy a can of mushed up beef stew in their 60s and you could have a ready market for another 20 or 25 years. What could possibly go wrong? The bright young things who conceived this probably tasteless pap forgot to ask older people if that was what they really wanted. Worse, they didn’t for a second contemplate the stigma involved in arriving at the supermarket checkout with a trolley full of products that basically announced the fact that the person’s teeth no longer worked very well.
Coughlin also has little time for the new paradigm of retirement that was created to give the newly wealthy, newly retired some sort of purpose and that can be summed up in the phrase ‘the golden years’. Age-segregated retirement communities based around a golf course in Florida are more dystopic than utopic: it does not do to corral older people into ghettos, removing them from society and encouraging younger people in the view that this is what older people really want.
In order to point the way, Coughlin contrasts the marketing of eyewear with that of ‘earwear’: where, he asks, are the Pradas and Armanis of the hearing aid world? Maybe, we are experiencing the first green shoots of this phenomenon with Apple’s AirPods and the recently announced Amazon Echo equivalent? What if, in addition to streaming your music and audiobooks, your new, designer ear buds were able to amplify the sound of your interlocutor and, simultaneously, filter out extraneous background sound in a noisy restaurant?
I spent a good deal of time trying - usually failing - to persuade my elderly mum to wear a pendant around her neck in case she fell and couldn’t get up to summon assistance. Why was she being so stubborn? Couldn’t she understand that this device would bring her much needed help and me much needed reassurance? What my mum wouldn’t articulate - and what I totally failed to see - is explained by Coughlin: the pendant, the vital lifeline, reinforces an older person’s sense of mortality. It is not a product to which anyone would aspire. Smartphones and smart watches, on the other hand, are aspirational products that appeal across the age range. Because the user is much more likely to be wearing a smart watch than an alert pendant - even one disguised as jewellery - they do a much better job of fall detection and summoning emergency assistance.
I discovered for myself the potentially lifesaving properties of smart watches on New Year’s Day this year. I was in Blue Ridge, GA and the car that I was travelling in was ’T-boned’ by a vehicle coming down the hill at considerable speed and slamming right into the passenger side door. My Apple Watch detected this as a fall, and because I was in shock, and didn’t have the presence of mind to reassure it that I was okay, it started working its way through my emergency contacts. The latest, Series 5 Apple Watches are even smart enough to know which country you are in and to dial the emergency assistance number for that particular jurisdiction.
My home is rapidly becoming smarter and smarter. I have Amazon Alexa speakers in most rooms which are hooked up to lights, blinds, curtain tracks, central heating and even my tumble dryer. This is tech that excites and delights and is therefore, according to Coughlin, much more likely to be adopted by tech savvy boomers.
While some companies have made great strides in making their products universally accessible, others are stuck in a groove whereby twenty-something men are designing inaccessibility into each and every product that they touch. AgeLab has done a good deal of work in promoting good and universal design to the likes of Proctor & Gamble, Mercedes Benz and BMW. While the conventional wisdom among disability equality consultants is to avoid ‘experiential’ training devices (making non disabled people use wheelchairs or don blindfolds), AgeLab has developed an older experience suit (affectionately called AGNES or Age Gain Now Empathy System) to give younger designers an idea of what it is like to have the body of somebody 30 or 40 years their senior. While this goes some way to reproducing the physical limitations of old age, it can never replicate the musculo-skeletal pain and the sense of isolation and loneliness that all too often accompanies our later years.
Coughlin would be the first to concede that what businesses really need is the direct, lived experience of middle aged and older people, advising on design. He particularly highlights the crucial role of older women in driving innovation in the new senior economy. After all, he says, the gender imbalance in older age is accentuated the higher up the age scale you go.
Older people are more and more staying economically active, remaining either full time or part time members of the workforce. Again, the traditional paradigm of old age and enforced idleness after age 65 is being broken down. For some, this is an economic necessity as pension schemes respond to increasing life expectancy by cutting back on pension benefits and/or shifting retirement age upwards. For others, though, it’s a choice based on a desire to remain connected to a profession or a network of people.
Products aimed at women have often failed as spectacularly as the Heinz older people’s food: Dell, with it’s series of pink laptops; Bic with its special pens for women; numerous car manufacturers who have designed features into cars that appeal to a man’s idea of what women want. The only way is for women to be the lead innovators, to show the market what is needed.
We are also very adept at subverting the use of products to our own ends: using a product for a purpose other than that for which it was originally designed or marketed. This is what Coughlin calls ‘consumer hacks’: apparently the Kleenex tissue was originally marketed as a make up removal product, not as a disposable handkerchief. Thus, the ageing boomer generation will subvert services that they like - internet grocery delivery for example - rather than relying on medicalised services like Meals on Wheels. A fabulous and eccentric example of this is the British couple who, instead of going into a retirement home, sold their house and moved into a Travelodge. They enjoyed all the services they needed - daily cleaning, bed changing, on-site catering - while holding onto their independence and dignity. They were eventually given an award for being the company’s longest staying residents; they had clocked up 22 years.
AirBnB is another concept that was originally designed to help younger people with the cost of accommodation. These days, most of the hosts are over 40. Similarly, many Uber and Lyfft drivers are over 50 and get great reviews because they know their neighbourhoods really well. Coughlin cites examples of other services that are rapidly becoming popular with older, IT literate people: Hello Alfred (named after Batman’s butler) is a service available in many US cities whereby people can be booked by the hour and will undertake household chores like ironing and folding laundry. Instacart is a shopping service used by everybody, but particularly popular with those who find going to the shops a challenge. Here again, the consumer is in control - it’s a service for everyone not some medicalised ghetto service for ‘the housebound’. Dial-a-Ride anyone?
Given that most boomers encountered and conquered IT during their working lives, it is reasonable to agree with Coughlin that they are in an ideal position to become what he calls “lead user innovators”. They will either subvert existing technologies to their own ends or be instrumental in the development of new products and services that will meet an ever increasing need among older consumers.
A contrast is drawn between The Villages - a vast age-segregated, golf orientated retirement community in Florida - and another type of village, an informal network in which retired and semi-retired older citizens provide support for each other. People are able to meet, share leisure facilities and, crucially, interact with other generations in the community. Moreover, people are remaining in the communities in which they worked and lived, often surrounded by networks of friends and family. The Village-to-Village Network is spreading across North America and to the UK, Singapore and Japan. It may not offer the same coherence as age-segregated retirement facilities but it represents a more organic way of living and it is helping to promote more positive attitudes to old age.
Joseph Coughlin says that the new narrative of old age is still being written. It is frontier territory in which there are few certainties and in which many endeavours may well fail. What he does predict is that products in this new and untested market will have to be fun and aspirational: they will have to make later life more enjoyable, not just liveable. The boomers, after all, are the generation that wanted to have it all: in their later life they will continue to demand travel, sex, and even work. Coughlin concludes by saying that, although there are few signs or markers as to what constitutes success in this new later life, politics at least demonstrates that an older brain and an older body are no bar to the highest office: in 2016, Hillary Clinton was 69 while Donald Trump had already achieved his three score years and ten.
Industry, Coughlin says, needs to change its ways to catch up with the prevailing reality, to halt the haemorrhaging of older, more experienced employees. There are some glimmers of hope on the horizon: the German automotive industry, for example, has recognised that older workers are a valuable resource. BMW has made a concerted effort to adapt the working environment so that it is more appealing to older workers. What they have seen is increased productivity and a lower drop out rate.
Younger people have always been sold a vision of older people which is distinctly unappealing: why, asks Coughlin, should they bother to save more of their current income just so that they can pay their nursing home fees? The new narrative of older age will see those young people’s parents and grandparents working and volunteering. They will continue to be valued and respected members of their communities. They may even retrain and acquire new qualifications. Later life will appear much more than the whittled down version of middle age that it currently is.
Older people have always concerned themselves with their legacy: what they will leave behind for future generations; how they will be remembered. So, perhaps it will be the legacy of the boomer generation that they will have been the ones who ripped up the rule book and created a whole new vision.