About seven years ago I pitched the idea of a different kind of lifestyle website to a big media company I was working for at the time. It was aimed at baby boomers who were starting businesses, running marathons, climbing mountains and getting patents for great new inventions. I thought there would be a huge market. There are 75 million baby boomers in America, and they control trillions of dollars, yet all the advertisers and marketers were chasing kids; they thought all you can sell to inflexible, tech-resistant aging boomers were timeshares and Depends.
Unfortunately, just about every prospective reader or writer said "Why would I want to read that?" They didn't identify themselves with an age group; they identified with what they did and what they loved, with their passions and their dreams. I was trying to change the definition of "old," but they didn't want to belong to that club.
There were a few people out there who understood what was going on. One is Joseph Coughlin, the director of the AgeLab at MIT, who has just released a book about what he has learned, "The Longevity Economy," subtitled "Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market." Coughlin (pictured at right) challenges all the preconceptions about old, and he sees what's coming down the road.
Enter the boomers. Technology permitting, businesses and products have always attended to their every whim. When they discover that old age isn’t like that, I don’t expect them to take it quietly — I expect a revolt.
Changing the conversation
Coughlin starts the book with a statement that "almost defies belief: old age is made up." He's not saying that our bodies don't age, but that "old" is a social construct invented over the last 150 years, the traditional notion of retirement, that no longer works. "Today, we’re stuck with a notion of oldness that is so utterly at odds with reality that it has become dangerous." A notion that it's all about decline, about taking and being taken care of, a mix of greedy and needy. Instead, he envisions a world designed to make it easier for everyone to participate and contribute, instead of rotting in a rocking chair.
Coughlin talks about all the stuff that's designed by healthy young people for old people with problems. So when he asks young business students what they might want to sell to older people, they suggest walkers, or apps to call for assistance, or adult diapers. The "I fell down and I can't get up" detectors or the Jitterbug phones with big buttons. All of which "whisper to their users every day: You are frail. You are incompetent." He quotes a poll I used when I was proposing my website:
According to a 2009 Pew poll, only 35 percent of people over 75 said they felt "old." And that’s a problem, because 100 percent of people understand that personal emergency response system (PERS) pendants are for old people. When a product is for "old people," and the user, what-ever her age, doesn’t think of herself as "old," she’s not going to buy it. Maybe her kid will buy it for her, maybe against her wishes.
He gets why people really don't want this stuff, why so few people wear these safety pendants.
It may have been that older consumers wanted not merely to stay alive but to have a life. It’s hard to be sociable, have fun, and do things with friends when you have a testament to your impending mortality hanging around your neck like an albatross.
Besides, who needs it? I have an iPhone. When the screen got too small for my aging eyes, I upgraded to a nice big 7+. If I fall down, either in my living room or off my bike or snowboard, I have an emergency response system: my Apple Watch. I have the same technology as everyone else, but I can put it to use to serve my needs as they change, as I get older.
This is the key lesson in the book for me, trained as I am as an architect, and what I say all the time: It's all about design. Designers have to design "in such an intuitive, pleasing way that everyone benefits — even young, nondisabled people."
So in architectural terms, we had "accessible design" where one might find a wheelchair ramp next to a stairway. Or "universal design" such as lever handles on doors, which make life easier for everyone; those who cannot grip a knob or someone carrying a box who wants to open the door with the elbow.
But there’s another, even higher level of accessibility that I believe has been mistakenly lumped in with universal design: transcendent design. It’s essentially universal design that has been dialed up to 11 on a 10-point scale, with accessibility attributes so useful that they turn out to be highly desirable — even aspirational — for people with and without disabilities. If the defining, narrative-shaping forces in our older future will be those that make it easy for older adults to achieve their jobs as consumers, transcendent products and design features will be at the vanguard of this process.
An example of these are OXO products, which were originally going to be "arthritis-friendly" but ended up being more useful and comfortable for everyone. Or, for that matter, the smartphone, which does so much.
Importantly, smartphones make possible all these things and more without alienating, separating, or infantilizing the older user. The transcendent design first made widely available in the original iPhone has proven to be one of the most life-changing technological forces of the past 20 years — for all consumer age groups. Meanwhile, the downstream industries that have sprung up to fulfill the new demands created by this device, and the ways that life has changed since smartphones became omnipresent, are too numerous to list.
The smartphone makes my Halo hearables (I like that better than hearing aids) connect to the world; I recently was cycling to a lunch in Copenhagen with Google in my head saying turn right and turn left without taking my eyes off the path. It lets me adjust my Hue smart light bulbs to the cooler end of the spectrum because older eyes work better in blue light. It pings my Tile if I cannot find my keys.
My iPhone and my watch, designed by a baby boomer, was not designed for a baby boomer, but it's absolutely a transcendent design. This is the way all designers should be thinking: don't design for old people, design for everyone.
I've written about some of these ideas before on MNN, when I complain about the design of housing, the issues of pedestrian deaths, of hanging up the car keys and walking or biking, even the need for public washrooms, noting that all of these things that would make life better for aging boomers would make life better for everyone.
But Coughlin's book really is the one that anyone thinking about these issues has been waiting for. It's based on years of solid research and thinking, yet is compassionate and understanding.
Coughlin doesn't forget that not everyone can afford an Apple Watch and an iPhone, that not everyone ages in the same way, that some are living in poverty and others with illness. But he notes that there's one thing that's the same for every aging person: They deserve dignity, and they deserve to be treated like adults.
None of us should ever forget that.