Aging boom drives tech innovation for and by seniors – Twin Cities
Richard Wade fixes his home computer by looking at his phone, clicking on Google or YouTube, and watching instructional videos from people he describes as “more fluent in the language of digitalia” than himself.
For other tech questions, Wade calls company hotlines. He gets useful answers, he says, “a lot more often than you’d think.”
“I really want to praise those phone people,” Wade said. “It used to be they’d talk to me in tech. And I couldn’t get it because I just don’t speak tech. But, lately, they really walk me through it; they’re patient.
“I actually think the tech industry might be listening to people like me.”
Wade, a retired psychotherapist in Santa Clarita, California, is 72. And according to a new study from AARP, his love of devices that involve some kind of computer code isn’t unusual for someone his age. In recent years – and particularly since the start of the pandemic – older Americans have been the tech industry’s fastest-growing customer block, gobbling up devices like smart watches and self-driving vacuums, and signing up for supposedly youth-friendly social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
But in the fast-changing world of aging and technology, what’s happened over the past half-decade pales in comparison to what’s coming in the next.
Experts say a coming wave of older consumers is about to supplant young people as the tech industry’s core customer. The shift will lead to new products and marketing messages, and it might even reorient a segment of the business world that’s traditionally been hostile to aging.
But as that happens, a similar transformation could take place on the customer side. A new category of current and future products is aimed squarely at rewriting the rules of old age, and everything from self-driving cars to airbag-equipped clothes (to stave off fall-related injuries) soon could become age-related game changers.
In short, two worlds that aren’t often linked – old humans and new technology – are about to become co-dependent.
“I can’t imagine what will come next,” Wade said. “But I can say I am excited about it.”
‘It’s already a reality’
Few projections are backed with as much confidence, or by as many scientists, investors and educators, as is the notion that older people and high tech will soon be BFFs.
“One hundred percent it’s happening,” said Daniel Kaplan, senior associate at Generator Ventures, a San Mateo, California, group that invests in companies that make health-related technologies aimed at older people.
“It’s already a reality,” said Maria Henke, senior associate dean at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Henke designs the curriculum for the school’s aging and technology courses, a series of classes that launched last fall.
“A lot of our students are people in mid-career, involved in technology,” Henke said. “They’re getting degrees in gerontology because they can see that’s the future.”
It’s a future based on a demographic trend sometimes called the aging boom.
Simply put, America’s population – along with the populations of virtually every advanced economy – is getting really old, really fast. Older people have been the one consistently expanding segment of America’s population for most of this century, and that growth is now kicking into a higher gear. By 2032, Census data projects that America will have more people ages 65 and older than it will have people who are 18 and younger. By the late 2040s, nearly 1 in 4 Americans will be what is (for now) retirement age or older. And by 2050, people age 50 and older will comprise more than 40% of America’s population, or more than 160 million people.
What’s more, the aging boom has a corollary – a shrinking world of young people. Americans aren’t having as many kids as they did even a generation ago, a trend that’s expected to continue. And future immigration (a factor that, to date, has been a check on the aging boom and has staved off an actual population decline) is a political wildcard.
The result of it all is a fast-approaching, older demography that will change virtually every aspect of American life, from health care and housing to jobs, taxes and whatever qualifies as “beautiful” in Hollywood.
It also will change our wallets.
A 2020 study by AARP on what many now call the “longevity economy” – in this case defined as all spending by and connected to people ages 50 and up – found that the aging boom will be accompanied by a spending boom. Today, the 50-plus economy is north of $8.3 trillion; by 2050 it is expected to triple, to about $26 trillion.
And one slice of that, sometimes termed “age tech,” is likely to grow even faster.
Broadly speaking, experts say age tech is a world of code-oriented products designed for, and when possible by, older people.
“If it can help prevent an older person’s world from shrinking, that’s probably age tech,” said Henke.
But, for now, the specific definition is loose. By some measures, Ben Franklin’s glasses were an early version of age tech. And by all measures, many newer, computer-oriented devices – voice-activated biosensors that track speech patterns to tell physicians or other caregivers about early signs of depression or dementia, for example – also are age tech.
Others suggest devices and services aimed at all consumers – self-driving cars, age-modified divisions of Uber and Lyft; even Airbnb – can qualify as age tech, as long as they serve the needs of older people and are digital, either directly or indirectly.
For now, much of the current crop of age-specific tech is aimed at helping older people stay in their homes, not nursing facilities, for as long as possible.
Sensors, tracking devices, smart speakers; all can and do connect to the internet and send key data to caregivers and others, helping users age in place. By some estimates, this world of devices already saves the public about $300 billion a year by keeping people out of nursing homes.
“I use AirTags to know where my wife is,” said Wade, a longtime fundraiser for Alzheimer’s Association of Southern California who said he now is also a full-time caretaker for his wife, whose dementia symptoms have become more severe.
“It’s a simple solution. But I’d be in trouble without it.”
Generator Ventures’ Kaplan said his company sees this end of the age tech market as smart business because many of the devices are sold to health providers and, as such, are covered by insurance. He also notes that these devices provide tangible help to a lot of people.
“It’s what’s actually happening in the market,” Kaplan said. “There is a lot of talk about different things coming, in the future. But, for now, this is the sector that’s probably the most real.”
A few other tech products are either being remarketed or rewired to reach older people. Phone apps that help users know when to take medicines, clothes and watches that track things like heart rates and blood sugar levels, food delivery services; all are at least somewhat oriented to older customers.
Another world of technology – artificial intelligence – is still percolating, with useful versions either super expensive or not yet ready for a mass market. But the category is viewed as something that could be popular among older consumers of the 2030s and beyond. That’s when the people hitting retirement age will be young enough to have used the internet, video games and other tech, all of their lives.
Kaplan, among others, said the market will “open up” when people now in their 40s and 50s hit retirement age. But he noted that costs will be key to the development and popularity of artificial intelligence, and every other age tech product.
“The same economic inequalities we have now will be around when we have a lot of older people,” he said. “That’s not going away.”
Others say artificial intelligence could lead to a number of products aimed at a specific segment of older people – those with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. About 6.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s today and that number is expected to be nearly 13 million by 2050.
“For dementia patients, and to replace sensory losses in vision and hearing, artificial intelligence is a category with a lot of potential,” said Karen Wong, who teaches about aging and technology at Cal State Fullerton’s Aging Studies program.
For now, some segments of the age tech market feel repurposed. This includes items that once were sold as toys that now are sold as calming devices for people battling severe stages of dementia.
“These cats respond to petting, hugging and motion much like the real ones you know and love but don’t require any special care or feeding… “
So reads the ad copy for the “Joy For All” line of animatronic cats sold by Hasbro for about $125.
“… This personally rich experience can bring joy and comfort to aging loved ones without any vet bills to worry about.”
“I guess that cat brings comfort to people,” Wong said.
If nothing else, the new connection of older people and tech figures to tackle a long-standing problem in tech-oriented marketing.
For decades, tech product advertising has suggested that youth is a stand-in for innovation, creativity and intelligence. But old age? It’s typically meant the opposite.
That particular concept might not find purchase in a world dominated by people 60 and older.
“No, I haven’t felt like the kind of person that’s being talked about when it comes to tech advertisements,” said Myra Solano Garcia, 64, of Los Angeles, who said her tech use centers on the internet and Zoom.
“I’ve felt talked down to.”
But the former opera singer (a soprano), and a former vice president at the University of La Verne, waves off that problem. She believes “market realities” will force computer makers and others to adopt an “age-is-OK” mindset.
“Their messaging is going to change as the technology, and their customers, change. That’s just going to happen.”
Instead, Solano Garcia said she worries about something bigger than tech messaging:
“Humanity, I guess.”
Over the past two years, Solano Garcia has used Zoom and the internet to form a self-help group for people, like herself, who have been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. She said technology “at its best” is a tool to stay connected to other people.
“I have real friendships, people I have a deep connection with, who I’ve only known online and in Zoom,” she said.
She hopes products aimed at older people, in the future, will remain tools to help people connect with each other, not to replace other people.
“I have a certain level of comfort with technology, but it’s not huge. And I think I would be really frightened by anything that is too artificial,” she said.
“I’m old-school, and I really love to be in front of, and with, people,” she added. “I hope, whatever is coming, whatever it is, doesn’t take that away.”