Photo: Boris Thaser
The aging population in western societies is one of the major challenges that we face today; moreover it also constitutes a great opportunity for innovation and growth. Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, in his article “Innovation & the Future of Aging Services” points out that the disruptive demographics of an aging society is challenging business and government and it will also demand new thinking in aging services.

In a report released by Merrill Lynch (The Silver Dollar – Longevity Revolution Primer) it is estimated that, worldwide, the “Silver Economy” will reach $15 billion by 2020, thus becoming a powerful economic force. According to this report, the also known as “Longevity Economy” encompasses both “the economic activity serving the needs and wants of the 50+ global population, as well as directly purchased products and services and the knock-on economic activity that this generates (jobs, wages, productivity, taxes, charitable giving et. al.)” The European Commission also foresees an steadily 4% GPD growth in public expenditure on aging people until 2060 (Commission's 2015 Aging report) and a spending power of the consumers aged 60+ of US$15billion+ by 2020 (Euromonitor).

Aging population has gathered the researchers’ attention. In 2010, Prof. Florian Kohlbacher and Prof. Cornelius Herstatt published the book “The Silver Market Phenomenon: Marketing and Innovation in the Aging Society” where they analyzed the challenges and opportunities in leveraging innovation, technology, product development and marketing for older consumers, including Japan as a leading market. More recently, in 2014, Prof. Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, authored the book “The Upside of Aging: How Long Life Is Changing the World of Health, Work, Innovation, Policy and Purpose”. The author posits new ways of thinking about aging, since longevity and declining birth-rates put the world on track for a mature population of extraordinary size and significance. Irving is hopeful about the coming changes, even in the work realm “Leaders in business are beginning to appreciate that older workers retain unique values, skills, wisdom and judgment and are recognizing, frankly, that the intergenerational teams and workforces may be the most powerful workforces of the future" he said (see article by Kerry Hannon in nextavenue.org) 

We should be aware that the “Silver Consumer” substantially differs from older adults of previous generations in their lifestyles and spending patterns. Nowadays, seniors are also open to marketing and media, Internet and smartphones; furthermore they also want to keep alive their former habits. In this respect, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) claims that companies need to develop effective strategies to address the longevity economy. Besides harnessing the potential of that population, companies should include custom-made design, tailored products and services, and most effective message approaches.

What role does innovation play? In the aforementioned article, Coughlin envisages “a plethora of devices and sensors that will be available to monitor, manage and motivate an older population to take their meds, eat well, exercise and all the things that will enhance well-being and with any luck lifelong engagement”. So, it seems that we will have to rely heavily on technology and innovation to relate to elderly people. Nesta, a UK based innovation charity, offers a living map of aging innovation projects through its HealthLab initiative. The list entails both social innovation and technology-based projects such as: Oscarsenior, a tablet application for aging people remotely managed by family and carers; See what I mean, an app which translates words into pictures, specially useful for people living with dementia, since words can become increasingly hard to understand for them; or Silverline, a corporate responsibility project run by SingTel, that donates smartphones containing five apps co-developed with and for older people.

Another relevant point is how seniors use technology. In the article “Designing For The Elderly: Ways Older People Use Digital Technology Differently” Ollie Campbell, cofounder of Navy Design, says that technology has a lot to offer to elderly people if we know how to design for them. Campbell gives some clues and examples about the use of technology by seniors. For instance, the Speaking Exchange initiative which puts in contact young people from Brazil with retirees in US through videoconference. This project taps into the need of learning a language and the necessity to be in company. The author also calls our attention to some relevant concerns for people 50+ for instance vision problems, which make tough the reading on digital screens; motor control problems affecting the use of mouse or the finger tapping on screens; difficulties manipulating working or prospective memory, which leads to forgetting to take meds, attend appointments or disregard expiration dates.

Campbell tells a story which summarizes very well the “Silver Spirit”: “During a user testing session, I sat with a 66-year-old as she signed up for an Apple ID. She was asked to complete a series of security questions. She read the first question out loud. “What was the model of your first car?” She laughed. “I have no idea! What car did I have in 1968? What a stupid question!

Are we ready to innovate for the Silver Consumer?