Rethinking old age is the product development opportunity of the moment—and of the future.

Workforce Blog: Older People for Young Engineers

Dec 16, 2019

by John G. Falcioni

Happy Birthday! We’ll all be a year older in 2020, and if luck is on our side, it won’t be the last year we get older—the alternative is not something we’re overly fond of contemplating.

What’s different about this coming year is that we’re beginning to think differently about aging.

In a little more than a decade, Americans 65 and older will represent 20 percent of the population and outnumber those 18 and younger. Consider that right now, for the first time in human history, there are more people over 65 than under five.

But don’t stop reading if you fall into the Generation X, Y or Z buckets. This blog is for you.

Aging around the world is about to disrupt everything we think about in innovation, business, technology, and society—and the opportunities to innovate have never been better.

Studies show that about half of the kids who were born in 2007, and who live in the “rich world,” will live to 100 or older. Japan tops the list at 107, the U.S., Italy, France, and Canada at 104, the U.K. at 103, and Germany 102.

Further Reading: Robotic Cane to Lean On

“Old age, if you think about it, is the only class of individual that we all hope that we can be a part of,” Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab and author of The Longevity Economy, said at a recent conference. “Aging is an opportunity to be developed rather than a problem to be solved.”

Here’s the advice: Engineers and product designers must build products these consumers want to use.

Right now, there’s a gap in expectations between what older consumers want from a product and what most products for the older age group deliver. “Why do products built for older people so often seem so uninspiring—big, beige, and boring?” Coughlin asked.

Today’s older generation is not your great-grandfather’s generation. Seventy three percent of the 65-plus population today is online, and half own smartphones. That’s a jump over the year 2000, when only 14 percent of 65-plus Americans used the internet. There are many other examples of “younger” older people desiring products that they can use, but which don’t look or feel like they are for older people.

Related Workforce Blog Post: How We See What We See

Rethinking old age is the product development opportunity of the moment—and of the future. “Products have perpetuated the reductive narrative of old age,” Coughlin argues. “The entire product economy surrounding old age reinforces an image in the public’s mind of old people as passive consumers.”

Don Norman, 84, the director of The Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, who is author of the renowned book, The Design of Everyday Things, and a former vice president at Apple, agrees: “Designers and companies of the world, you are badly serving an ever-growing segment of your customer base, a segment that you too will one day inhabit. Isn’t it time to reform: to make things that are functional and stylish, usable and accessible?”

Norman, who some years ago headlined an ASME panel on human-centered design, said examples of promising designs for older people do exist, but they are so rare that museums put them on display and the press writes articles. Today’s better designers understand the user and function of what’s being designed—and its looks, too.

As disruptive technology is blowing away business models, disruptive demographics do too. We should pay attention.

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief, Mechanical Engineering magazine.

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