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Coughlin: Boomers Driving and Demanding Innovation

Aging is not about birthdays. It is about life tomorrow

A Baby Boomer turns 64 nearly one every seven seconds.

Retired couple
Chaos | Taxi | Getty Images
Retired couple

Perennially youthful, but no longer young, the nation’s largest generation is now well into middle age and beyond. Born between 1946 and 1964 the nearly 77 million Boomers are more than the nation’s largest cohort—they are also its loudest.

For six-plus decades they’ve demanded new, better, faster, cheaper, and cool. Now graying, how will their demands shape the new whitespace of an aging marketplace?

While the parents of the Boomers were content to simply live longer, the new generation gap is about expectations: to live longer and to live better. Along side these demographic changes are new ‘intelligent’ technologies that are already appearing in your car, home, phone, store, maybe even in your underwear and under your skin.

The convergence of older Boomer expectations and technology is forging a disruptive force driving innovation that will improve life tomorrow for everyone. It's one of the topics being discussed at the Techonomy conference this week in Lake Tahoe, Calif., specifically in a panel called "The Science and Economics of Life Extension."

This will not be your father’s old age. Products serving older and disabled people will certainly be an important and growing market, but big winners will serve the older consumer by stealth.

An adage from the auto industry rings true for all markets. ‘You can’t build and old man’s car, because a young man won’t buy it, and neither will an old man’. Instead, developing products that appeal to the ageless values of convenience, connectivity, cool and care will be attractive to all age groups while meeting the practical needs of older consumers.

Convenience

Baby Boomers are not the first to be pressed for time, but they are the first to pay top dollar to save time and to make life easier. Soon retailers will partner with telecommunications firms to transform your kitchen and bathrooms into services platforms.

Internet-enabled appliances and radio frequency identification or RFID tags will enable retailers to ‘know’ when you are out of favorite foods facilitating convenient delivery of groceries to time starved families and be in place when, in older age, the trip to the store becomes a hurdle and careful nutrition or medication management a must.

Connectivity

More than 70 percent of Americans over age 50 live in suburban and rural areas where transit is absent or underdeveloped. New technologies to detect health status behind the wheel and to improve overall driver performance are coming to the car enabling many older adults to drive longer safely.

If driving is no longer a choice, creative on-demand transportation services will use cell phone location-based technology to ensure seamless mobility for people of all ages. For others, ‘presence’ by video, avatar or simply a blinking cursor online may be a means of remaining connected.

Facebook is already reporting that women over 50 are among their fastest growing user groups. For a generation of aging Boomers who had fewer children and engaged in fewer social groups in youth, high-tech touch may be more than virtual-fun, it may be real community.

Care

Most businesses see health as the business of aging. Not altogether incorrect, just incomplete.

‘Tele-health’ technologies are already available to manage disease, connecting the home with branded hospital services such as Partners Center for Connected Healthmaking a check-up-a-day tomorrow’s norm. Innovators, such as Healthways, are going beyond disease to proactively manage well-being using technology to encourage behaviors that will stave off chronic conditions and improve performance at work or to simply visit a grandchild.

Cool

The blending of fashion, fun and friends is the new frontier for aging. Today’s 50-something is not the ‘older’ aunt of decades ago. High-style, high-tech and, yes, high-priced, are already dominated by the 50-plus consumer.

Think about the explosive success of Nintendo’s Wiiamong older users—it has given rise to an entirely new injury category for competitive Boomers: ‘Wii wrist’ and ‘Wii elbow.’

These are only a few examples of what’s new for old age. Future innovations in housing, financial services, caregiving, education, and leisure are also needed. Whatever product or service businesses develop for the Baby Boomer, however, they most certainly must be convenient, connected, caring and cool.

Aging is not about birthdays. It is about life tomorrow. Longer life and greater expectations for those years is an opportunity for business to innovate new ways for all of us to work, live and play tomorrow. And, in the time it took to read this, another 34 boomers just turned 64.

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Joseph F. Coughlin, PhD is founder and Director of the Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyAgeLab. He teaches strategic management and policy innovation in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division and publishes disruptivedemographics.com.