Boomers, Seniors, and Tech

Is this really the best of times?

By Laurie Orlov

The first boomers are about to turn senior: I thought that the excitement of the first boomers turning 65 in January would have waited a few weeks closer to January, but silly me. So one boomer will turn 65 every eight seconds starting in January. Is it the beginning of one of society's great tragic periods—too few jobs, dwindling public funds for safety nets, declining health, and a fundamental recasting of the societal dependency ratio (see Wall Street Journal article)? Or will it be the beginning of a long and joyous "senior boomer" or "booming senior" marketing marathon that rises and then slowly ebbs over 30 or 40 years, when the 46-year-olds run out of money and steam? Your perspective may vary: it matters whether you make a product for an aging population but want to move the age downward and broaden the appeal (see GreatCall). Or whether the opposite is true and you're Toyota and want to create a vehicle that will tackle problems of aging head on (no pun intended). Or whether you're in a complex senior-focused market, like MetLife and long-term care insurance, where the economics of longevity and the recession have both shrunk the target buying audience and made the cost of claims untenable.

Do boomers just want to have fun? Today's much-syndicated boomer news article has an element of humor to it—while the subject is at the beginning of the senior boom (65), the data are about the 50+ crowd: their love of cars, fine soap, good food, and all of their tech. Methinks it will be 15 years before the youngest of the baby boomers will turn 65. (As is often noted, 50+ is not a "senior" market.) So they have plenty of time to beef up their housing and retirement plans; and even more hopefully, by then the Medicare and Social Security shortfalls will have been resolved from either a revived economy or revitalized government plan. But January's newly crowned 65-year-olds face trouble, not the least of which is that many still have parents who are, by life expectancy standards, pretty old.

Will they really have all of this money ahead—and at what cost? This line from the USA Today article will make you pause and reach for the calculator: "People 50 and older will inherit an estimated $14 trillion to $20 trillion during the next 20 years." Really? That would be nice. But one hopes that they get more than that, which at $256,410 for each of 78 million boomers, assuming they are still alive, may just be the value of their parents' house that they may be lucky to inherit when and if it is sold. That is, if it hasn't already been used to fund a small portion of multiyear uninsured home or assisted living care. In the meantime, there is the "older worker-to-teen" ratio, now at 1.13, or 6.6 million aged 65+ compared to 5.9 million aged 16 to 19, keeping youth unemployment high. And the need to keep working past 65? Let's just say that if the body, employer, or entrepreneurial spirit permits working past the so-called retirement age, it will be so—that is (see MMI report) if skills enable and jobs can be found.

January is a meaningless tech milestone for the older boomers: Overall, boomers spend more on tech than any other similarly gigantic age group. In fact, "they spent an average of $850 for their latest home computer—$50 more than any other group, reports Forrester Research." So on the plus side, they're iPad, iPhone, iPod, and "iNext" ready. And like their teenage brethren, they will prioritize this stuff over eating and their good health. I bet that's those at the younger end of the boomer demographic. January's 65-year-olds, not so much. Mostly they will still be tethered to their desktop machines, trying to text on their not-so-smart phones with the mostly horrendous no-QWERTY keypads. They will still read their email a few times a day, use Facebook and Skype with their families if feasible, and wish that high-quality tech support (other than their adult kids) could come to the house and do a tech makeover with complete training every few years.

Mission must motivate the aging tech market today: What are baby boomers, anyway? They are an enormous and yet-untapped channel to serve the older senior population, the group that really needs what technology can do—the frailest of whom need to be monitored for safety and health issues, communicated with, engaged mentally and socially, interviewed to have their life histories recorded, and served with useful products that keep those with dementia from wandering or being victimized by scams. Those considering entering the market for any of these categories need to know that January 1, 2011, will be just another day in which more awareness must be generated and better products designed, less expensively manufactured, better tested, and truly vetted to be sure that they are safe and appropriate for use.

By Laurie Orlov
Aging in Place Technology Watch Blog

[First posted November 17, 2010, at Laurie's Aging in Place Technology Watch Web site.]

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