By Farhad Manjoo
Big Tech isn’t just consumed by youth; often, it’s blinded.
Look at Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg created the social network for college students, but Facebook has been struggling to hang on to young users for more than a decade; usage by people older than 25 has steadily grown over that time, and along with YouTube, Facebook has become the internet’s most popular social network among people older than 50.
This wouldn’t seem terrible for a company that makes money from advertising, as Facebook does. After all, older people are the future of business: According to a recent analysis by AARP, people older than 50 now account for more than half of the world’s consumer spending, and their share is projected to grow to 60 per cent by 2050.
So is Zuckerberg rejoicing that he owns the preferred online destination of the planet’s wealthiest and fastest-growing consumer demographic, tomorrow’s whales of consumerist desire?
He is not. Instead, he seems embarrassed by it. Documents leaked by a whistleblower in 2021 showed Facebook product managers obsessed with reversing the app’s unpopularity with teens and young adults. In an earnings call with shareholders that year, Zuckerberg promised to refocus the company toward improving its services for young adults “rather than optimising for the larger number of older people.”
People older than 50 now account for more than half of the world’s consumer spending, and their share is projected to grow to 60 per cent by 2050.
Right — why optimise for a larger number of wealthier people when you can be cool with the kids?
This is how it goes in Silicon Valley’s youth bubble. From Meta to Snap to TikTok, the tech industry’s picture of its customers resembles that of the famously exclusionary fruity cereal: Silly rabbit, tech is for kids!
Wunderkind founders are revered here, growing old is considered a disease in need of a cure, and ageism is barely concealed. In 2007, a year before he became, at 23, the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, Zuckerberg said the quiet part out loud. “Young people,” he told an audience at Stanford University, “are just smarter.”
They aren’t, actually. The tech industry’s hostility to ageing “continues to violate common sense,” Joseph Coughlin, the director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, told me.
His lab conducts research on how an ageing population is changing business. He said that companies in the auto industry, financial services, retail and other sectors are coming around to the emerging opportunities of the “longevity economy,” the 1.6 billion people around the world who will be 65 or older by the year 2050.
Silicon Valley remains a glaring exception. The tech giants are among the world’s largest and most innovative businesses; if they took a more open-minded approach to ageing — if they considered solving the problems of older customers as eagerly as they chased teen fads — they could establish a model for ageing in a tech-besotted world.
Through advances focused on health care, home assistance, transportation, robotics and artificial intelligence, technology will be crucial to address the problems emerging from demographic imbalance. If there are not enough younger people to care for and cater to the needs of the old, we will increasingly lean on tech to add convenience, independence and perhaps even companionship to our lengthening sunset years.
Stuck in the past
Yet this trillion-dollar industry that imagines itself inventing the future is stuck in the past, its views of older customers, older employees and how to best serve them hopelessly misaligned with facts, business logic and demographic destiny.
“The market is ageing. The market is numerous. The market has got more money than the people they have been building products for,” Coughlin said. “And yet they continue to ignore them.”
What can Silicon Valley do for older people? One place to look is in health care, where — lured by the vast riches of Medicare Advantage, a program that offers seniors a way to buy private medical insurance paid for in part by Medicare — venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have begun to recognise the market opportunity in ageing.
In the past few years, tech investors once wary of products aimed at supposedly techphobic olds have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into startups that use tech to improve health services for seniors. Many of these promise to allow older people a measure of independence from family caregivers or health care facilities. (“Ageing in place” is a favourite bit of industry jargon.)
There are companies that use in-home cameras, audio devices and biometric sensors to let health care providers monitor homebound seniors from afar, something like Life Alert for the digital age.
One heavily funded startup in the US, DispatchHealth, offers house calls to provide complex treatments that might otherwise require hospital stays — a convenience for the patients that might also cut costs for insurance companies.
And then there are some ideas farther afield. A startup called MyndVR is using virtual reality to provide a sense of liberation to older people. Your body may be unable to travel, but through VR, you might cross off destinations on your bucket list. The company argues that VR could also be therapeutic — that by providing cognitive stimulation and allowing for escape from dreary health care settings, the virtual world can improve older people’s well-being.
Robotics and artificial intelligence could also play a big part in ageing. America’s National Institute on Ageing, within the National Institutes of Health, has funded pilot projects to research the use of AI assistants to help caregivers, to calm people with dementia who become aggressive at residential facilities and to monitor data from home-based sensors to spot signs of cognitive decline.
In a study published in 2021, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada found that robotic assistants and companions — among them Paro, a robotic baby seal that can react to people and changes in its environment — can reduce anxiety and depression and improve the emotional well-being in people with dementia.
If there is more to ageing than illness, Silicon Valley doesn’t seem to know it.
If there is more to ageing than illness, Silicon Valley doesn’t seem to know it.
The largest tech companies (Apple, Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft) rarely design products with seniors in mind; the few times they have, it’s been about addressing health problems — for instance, fall detection in the Apple Watch and Amazon’s service for caregivers to connect to seniors through Alexa.
“Where they are innovating is based upon a predefined idea of what ageing is, that it’s a problem, a health problem or an emotional problem,” Coughlin told me. But tech aimed at younger people has never been solely about solving problems; it’s just as often about fun — video games, social networks, streaming apps, hot new gadgets.
Fun for seniors
I’ve been trying to imagine what fun technologies like these for seniors might look like. Zuckerberg has struggled to get people to hop into the metaverse, his virtual reality world; perhaps he’d have more luck if he designed the digital wonderland for older people, selling it as a way to travel the world, seek thrills and socialise without leaving home.
Another idea: YouTube abounds with educational videos like college lectures and hands-on how-tos. The company could collect these offerings into structured courses for retirees: Always wanted to learn quantum mechanics? Here’s your chance!
And games. I’m in my 40s and grew up playing video games, but I find most modern action games too quick for my sluggish reaction time. But why should I miss out on Fortnite just because my old fingers move like molasses? Let’s have age tiers and tech assists like automatic aiming in multiplayer games. I can’t touch a teen gamer, but perhaps one day I could be the GOAT of the senior-level battle royale.
I’m just spitballing; I’m sure that tech giants could find many better innovations to serve their older customers. If only they tried.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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