Innovating Old Age

Innovating Old AgeFinding the New in the Old

Our age (sic) is one which celebrates innovation and novelty in all forms, in all things, in every context. It is exceedingly rare to hear anything but praise for novelty, and youth in both companies, business models and talents is continuously glorified (Think only of all those lists praising those “under 40″…). This buzz, this incessant talk of novelty and youth is understandable, as the pursuit of youth and the next new thing has been a part of our culture for a very long time. We’ve been swept away by fashion and freshness for ages, and will in all likelihood mostly continue on this same path. Still, this attention to novelty hides things as well, relegating things to the backrooms of thought. One of these is that which is normally seen as the antithesis of innovation, namely aging and the related phenomenon of old age.

Old age is something of a cipher in business thinking. That old age, and thereby the aged, exists is of course something that everyone knows. Still, reading what is written about business and the economy, you come away with the feeling that the elderly simply do not exist in the framework most business thinkers operate with. Is it as if business and economy was solely the domain of the middle-aged, with a small enclave reserved for the young and adventurous, with the elderly relegated to trivial, mundane consumption. Not only is this ethically questionable as a (hopefully unconscious) limitation, it is positively dangerous if we are to develop our economies to be all that they can be.

The elderly exist. This much I know to be true. They will always exist, and in fact, they are set to become a much more important part of the economy than they have ever been – and in their own way they have always been an exceptionally important, if at times invisible, part thereof. Whereas their role earlier might have been one of acting in the background, simple demographics (with a dash of anthropology) tells us that this group might in fact be one of the most important groups to understand when developing contemporary business thinking. The basics of this transformation are simple enough to comprehend: Improvements in healthcare, nutrition and the general standard of living are working in concert to ensure that the elderly are becoming an ever-bigger part of the general economy. We are, as a plant, graying at rates never seen before. Some see this as a problem, an refer to things such as healthcare-costs and pension-costs to position the older population as an issue to be resolved. I feel this is a fallacious way of comprehending change. Yes, we are getting older. But this does not mean that we’re getting worse. In fact, the aging of the world should be seen as an opportunity, a chance to rethink our ideas about age. It is also an immense opportunity for business, a real chance to enact radical innovation and open up for hundreds or thousands of high-growth, high-innovation new ventures.

For this reason, I’ve found it important to look to some of the ways in which I believe that innovation and old age are and can be connected. This is obviously a tentative and early listing, one I hope will mature and develop over time (sic again), but I hope that it will go some way towards opening up the issue of innovation and old age.

Agenovation

Let us start with the most important thing: We have to innovate the ways in which we talk about old age. Let me illustrate this with a story from my own life. In this, there are two women who both, in their own ways, fit into the category or label “old folks”. One is my grandmother. A few days before I wrote these words, she turned 90. She suffers from early stage Alzheimer’s disease, and has almost no short term memory. She can only remember me with some prodding, and still confuses me with my father. She is happy, in her own way, and lives on her own apartment in a facility where nurses visit her a few times a day to see to it that she’s taking her medicine and that she’s eating. My mother also visits every other day. She almost never leaves her apartment.

Her daughter, my mother, is turning 64 (she retired early). She keeps busy, and not only with tending my grandmother. She travels (going to the Caribbean next week), she enjoys life, she works hard at spending all of my inheritance. Active, outgoing, happily not working, she engages with the world as both an active consumer and a likewise active citizen. The interesting thing, however, is that to both business thinking and most policy documents, my mother and my grandmother are more or less the same person. One is confined to her apartment, the other travels the world, but because they are both “elderly”, they are often seen as being identical in their consumption preferences, their view of the world, their identity as economic actors. This, obviously, is a travesty and a joke.

In an age where the elderly are becoming both more numerous and more important as an economic group, it is absolutely critical that we engage in some agenovation, i.e. in innovative understandings of what it means to be old today. This isn’t merely a case of trying to make old age more “hip”, but a serious engagement with what market segmentation might mean today. Once upon a time, it might have been so that most people considered “old” were relatively homogenous, but those days have most definitively passed. Today, the elderly is an exceptionally heterogenous group, and all signs point towards this group becoming more heterogeneous still.

So, we need to start from innovating the way we view the category of the “elderly”. Our current tendency of simply grouping them into one big, early-bird-special-eating group simply will not cut it in the coming age of ever-older consumers. Instead, we need to find ways of rethinking the role of the elderly, and start taking them seriously as a group of consumers, users, co-constructors. The simple facts are these: The elderly are here, they’re getting more numerous, and thanks to their life-savings, economic savvy (particularly when comparing them to their credit-happy children and grandchildren) and increasing consumer clout, we ignore them at our peril.

Gerinnovations

Right now, few business opportunities are as promising as those in the field I’ve chosen to call gerinnovations. With an aging population, it will become exceptionally important to see to ways in which old age can be transformed by the application of innovation, entrepreneurial initiatives and design thinking. Often, the notion of innovating in/for the group of the elderly has been seen as dealing with issues such as prosthetics or tools to aid frail people to handle simple tasks. In the future, this needs to be extended into something as engaged and multifaceted as innovation generally.

Take the issue of dating as an example. Dating is normally seen as something that only the young engage in, so most of the booming business of online dating is geared directly towards the age-group 18-35. The fact is, singles above the age of 65 is becoming a key demographic group, and we know that this group includes a very high percentage of romantically and sexually active individuals. Currently, very few (if any) entrepreneurs are active in serving this group, mostly due to the fact that few people see this as a group worthy of attention – thus leaving the field open for open-minded entrepreneurs!

Similarly, we’re seeing more and more physically active, curious and adventurous individuals joining the group of the “elderly”, only to find themselves shunned by advertisers and unserved be entrepreneurs, even though they are more than willing to use their disposable income on innovations that meet their demands, needs, and interests. The alert young entrepreneur could do far worse than spending some time with the active elderly and identify some of the market opportunities in this as of yet largely unknown business sector. As the elderly increase, both in number and as a consumer base to take seriously, the innovators that can best comprehend this group stands to profit handsomely – while making the world a better place in the process.

Gerinnovations are not just innovations for the elderly, but rather innovations that try to re-imagine what old age means today, innovations that try to transcend the current patronizing business thinking and expand this to include the one group that most of us will one day belong to. In a manner of speaking, gerinnovation is utilizing design thinking to the limitations of current business theory – a theory where many groups are excluded simply for not fitting with a particular model of the economic actor.

Graynovators

To this comes the fact that we, in order to be able to sustain our economies, need to become far better at retaining the energies and know-how of people as they leave the conventional workforce. We are currently seeing how millions of talented, knowledgeable, energetic people globally are exiting their jobs, often without there being any process to ensure that their skills and energies can continue to be utilized in the general economy. This is not only a societal problem, but a business one as well. For a well-functioning business life, it is important that we retain a plethora of views, a diverse number of inputs. Right now, talk of diversity tends to focus on issues such as gender, ethnicity and religion. Important things, all of them, but we need to be better at adding age to these, and commit to age diversity in both how we run our companies and how we think about business in general.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the developing group of greynovators, i.e. older individuals who choose to engage with innovation and entrepreneurship after retiring. This is an often invisible group, as they do not easily fit into the models espoused by theorists and policy-makers. However, they represent a typical case of successful new venturing. By using not only a wild, new idea, but their long experience and accrued know-how, greynovators have the capacity to launch well-defined entrepreneurial ventures whilst arguably having a balanced risk-perspective – being knowledgeable enough not to go for any old (sic, once more) idea but being secure enough in their private life to be able to take chances and risks. In many ways, the elderly could be seen as ideal entrepreneurs.

By and large, entrepreneurship research has not looked towards the elderly. This is a mistake. In the world we’re entering, it is a demographic fact that we need older entrepreneurs just as we need younger ones. We, as a society, also suffer from the myth that only young people can be innovative. While it is true that some aspects of creativity decrease as individuals age, innovation is not merely the capacity to think of wild new ideas.

Innovation is about finding workable solutions and new approaches, and these can come from anywhere – even from the experience amassed over the years. In order to have a well-rounded innovation policy for a nation, or for a corporation, greynovators need to be acknowledged and supported. Key in this is to make them visible, recognized members of the innovation community. In addition, we need to be aware of how a community – in this case a community defined by age rather than location or suchlike – can engage with innovations that carry specific meaning within its own context. Greynovators can surely come up with general innovations, such that will bring great value to humanity at large, but it is important to note that they are also particularly well placed to innovate “among their own”, i.e. come up with gerinnovations.

Sustainable Aging

All the points above come together when we start to think more generally about how old age will be understood in the future. Humanity is becoming older, and if we are to survive as a species, we need to think about our sustainable aging. This will require not only rethinking what aging means in contemporary society (i.e. agenovation), but also finding innovation that aids in aging, making it less complicated, more natural, more free, generally better (i.e. gerinnovation). To make this possible, we need gerinnovators, but also a wider acceptance of the inevitable fact of old age.

Looking at our species, we need to think about old age, for we are quickly crowding the planet. We’ve become masters of prolonging life, both through medicine and developing societies, but now the time has come to take responsibility for these developments. We’ve cracked much of the code of how to live long, but now need to crack the more complicated code of how to make this sustainable. Sometimes this is understood as another form of saying that the elderly are a problem to be solved but this, to me, is a highly limited approach. Humanity is getting older, and treating this as a problem is not a productive way forward. Instead, we need to utilize humanity’s innate capacity for innovation to find novel and interesting ways to re-imagine this natural and interesting fact of life. And we’re all implicated in this.

When I’m 64

There is something to the business of aging that should strike a cord with all of us – for we will all get older. As the Beatles so aptly put it:

“When I get older losing my hair, /

Many years from now. /

Will you still be sending me a valentine /

Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

If I’d been out till quarter to three /

Would you lock the door, /

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, /

When I’m sixty-four?”

Aging is not something that happens to others. Aging is you, aging is me. We might want to close our eyes to this, particularly if we’re not quite there yet. Society, with its unsustainable love for youth and novelty, is implicated in our age-myopia, but if we want to take life and business seriously, we need to face up to aging. We will all age, and if you want a human old age, it would behoove you to consider these issues before you hit 60. I know I am. I may be 39, which to some is ancient (just ask my son), but I’m very well aware of both being young-ish and of age creeping up on me. I don’t talk of age because I want to say that I’m important, but because I believe that business thinking should benefit all humanity – young or old. In fact, I believe that paying attention to age is beneficial for us all, regardless of age. The elderly are already here, and ignoring them doesn’t do anyone any good. Quite the opposite, paying them more attention right now might be the most beneficial thing for us all, regardless of age.


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Alf RehnAlf Rehn is a management professor, an internationally recognized business thinker (or something), an author and a speaker. He is currently holding the Chair of Management and Organization at Åbo Akademi University in Finland, was earlier the SSES Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and has in addition taught at universities all over the globe.

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