This Isn’t Your Grandmother’s Tech Company, But It Should Be

There seems to be a consensus that older people aren’t tech users: they’re resistant to change and uninterested in learning new technologies.

It’s true that it often takes longer for them to learn how to use new technologies, so adoption lags behind that of younger generations. In the early 2000’s, it wasn’t efficient to build a tech company focused on seniors. Even though a few people tried. In 2006, Jeff Taylor launched Eons – a social network for boomers. At the time, just 32% of people 65+ used the internet compared to 86% of folks under 30. In the end, Jeff was ahead of his time. Eons struggled to secure a critical mass of users and wound down in 2012. Today, with 73% of the 65+ demographic online, we’ve entered a new era.

As they’ve come online, some businesses have managed to reach older consumers with limited effort, or even by accident. Facebook is arguably the biggest winner so far, but even some co-living startups – explicitly built for millennials – have ended up with ~20% of their residents over 50.

Tech isn’t the holdup anymore. Rather, there’s a gap between how most companies see older people and how they see themselves. According to Pew, only 35% of people 75+ consider themselves old – which means that products made for old people, don’t really work for old people.

With this in mind, I see two approaches to building breakout businesses for people over 65:

1) Leverage emerging tech to augment existing business models.

2) Build solutions to make the unique transitions people go through as they age easier.

The classic consumer internet businesses – social media, e-commerce, on-demand services – should see mass adoption across generations. Many of our values and desires don’t change as we age. But there are cultural and sometimes physical differences, which require tech purposefully built for older people that doesn’t make them feel old. This requires collaborative product design, diverse marketing messages and channels, and a higher degree of customer service. In some circumstances, enabling technologies like voice assistants, sensors, and AI, will further extend the reach of these same consumer internet models, making them easier to use for people who are less comfortable with digital interfaces or have limited mobility.

Most companies targeting the 65+ demographic have focused on helping them through health and housing transitions. These are important challenges, and we continue to be excited by breakthroughs in remote monitoring, at-home diagnostics, and digital therapeutic technology that can improve quality of life. However, retirement – often the first and most sudden lifestyle change – has been overlooked so far.

Boomers’ retirement is going to look completely different than their parents’. And resources to help them prepare for this rite of passage haven’t kept up. Comprehensive pension packages are the exception rather than the rule, meaning less than half of non-retired Americans feel financially prepared for retirement and one quarter have no savings or pension. But utilization of financial advisors remains low. On the flip side, the costs of retirement have never been higher, as folks live longer and are more likely to require long-term care. And financial products mean to bridge the savings gap, like long-term care insurance, are too expensive. There is a growing need to help people improve their financial wellbeing post retirement. The challenge here is not so much technical as cultural. For folks who used to know their bankers by name, digital financial services that offer superior customer service, simple UX, and complete trust haven’t been built yet.

A more radical opportunity is rethinking retirement completely, as a time to transition into a new type of employment rather than cease work altogether. Already, most people retire sooner than planned. For a small subset, this comes from having enough financial security to retire. For most, they’ve lost their job or can’t perform their role due to poor health. Platforms that support long-time jobholders to stay in their positions or find new work opportunities that evolve with their lifestyle, can keep productive people working longer. Beyond the individual benefits of employment, extending the average person’s working years could avert an economic slowdown, by holding the dependency ratio down.

It’s tempting to draw a line at 65+. The construct makes the rest of us feel safer, younger. But personal fears of aging have skewed our understanding of what it means to retire and grow old: to view it as an end, rather than a life stage that will last decades. And means that we’ve missed opportunities to build tech that promotes the freedom and fun that can come with age.