SOME positive-minded 'very optimistic' folk claim that 60 is the new 30, says Joseph Coughlin.
'I hope so, because that would make me a teenager,' the 46-year-old director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says, laughing. Then again, he was, in real chronological age, not even 40 when he started delving into issues of ageing, and founded in 1999 the 'laboratory' within MIT's School of Engineering. It comes out with new ideas and products to help older people live life to the fullest.
Dr Coughlin, with a background in public policy and government and industry consulting, has since become something of a guru on the subject.
Indeed, now that governments and businesses have finally caught on about the potential of the 'silver industry', he says the real money to be made lies beyond the healthcare and safety sectors one usually links with an ageing population. And that's in giving older people 'what they don't enjoy entirely today - connectivity, social meaning, fun, lifelong education'.
That's the new white space of business in the future around the world, he declares. 'The real opportunity in ageing is not around a birthday, but rather in improving people's quality of life as they live.' Which is the basic premise behind the AgeLab - a hothouse of engineers, technologists, psychologists, and of course gerontologists, as well as specialists in marketing, consumer behaviour and public policy whose work is funded by corporate partners.
|'It's said that you cannot build an old man's car because a young man won't buy it - but neither will an old man. So, how do you design something cool and convenient in style but by stealth make it possible for both a younger man and an older consumer to want to buy as well?' - Dr Joseph Coughlin
It all started as an effort to solve what Dr Coughlin calls the longevity paradox. He used to work on Capitol Hill as an adviser, and did consulting with the automotive industry. One of his last projects prior to joining MIT was with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where he contributed a paper on the transportation needs of an ageing society.
'I started looking at the numbers and it was amazing. You could see this demographic shift coming very clearly; you do not need to be an economist or a statistician to see what was happening. And the paradox was this: You have people living far longer, there are far more older people, that was the good news. But the bad news was - we hadn't even begun to think about where they were going to live and how they were going to get around.'
So he set out, when he began teaching transportation policy at MIT, to address the issue in research. Innovation is key to solving the ageing paradox, he knew, which means incorporating technology and business into the equation. And he wanted to do it all under one roof, with the proclaimed goal: Now that we're living longer, let's invent how we will live in those next 30 to 40 years.
Dr Coughlin, who was in town for the Silver Industry conference last month, speaks of Sarah Knauss, an American who was the world's oldest person when she died in 1999 aged 119. Asked in 1995 if she had enjoyed her long life, Ms Knauss reportedly said: 'I enjoy it because I have my health and I can do things.'
Dr Coughlin says: 'Essentially, that's at the heart of what the AgeLab is all about: How can we creatively exploit technology and put together the agents of change - government and business - to take innovations from my laboratory, put them in the living room, and make it possible for us to not just live longer but to live better, as well as for the caregiver.'
The market is most efficient at getting ideas out, and 'business is the natural conduit to get these things into our lives', he adds. And business has up to now 'profited very well supporting what appeared to be an endless supply of young people, the baby boomers'. But the oldest of these post-war babies have now hit their 60s.
So 'ageing is actually very new', Dr Coughlin says. 'There have always been older people, if you will, but we've never had a generation of people who have had as much education, wealth and health, and along with all that, the expectation that life is supposed to be better tomorrow.'
For 60 years since the end of World War II, almost every country had a population boom, he notes. 'In the United States, one baby boomer is turning 62 every seven seconds. So these people are now in a position of political and economic power and they want to be the centre of attention, so they're now making it (ageing) the centre of attention.'
And what makes the 'new business of old age quite new' is the rather different mindset baby boomers have about life at large.
'I think our parents and our grandparents believed that at a certain age, quality of life just declines, that's the way it was. And I think the biggest difference is that the younger generations, people who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s today, have seen so much change, so much improvement in their lives, regardless of how much education they may have, there is a glimmer of hope, a belief, an expectation, in fact, that life can be better.
'Technology is part of that, business is part of that, government is part of that, and families are part of that. And the difference between what our parents expected in their lives and what we expect as we age, that's the new business opportunity, that delta of expectation.'
And unlike their parents, baby boomers have little or no brand loyalty, he says. 'They were willing to drop American cars, they were willing to drop consumer electronics; if you don't make what they want and how they want it, they will drop you faster than anything else.'
So, business - which 'for 60 years quite rightly believed that if we can get your attention between 18 and 24 years, we will have you for life' - is now having to think differently about its customers, more of whom are getting older, and with fewer new, younger ones in the pipeline.
How might one tackle this market? Dr Coughlin calls his own approach 'innovation in 3D' - how you define a consumer, how you design and develop a new product, and how you deliver value.
'Ageing requires us to redefine or to define our customer niche in a different way. We've always had it as young; now we have to understand that it's going to be across the lifespan. But when you define a consumer differently, it also defines you differently, so the second D is - we've got to serve them by how we design and develop products differently. We have to think about what it is that these people are going to be doing, and not just meet their needs, that's easy.
Engaging the consumer
'It's more important to excite and delight them. Rarely do we make money or actually have very good public policy by simply meeting needs. And the third D is delivery - how do you touch the consumer differently.'
Apple's ability to engage a strong core of loyal fans, and how Starbucks has turned something as mundane as sipping coffee into a lifestyle trend are classic examples.
AgeLab's work spans the industry spectrum from cars to consumer electronics, pharmaceuticals, finance and even food.
'In the auto industry, we've done work with companies as broad as Ford and BMW, Toyota, Nissan, even Fiat, on how do you design new systems in the car not only to improve safety but to improve the driving experience for older adults. They may want a dashboard that's easier to understand, that doesn't have much clutter.
'Well, it's said that you cannot build an old man's car because a young man won't buy it - but neither will an old man. So, how do you design something cool and convenient in style but by stealth make it possible for both a younger man and an older consumer to want to buy as well?'
The Honda Element - a boxy utility vehicle 'with an interior you can actually hose out because it does not have carpet in it' - was originally designed for scruffy dudes in their 20s with dogs and surfboards in tow.
'Ironically, it is now one of the hottest selling vehicles for people over 50 and 60. And the reason is - it's fun, it's functional and it has the flexibility to provide a platform for the many different lifestyles we're seeing emerging out of the older adult population, whether it's buying things for the garden, golf clubs, things like that. Actually, in many ways that was a great success - by mistake.'
Renault had a similar experience with the Twingo in France, Dr Coughlin notes. 'That was built for young kids, with very large dials, relatively cheap price, and - lo and behold! - older adults bought them because the dials were easy to read and it was cheap.'
And in finance, AgeLab has helped develop new products and services around end-of-life planning, life insurance and annuities.
'Part of the work we've done there has been more psychological,' Dr Coughlin says. 'How do you present what could be negative information - very few people want to buy long-term care or life insurance because they're planning to be disabled or dead. What we have found is that if you frame it in a positive way, that it's about quality of life or caring for someone else, reducing the burden on someone else, then there's much more likelihood of success.
'So, whether it's auto or consumer products or finance, what the AgeLab is trying to do is to take a multi-disciplinary team to create an integrated systems approach to ageing. Around the world, we have defined ageing as an issue of pensions and healthcare, and while those two are important bookends, if you will, to longevity, there are many chapters in between - such as housing, fun, the future of work, leisure.'
Think about the products that do the best, Dr Coughlin points out.
'You know, whether you're young or old, there are basic fundamental things that people of all ages like to do, like communicate. Now, we can look at the cellphone as a new technology but in fact, no, really, it's doing what people do naturally, it's communication.'
Hence his notion about the new white space of business, where he reckons the big money lies - in developing 'the real quality of life'.
After all, 'a 40, 50, 60, 70-year-old today does not look like the 40, 50, 60, 70-year-old we knew when we were children', says Dr Coughlin. 'I think back of an elderly aunt or an uncle, and when I was a kid, I thought, 'my, they were very old'. Now I do the math and I realise that they looked very old but they were only like 45 or 55 years old!' So, rather than see 70 as old age, think of it as extending life, he says.
|'Around the world, we have defined ageing as an issue of pensions and healthcare, and while those two are important bookends, if you will, to longevity, there are many chapters in between - such as housing, fun, the future of work, leisure.'
- Dr Joseph Coughlin
Future of retirement
'And so, yes, 60 can be the new 30 because with just a little bit of luck, you've probably got another 25 to 30 years in you. So that really starts to ask questions about - what is the future of retirement?
'Can we justifiably say that retirement's going to be at 62, 65, and that for 20, 25 or 30 years you're going to sit on your hands? Probably not, and not just because it's not good for the economy and business, but more importantly, it's not good for our personal social meaning, our sense of purpose.'
Being at the AgeLab has, of course, made the staff 'more sensitive' to the issues of ageing and planning for it.
'My mother-in-law is 85 years old and does not speak English; she's Greek,' says Dr Coughlin. 'And so we have outfitted her home with easy-to-use, easy-to-read telephones, TV systems that are a little easier to use, so she can get her Greek satellite TV and things like that.'
But it's not all about technology and products, he points out. 'It's about financial services and planning for life insurance, for finances to modify or maintain our homes, it's essentially about being prepared.
'One of the things we found in our lab is that the technology is actually remarkably easy to develop; that's pretty clear cut. The challenge that the AgeLab has taken on these days is how to innovate - how to understand what the consumer wants, how they will use it, and what the next generation business model will put into your life.
'For example, many companies have focused on a device, whether it's a cellphone, an emergency response system. We're finding that the real opportunity for business is to start to understand - what's the next generation service model? So perhaps rather than selling a device, it's understanding how to sell services to a home that maybe the adult child will buy, to serve the parent; that the employer will buy so that the adult child is not taken away from work more often than they should be to support an older adult.
'So part of the things AgeLab is doing is not just envisioning what these next-generation business models are, but maybe the end user, the older adult, is not necessarily the customer. It may be the employer, it may be the adult child; it may not be the 75-year-old mother.'
So the opportunity lies not in technology, he emphasises. 'It's the convergence of that expectation and the technology together that spells the opportunity for innovation.' And the real challenge, he adds, is to 'translate those inventions into innovations that are in people's lives, not just (sit) on a laboratory bench'.
Because ageing touches every aspect of life, he notes. 'It is about life. So when we look at the ageing marketplace, the so-called silver market, we can look at the frail and the needy and definitely support their needs. But what we should really be looking at is that we're talking about extending the quality of life another 20, 30 years. And so the opportunity for business is to invent our future. It's all about us.'
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