Precious few investors or entrepreneurs are looking to what might be the greatest unicorn opportunity yet: the elder boom.
Also referred to as the “silver tsunami,” the elder boom is the dramatic rise in the number of older people in our nation. Someone turns 65 in America every eight seconds — 10,000 people per day, 4 million people per year.
Those of the Baby Boom generation and older are the largest and fastest growing cohort of the U.S. population, and they are also the group with the most disposable income — by one estimate, 47 times the net worth of households headed by those aged 35-44.
There was a time when any interaction between technology and those 65 and older would be a comedy of errors. Inevitably, the user and the technology creator would disregard one another.
Those days are over.
Some estimate that 55 million American seniors will be on Facebook by 2020. Older people even have a more positive view of technology: people aged 65+ are most likely to describe their smartphone as “freeing” and “connecting,” as opposed to those 18-29 who are most likely to describe their smartphone as a “leash” and “distracting.”
AARP reported that 41 million Americans age 50+ play video games regularly. People over 60 are the fastest growing group of online daters. Take a look at the workshop attendees at your local Apple store, learning how to share photos they’ve taken on their iphone or edit home video with iMovie; you’ll see the elder boom sitting on stools right there.
Older Americans are the fastest-growing, biggest demographic using technology and, yet, almost all new technology is focused on serving young people. Silicon Valley loves to “delight the user”—so long as the user is young enough.
On occasion, technology firms build businesses catering to older people, but they more often focus on addressing decline rather than finding a way to delight the user or enhance quality of life. Pill reminders, automatically generated wills and testaments, health insurance, home aide finders, and emergency call devices have been successful among many others. To be sure, many of these companies are finding markets — despite the fact they only serve one portion of the needs of an older population (their decay-related needs).
Imagine how much broader the potential for these businesses might be, if only we saw older people as more than medical patients preparing for their end of life. They are living and working longer, have aspirations and desires as well as needs — and they want to be delighted, too. As physician and bestselling author Atul Gawande describes, they want to be the “authors of their own story,” just like the rest of us.
Why have so few startup founders seen this wave?
Some investors prefer young startup founders, assuming they’re hungrier and more likely to build outliers of success because they have yet to accept habits of the ordinary. The advertisers who shape the agenda the largest technology platforms tend to seek younger consumers, further buttressing Silicon Valley’s blinders.
Technology firms also oversimplify the category of “older people.” While they dice millennials and teens into ever-finer categories, paying obsessive attention when youngsters app hop, all those over 55 get classed as “old.” Beyond being insulting, this gross miscategorization does a disservice to anyone seeking to understand the market: 59-year-olds have different needs than 87-year-olds; they are literally different generations.
The tech firms that have made inroads among older adults have done so despite themselves, almost by accident. In focus groups we recently hosted as part of the Shift Commission on the future of work, we heard one daughter of an elderly woman say that the Amazon Echo turned out to be useful for caring for her mother, because “she could just talk to the thing and tell her if she wants to have music on… almost like having someone at home with her.”
Recent iPhone models have been popular among older adults because the larger screen makes reading much easier. But that wasn’t why Apple enlarged the screen — it was to facilitate mobile gaming and video streaming by young users.
The silver tsunami is a wave just waiting to be ridden by a startup smart enough to see older people as the force behind the next unicorn. What might this startup build? We might see a marketplace for older workers who want the flexibility to work from home while caring for loved ones, financial planning products focused on those with complex family lives, online communities built around the social lives of people with longer histories, monthly delivery boxes of clothes or foods that cater to the tastes of the many groups of older Americans who buy differently than the young.
It’s difficult to imagine any sector without a technology startup opportunity for older people.
There’s a silver unicorn out there waiting to be found. One that goes beyond making life less difficult for older people, one that helps us realize the true potential of longevity: more time to learn and contribute, to create and connect, to love and to laugh. One that goes beyond ameliorating the challenges of aging, one that adds richness and texture to the older life. One that leans into what older people do, rather than what they can’t do. One that still sees older people as users worth delighting.
And once we find the first, who knows how many more there will be.