An excerpt from Chapter 2 of
by Joseph F. Coughlin
Published in November 2017 by PublicAffairs, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group.
Whether the tech industry is prepared to design for consumers’ entire life spans isn’t even a question. It isn’t. It isn’t even close to ready to think about what older adults want.
One of the most frustrating catch-22s about the dominant narrative of old age is that, thanks to the institution of retirement, older adults are kept out of economic production roles, which means they’re not only prevented from making money but also from designing products: home goods, financial products, airplane seats — you name it. The fact that younger people hold the reins of production is a major reason why so many products aimed at older adults fail to take into account the nuances of older life.
But in one industry more than any other, the young truly run the show. And unfortunately, it happens to be the one that is every day determining the shape of life tomorrow: the consumer tech industry.
Tech firms are far younger than the general workforce. Labor market researchers PayScale assessed the median age of workers at the world’s top tech companies between 2014 and 2015. According to their analysis, only three of 18 top companies have a median age of 36 or higher; the value for the overall U.S. workforce, meanwhile, is 42.3. More concerning, it’s the older tech companies — the HPs, Oracles, and IBMs of the world — that have the (relatively) older employees. Younger companies, including the ones responsible for some of the 21st century’s most world-changing innovations, have the youngest employees of all. Google and Amazon have median ages of 30, and Facebook’s is 29. As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg infamously said in 2007, “Young people are just smarter.” Why, the then–22-year-old wondered, “are most chess masters under 30? I don’t know. Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family.”
As a result of the pervasive ageist atmosphere in Silicon Valley, the local cosmetic surgery industry is experiencing a bonanza. In an April 2014 issue of The New Republic, labor reporter and then-senior-editor Noam Scheiber described a 26-year-old Silicon Valley worker who came into a plastic surgeon’s office in search of hair transplants. “I told him I wouldn’t let him. His hair pattern isn’t even established,” the surgeon said.
Silicon Valley’s age bias is not limited to the people it hires but also extends to the companies that receive venture funding. Paul Graham, a founder of famed start-up accelerator Y Combinator, said in 2012 that he could “be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.” In 2010, out of 114 companies that received early-stage, angel funding, half of venture funding went to founders between ages 35 and 44. Founders younger than 35 received twice as much as those over 45. And since, as Scheiber reported, founders age 45 and older are responsible for half of all start-ups, older tech founders are presumably competing for a pool of money that is effectively much smaller than that available to younger entrepreneurs.
That’s just in the United States. In other countries with burgeoning tech scenes, such as South Korea, the ageism can be even worse. Although South Korea finally banned overt workplace age discrimination in 2010, traditionally, in an attempt to maintain hierarchical order at companies, Korean recruiters have refused to help older job seekers, and the practice has proven difficult to eject.
All told, the global economic climate, including but not limited to the tech sector, is simply not set up to produce the things and services that older adults want. Even less likely to be created are the sorts of truly revolutionary innovations that older adults don’t yet know they’ll want. And if industry has failed in this regard, government is just as complicit.
When industry can’t or won’t invest in work that’s needed for the common good, government must step in. It’s a clichéd example, but there was no way any private-sector entity could have financed the Apollo Moon missions, let alone undertaken the logistics required. That was a job for the U.S. government. Even today’s private-sector, for-profit spaceflight companies only reached their current heights by standing on the shoulders of NASA and the spaceflight agencies of other nations.
Perhaps more importantly, when it’s not clear how we, as a society, will address a problem, government plays an essential role in normalizing certain kinds of solutions. Between the 1920s and 1950s, for example, the U.S. government had to choose between train travel and the automobile. It made its choice, and today most of us drive to work. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to old age, government and the private sector alike are stuck in the railroad era. (Both figuratively and literally, considering our narrative of old age originated in the mid-1800s.) And once government figures out a way of doing something, it tends to stay stuck in that solution category.
In 1995, way back when I was still working on an elder transportation project for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, I was charged with bringing disparate government agencies into the same room to talk about the issue. But when the two agencies — Health and Human Services and the Department of Transportation — came in, they each sat at opposite sides of a long table, like rival factions in peace talks that might turn hostile. There were, and remain, deep differences between the two entities. At the risk of oversimplifying the situation, Health and Human Services, which is devoted to, well, health, viewed elder transport mainly in terms of the need to ferry patients to their doctors via wheelchair-accessible vans. The Department of Transportation, meanwhile, simply hoped to fit more people into existing public transit systems. The meeting went horribly. The two groups talked at cross-purposes and could agree on nothing actionable. One member of the “action” group, as it was called, literally fell asleep at the table with his mouth agape, wheezing softly.
All told, it was the most boring standoff I’d ever seen. It was also a microcosmic version of how government as a whole is stuck in a rut regarding old age. Overall, U.S. government policy, which developed in lockstep with our current, dominant narrative of age, continues to treat the older population uniformly as impoverished medical patients. Even the transportation meeting I put together had to be chaired by a medical doctor, or it couldn’t have happened. Older-equals-patient is simply a state of affairs the government takes for granted — and it’s been that way for a long time.
After 1935, which saw the passage of the Social Security Act, the most important year for U.S. legislative action concerning older adults was 1965, when Congress signed into law both Medicare, a single-payer insurance system for those over 65, and the Older Americans Act, a sort of omnibus law that included various antipoverty and antiabuse measures while also prioritizing, at least on paper, the “pursuit of meaningful activity” for older adults. That year, the Older Americans Act’s various provisions were allotted funds totaling $7.5 million. Medicare, meanwhile, received $1 billion. The implication was clear: government would support older adults in terms of health-care and poverty relief. All other considerations were subordinate.
I don’t in any way mean to denigrate any of the crucial legislative achievements of Medicare and Social Security. They’re extraordinarily important, and I don’t want to live, or grow
old, in a world without them. And indeed, although “a world without them” has long seemed an unlikely hypothetical, it is all too easy for politicians to become complacent on elder issues. (For one example outside the U.S., take Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who simply neglected to fill the vital post of Minister for Ageing during his two years in office.)
But still, the way that programs for older adults’ health and poverty relief dwarf all other policy concerns reinforces the idea that to be old is to be sick and poor. Policy is how government’s conception of reality filters out to the public, and old-age policy, so essential to so many, is perhaps one of the most potent reality-dissemination machines of all. Unfortunately, as Caroll Estes, an important, critical voice in gerontology, writes, despite doing good work, “special policies and programs segregate and stigmatize the aged.”
If businesses and policy makers alike are stuck in their respective, self-reinforcing modes of thought, what will it take to break free? What will it take to make liberty and the pursuit of happiness not just possible in old age, but normal?