Designing for older adults? This book is a must have: The Longevity Economy, Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market

The Longevity Economy Book

Designing for older adults? This book is a must have: The Longevity Economy, Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market By Joseph F. Coughlin

For the past 10 years or so, we have begun to see products, services, technologies, and other innovations designed to benefit the quality of life of older adults. Not all of these ventures have been successful, despite the best of intentions: Products with added safety benefits are not adopted  as readily as one hoped they would, and simplified versions of tech tools don’t seem to make it past the gate. Designing for older seniors, it seems, is a more complicated affair than for other demographics.

“Consumers will reject products that treat older people merely as medical problems to be solved. They don’t see themselves that way, and products that reflect that point of view come across at best as alien and at worst, alienating.”

Let me introduce to you Joseph F. Coughlin, founder and director of the MIT Age Lab. This dapper man has been creatively considering the puzzle of happy aging for many years and it has given him loads of insight and some inspiring guidelines for how to improve the lives of our older loved ones and the aging population at large. He has compiled his observations and experience in this fun to read book, The Longevity Economy.

There are many interesting topics of discussion between these covers. The ones I’ve chosen to write about stood out to me from the point of view of an industrial designer and entrepreneur.

So without further ado, here are my three most important takeaways, from The Longevity Economy, (and why you should have a copy on your bookshelf)

Take away # 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the Pursuit of Meaning in Old Age

Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? To give a brief recap, Maslow’s Hierarchy is a psychological theory about human motivation. Using the terms,  "physiological", "safety", "belonging and love", "esteem", "self-actualization", and finally "self-transcendence" to show the stages of human motivation.

Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs The Longevity Economy

Consider the number of times you have heard an older senior say they don’t feel old, regardless of what physical shape they may be in. It is true that physiological needs such as safety become more important as we reach old age, but Coughlin makes the case that Maslow’s other, higher psychological needs should not be left by the wayside. The lack of success to date in designing for older seniors is often due to this oversight. Just imagine a standard bathing stool and you get my drift.

As life expectancy increases, we need to change our pre-constructed notions of what we think old age is. We can expect more from our senior years today than we ever thought possible, so to brush away self actualization and meaning as worthy pursuits when designing for seniors would be to their detriment, and to the detriment of our future selves. As such, we will do a better job of holistically fulfilling the needs of older people if we consider both their physical needs as well as the aspirations they have for themselves.

Coughlin makes valuable reflections on the mental space of aging, and how as forward thinkers, we would do well to create new social narratives about aging, finding storytellers to lead the way in painting us a nuanced view of what it means to be older. We should have a much better idea of what motivates the sixty-plus cohort and the many ways they can and should be active. This is essential for innovation to occur at all levels, be it in government policy making, community organizations, for profit institutions, and designers as well. Ultimately, all of us stand to benefit by doing so.

“A new generation of better products will empower older adults, who will then go back and demand products that are even more useful, creating a positive feedback loop. First, however, innovators and companies must bring that initial wave of goods and services into the world, a prospect that can seem daunting. On one side, products that neglect to make allowances for older users - their aging bodies, their years of built-up experiences regarding how things work -  can cause frustrated customers to take their business elsewhere. And on the other, products that do make these sorts of concessions often come across as patronizing or dumbed-down, and older adults reject them just as readily. ” 

Take Away # 2: Universal Design ➜ Transcendent Design

trancendent design the longevity economy

As a student, I came of age with the term Universal Design as an edict of what the best of design can bring to the public in all its diversity. In short, Universal design is the design and composition of an environment, (be it a space, product, or service) so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.

Coughlin takes this concept one step further by introducing the idea of transcendent design, which I believe to be the most successful of the universal designs out there. The innovations which become societal gamechangers.

Transcendent design is: “universal design with accessibility attributes so useful that they turn out to be highly desirable - even aspirational - for people with and without disabilities… A product can achieve transcendence in one of two ways. In the first, less common example, someone designs something explicitly for older people or for people with a specific disability, and it turns out to make life better for everyone.”

“There is another way it can happen… when innovators create something that simply makes life easier for everyone and, almost as a side effect, enables older people or people with disabilities to do things they couldn’t do before.” 

He implores forward thinkers to look at design through this lens, as most products designed to benefit someone with any sort of daily living restriction are bland at best. They get the job done, but they do not inspire - not everyone is going to turn around and want one. However, if the solution is something that everyone wants, then you have something that is truly inclusive, and that will be accepted by seniors, because it doesn’t insinuate a deficiency or lack of ability on their part. He sites smartphones, OXO Good Grips handle, Airbnb and Instacart as products and services that have achieved this level of inclusive benefit. As we create with this demographic in mind, we need to constantly ask ourselves if our offer makes things better for everyone.

Take Away #3: Leaving Stones Unturned; The Insights of Older Women

SheEO founder Vicki Saunders Funding Women Entrepreneurs

SheEO founder Vicki Saunders. SheEO is a global community of women radically transforming how we finance, support, and celebrate female innovators.

Most innovations come to because they’ve received outside financial support. There are banks, entrepreneurial grant organisations, angel investors etc. who pitch in to support the development of all sorts of ideas. In the age of the start-up, most of that money goes to tech companies, most of which, are run by young men.  

When considering who might have the best insights for how to meet the needs of older people, it’s not young men, but older women who are the most likely to come up with important product ideas. In his book, Coughlin illustrates how women have a more realistic idea of what old age will bring, both physically and emotionally. They often become the primary caregivers of those who are losing their autonomy, and control the greater percentage of household expenditures. They are the experts. But funding sources for older entrepreneurs, and women in particular is few and far between. Why is this? If we hope to have the best in the future, it is up to all of us to challenge this norm, and push for the creation of funding sources that are not ageist or sexist.

“ the cases of certain female entrepreneurs, they will be the first to create new, better products that blow incumbent companies out of the water.”

To sum it up:

I’ve just skimmed the surface of what The Longevity Economy has to offer. For me, this book showed up at the right time and place. I appreciated it for the insight, examples and inspiration it offered, as well for the glimpse it gave at the work and opportunities to make the future more physically, psychologically and financially accessible: For the Silent generation who are living through this right now, for the baby boomers just entering this phase of life, and for the benefit of the rest of us, the future old as well. I’m sure your copy will be as full of underlined sections, marginalia and bent corners as mine is.

If you would like to learn more about our universal design project, Tonomy Shop, visit our website and check out the steps we are making to apply these principles to our own products, and please, drop us a line.


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