The future is old

Updated: October 22, 2018

I often wonder what is the definition of an old person. Is it their age? Their mental age? Their attitude to life? Their ability to perform physical work? Their willingness to tolerate bullshit? Their willingness and capacity to learn new things - or even try new things? A combination of all these factors?

Well, I guess I'm one of the few people who thinks about this, it seems, because if you look around, the world of modern technology is all about fashion and youthful fads, from a new streaming platform to a new chat service to a new this or that. Everything's peachy, and the concepts of age and aging are a far and distant, maybe even nonexistent worry. But this is probably the greatest economic threat to modern, developed societies. They are getting older, and there's nothing to stop that.

Teaser

Introduction

Back in April 2018, I gave a keynote speech at DORS/CLUC about the age-technology problem. In the West, people are getting older. At the same time, technology products are being designed for and peddled to mostly younger generations. A rift is opening between audience and product. An unsustainable rift.

Some time in the near future (and it is VERY NEAR), in this West, old people will become the largest segment of population, the pluralistic democratic majority. We will cross the threshold of what is known as the Triple 50 problem. Depends on who you ask, but largely, by 2050, 50% of the Western (European) population will be above the age of 50. At the point, there will be more dinosaurs around than young people with the willingness, both physical and mental, to adapt to new technologies. And at the moment, it doesn't seem like anyone really cares about this, the least of all the young and optimistic software developers currently working on products, who by 2050 will be well-retired and part of the aging majority of the population.

Strike a pose

Picture yourself using a smartphone. For most people, this is not much different from an orangutan peeling a stubborn banana. You are holding a small device (often with a low static friction coefficient case) in the palm of your hand, often without any additional support. You are bending your neck and head down and looking at things that are sub-optimally small from a larger-than-adequate distance. The repertoire of your physical motions is limited to what would essentially be staring at half a brick, held gingerly in your hand.

Now, when you're young and full of hope and all your tendons are made from Spiderman's cobwebs, the notion of even trying to do things in an ergonomic fashion is an alien one. But as you age, the preciousness of comfort and convenience become more and more dear every day. If there's a gold mine out there, it's this one.

Adults - and older people - are willing to pay for solutions and products that will: a) enhance their comfort b) enhance their wellbeing, including health c) extend their lives, and as a consequence, make activities shorter and more efficient. They have the financial means and the survival drive to invest in technological means that can provide them with these necessities.

And yet ... you will hardly find any tech products aimed at older people, let alone old people.

Look around

I come across examples that highlight the nonchalance and oblivion all the time. Choose whichever platform or technology you want, and it's all youthful solutions that do not scale with age. For example, fonts. I mentioned this time and time again. Linux fonts are tricky. Even the new ergonomic change in Google Chrome 69 brings a less than optimal font contrast settings in the default form. Prettiness takes priority over functionality. Then, let's not forget the new Gmail either, right.

The mobile revolution has made the problem even more acute - strangely, the small and simplified touch form factor DID bring in several useful ergonomic improvements, like bigger buttons and more abstract interfaces, which in turn harm productivity, but that's a separate (if similar) topic. On the other hand, the need for simplification and abstractization has led to a degraded experience on non-touch platforms. For instance, Linux Mint Tara's new flat theme and Windows 10 theme are typical examples where the modern, flat design looks clean and cool but does not aid visual contrast or spatial awareness.

Themes

Notice the difference between foreground and background window - just the tiny green button.

The other people is, people co-equate form with success. In other words, if they do as Google, they will be the next Google. But this is a wrong assumption, which only leads to sub-optimal ergonomics without any other benefits. Hence, the changes in font contrast and such will propagate faster-than-light across the industry, creating an even deeper rift between the aging population and the technology solutions they consume.

Then, there's very little positive change. I talked about Linux & elderly users back in 2013. Things have not only not changed for the better, in some of the areas mentioned, we even have a regression. But this is bigger than Linux, bigger than desktop. This is the entire ecosystem. Everything.

Labor shortage, Dystopia, zombies

In the next few decades, more machines will replace more people in the industry. This happened with print presses, with loom, with mines, and it will also happen with routine, repetitive tasks that humans do today in a large number of sectors. That does not mean we'll just have armies of unemployed people marching about, but the labor force will significantly shift.

And ... as people get older, there will be more and more need for medical care. If you think the strain on the healthcare system in most countries is high, imagine what happens when the number of people above 50 doubles, and above 60 trebles, and you end up with more than 10% of the population in their 80s and more.

If anything, this is a golden opportunity and should be everyone's motivation. For you, the developer working on solutions today. Whatever you design will end up being used by those who change your diapers come the day. And for you, the business man, because you want products for rich and old people who will do anything to better their rapidly dwindling existences, and who happen to have the capital to actually do something about it.

Alas, it is surprising to see how little effort is invested in this. I guess people just want to get rich now, make money of the dumb masses and who cares what happens in 20 years from now. But there are already ghost cities in Europe, and many more will join them as populations become older, and facilities designed for the young end up underutilized and eventually abandoned.

Ghost town

Note: Image adapted from Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

For your next project ...

The best way to go about this is to imagine yourself getting older, and figure out what amenities and perks you'd like to have. How would you like to use your applications? What form factor? Would augmented reality help if you have reduced mobility? Would really smart AI personal assistants be of any value? Would you like to have big devices, light devices, cheap devices?

Then, once you step out of your immediate zone of interaction, what would you like to see in your city? The concept of smart cities is a mind-boggling attempt to create fully interconnected cities with a complete situational awareness on all infrastructure levels. How are your software tools helping or contributing in this area? What about self-driving cars? Is this something you think would fit into this?

Back to your own micro-cosmos again. The barriers of language, the learning curve. Just think about it. Most of what you have today is designed either to be complicated or too dumb. People assume that just because they got used to doing something that it's either trivial, easy or how it should be, but they rarely stop to think about the philosophical efficiency of the matter at hand. For example, even children can use smartphones. But that does not mean this is a smart way of utilizing their brain or stimulating their development.

There's no instant solution here, because the answer lies in a million things that need to align perfectly together. However, before any of that happens, there needs to be a mind shift, across the entire industry, whereby the future landscape of technology usage - and technological dependence - will include a growing proportion of older people. This cannot be easily changed. Demographic shifts take decades and sometimes even longer to realize.

Once, the age of retirement at 65 meant you'd have 10 maybe 15 years of life left once you exited the workforce, if you were lucky, a 4:1 work:pension ratio. Today, people easily live longer. If you go up to say 20 years of retirement, then the work to pension ratio changed where every two years of employment give you one year of leisure. Does that mean we need to pay more taxes? Or force people to work longer? Or be poorer? Or make things more efficient somehow? Because in the end, there will be a small group of working people sustaining a huge segment of old(er) people.

This perhaps sounds gloomy, but it's just the outcome of many years of social, cultural and economic advancement. And it will happen just about as the current youth hits their golden age mark. In other words, all those people savvy on social media and whatever new fads and tricks are popular and who look at older people with disdain will find themselves in the exact same predicament as the subjects of their scorn. Only they will have it even worse, because the odds will be even less favorable than they are today.

So if anything, it should be your foremost egoistic desire to code smart, scalable solutions that also address the demographic change, as you will yourself one be at the receiving end of technology. Whatever you do today, you need to think about tomorrow.

Conclusion

2050, thirty years or so from now sounds like far off. But when you realize Die Hard or Lambada came out thirty years ago, then it doesn't look like an infinite stretch of time. Software and hardware solutions of today are inadequately positioned to serve older people - and the ever-growing segment of the lucrative market that they represent. This is evident across many technologies, with numerous examples, from small businesses to mega corporations. Text clarity and legibility, form factor, physical limitations, you choose. And this is only the start. Healthcare, municipal facilities, labor force strain.

You cannot solve all of these on your own - and you shouldn't. But you can start by thinking about comprehensive, intelligent solution to whatever you're developing today. It's more fun writing cool and slick things that are popular and trendy, but the real magic lies in creating sustainable, futuristic stuff that will weather the test of humanity. It doesn't take much to start. Maybe just increase the font by one point. Or make sure people don't waste effort on useless mouse clicks. Time is precious. Let's not waste it on shiny buzzwords.

Cheers.

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