Big Tech is finally seeing the dollar signs seniors represent
Sep 14, 2021

Big Tech is finally seeing the dollar signs seniors represent

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Seniors in the United States represent an $8 trillion market. But they're not early adopters of technology.

Big announcements from Apple Tuesday — not more emergency anti-hacking updates. Apple’s out with some shiny, new phones and the stuff of secrets.

One thing that it has announced is a new feature in iOS that pays attention to how we walk, or our gait. The idea is that it’ll be able to tell if something’s changed about a senior citizen’s gait that could give early warning of a fall.

Dominic Endicott is a partner and director at Northstar Ventures, which invests in “age tech.” He said Apple has already introduced a feature in its watches that can tell if you’ve fallen and helps you call 911. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Apple illustrates a prototype of what the Walking Steadiness feature (courtesy of Apple).

Dominic Endicott: This other feature is really predicting the probability that at some point in the future, you might fall. So it’s not like you’re about to fall, it’s more that your gait would signify that this is an oncoming issue. And how it gets handled is probably an issue, right? Because you don’t want, for example, people to be afraid of doing stuff and stopping their activity, because then maybe they’re actually more likely to fall. I think at the broader level, the fundamental issue is that people are living in homes that are not fit for purpose, in streets that are not walkable, and now we’re sort of trying to solve [this] with some technology solutions. We should really be thinking as a society more about how do we build walkable neighborhoods where people are walking all the time, they’re biking, they’re more active. That’s actually a better way of doing it. But given that we don’t have that, this is at least a really good technical solution.

Jed Kim: When it comes to tech and older people, perhaps stereotypically, maybe it’s not so easy for them to adapt to it. Why is it so hard for tech companies to make these things user-friendly?

Endicott: Well, I think they’re focused on usability, and by designing for everybody, they’re actually making great products for everybody, including older people, right? So I think they actually do a much better job than, say, nontech companies. Having said that, I think part of it is that older people tend to be slower adopters of new stuff, and so they are just waiting and watching. They often are very budget conscious, and so if a new product requires a new subscription, that may hold them back — so the economic model. Even people that may have a lot of wealth, they may be sort of rich in terms of [owning] an expensive house, but they’re often sort of cash constrained, or they’re just very conservative in their mindset, so they tend to be slower to adopt.

But it’s been very interesting with COVID-19 that, for example, a lot of seniors have jumped onto Zoom, often paid by somebody else. So they didn’t have to pay for it, as a way to have intergenerational conversations with their grandchildren and their children, and they’re learning it. They may be not quite as intuitive as a 15-year-old, but they’re learning it pretty fast. I’ll give you my example: In my family, my mother, who’s in her 80s, has been playing bridge online, seven days a week, doing very, very well. And you know, a year or two ago, she was playing offline. She was going to the local bridge club. I think the adaptability of people of all ages is not about whether they can or cannot, it’s maybe often because, as you say, the product hasn’t been designed for them, including, in some cases, the pricing model.

Kim: Yeah, that reminds me of my dad. We taught him how to play some board games online, and he played against bots. And like, that’s what he did for the longest time. And the language that was coming out of him, it was shocking!

Endicott: Exactly, exactly.

Kim: And how valuable is the age tech market? Like, is there a dollar figure?

Dominic Endicott sits wearing a navy blazer and white collared shirt.
Dominic Endicott (courtesy of Endicott).

Endicott: Well, I think that the age tech market is potentially enormous, right? So you think about people over 50 [years old] own roughly three-quarters of all the assets. And so there’s a massive market, like AARP has estimated in the U.S., that’s easily $8 trillion. Globally, it could be $20 trillion. So it’s a huge, huge market in terms of total spending. I would argue that 95% of the age technology side of that is really coming from the Big Tech firms, and it’s been quite hard for venture capital to really break in, in part because older people are not making the new consumer markets. They’re not the early adopters. Also, because a lot of the buyers of products are for example, Medicare, Medicaid, the [National Health Service] in the U.K., they’re very slow buyers.

Kim: So what does it mean for the maturing of this market that Apple is including this in its iOS?

Endicott: Well, I think what I already started to see two or three years ago that the strongest players in “age tech” are already the established players, and that if new companies don’t create a breakout model, they’re going to increasingly dominate the market. I think the other prediction I’d make is that a lot of mainstream companies, their biggest customer base is older people. They’re going to start to lose more and more share of mindset and wallet, to the Apples and the Amazons and the Airbnbs. If you think about Airbnb, for example, it started off as a sort of millennial product. But increasingly, if you look at the fastest-growing area of hosts, it’s older people because they have all the houses, but even increasingly, the growth in guests is also older people. The over 60s is a very exciting group for Airbnb. So I think if you take a look at every tech company, probably they’re going to become an age tech company, but they’ll do it in a way that’s very quiet. Because, again, you’re not going to position yourself as an age tech company, but I think many of them will become that.

Kim: Are there any improvements to what we already have that that would be especially helpful to older people?

Endicott: I think there’s a lot of sort of ambient technology. For example, if we go back to the core of this discussion, which is around gait analysis, you can certainly use a phone, but you can also use ambient technology, which could be sort of a camera or something like that that could be measuring as you’re walking. And so you don’t have to remember to take a device with you, and they could already measure whether there’s an issue. You know, if you look at say, what the Dutch are doing, where they’re creating wonderful bike lanes everywhere, those are increasingly being ageless, right? The people that are biking in Holland are every age. Whereas in the US, it’s often younger, very fit people, and even they have a high risk of death. And therefore older people are not doing that, they’re not exercising.

So to me, the real elephant in the room is the sort of the city, as well as the home, and the suburb hasn’t really been designed for aging. And as more and more people age out, it’s going to become a bigger issue. And I think it’s also just as bad for for younger people, right? The fact that kids don’t bike to school means that you’re building aging problems very, very early on in life that are going to go and hit you, you know, when you’re in your 60s and 70s. So we have to really take a step back as a society. And even like the new infrastructure plans, they’re not fundamentally changing that. They’re just throwing more money into building more roads in an old model that has not worked, and hoping it’s going to be different. I don’t see why it’s going to be different this time. I think there’s at least some nod in the right direction, but we’re still very much dominated by kind of traditional infrastructure models.

Kim: As for biking, it just made me think, at least where I am, I see a lot of older people doing the cycling. And I am like, no way am I gonna ride my bike in the street. That’s way too hairy. So at least here in Connecticut, it’s the older people who are much more fit than me.

Endicott: Well, and I think with electric bikes, that’s going to be the true disruption, because you know, electric cars are cool, but they’re not fundamentally changing the paradigm, right? Electric bikes do, because they start to replace trips that you used to do by car that you’re now doing an electric bike, and you’re doing a certain amount of exercises, which is extending your range. I mean, that is probably one of the best examples of a product where the really early adopters are older people, because they see a lot of value, especially sort of middle-aged people, are able to extend their range in terms of how long they bike, how many years they bike, whether they go up hills. So I think that’s a really good example of a product where the kind of the older market is really making it, not to say that younger people aren’t using it, but they kind of don’t need it as much.

Related Links: More insight from Jed Kim

Want to learn more about the age tech industry and where it’s heading? You can keep tabs at The Gerontechnologist. That site’s maintained by an expert in the field. We’ve got a link to an interview Endicott did with her. He shares a lot about investing in the industry.

If you’d like to read up a bit more about Apple’s walking-steadiness feature, we’ve got a couple links on how it works from The Verge and Men’s Health. The Verge has a little more on the concerns over people being frightened by a potential fall alert. Hopefully, it doesn’t scare people into staying indoors and sedentary, which could actually increase their risk. It’s a balance. Men’s Health makes the point that it’s helpful to have gait data available if and when it’s time to discuss with a doctor. Often, that kind of analysis requires special appointments and equipment.

Walking steadiness isn’t the only age-related health feature update in the new iOS. There’s also data sharing, which many think can ease communication with health providers. But will seniors go for that? AARP surveyed people 50 and over last year. They had concerns about big health data collection, which comprises information collected by medical offices, websites, apps and devices, and that the data can be shared and sold with little oversight. Here’s a quote: “More than half (57%) say the potential risks of companies collecting data outweigh the possible benefits.”

Finally, when we spoke, Endicott mentioned electric bikes as an example of tech enabling seniors. The e-bikes let them ease into longer bike rides and can help uphill climbs. We’ve got links to a few related articles. Bicycling.com cites a study that says for people over 50, e-cycling may provide a bigger boost to brain function than regular cycling. Still, be careful. A Guardian article from 2018 was about the increase in cycling crash deaths in the Netherlands. It surpassed the number of people killed in cars, largely because of the increase in men over 65 who died from electric bike crashes.

Apple’s Other News … this happened. And yes, we’ll keep talking about security on “Marketplace Tech.”

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