No One Wants to be “Othered”

The USA conducts the national census every ten years releasing the latest population trends that impact every facet of our lives.  You may recall the last census was hotly contested for what and was not in the survey, counting heads and beds turned into a fight over power. Think about it, we adjust the number of seats in the House of Representatives and redesign congressional districts based on the results.

Past Predictors of the Future

USA Census started in 1790 before the industrial revolution.  This treasure trove of history data tells an amazing story that scientists and innovators use to study the past and predict the future. Fast forward to the South by Southwest Conference in 2023.  Founder and CEO of The Super Age, Bradley Schurman and entrepreneur Frank Leyhausen, Founder of  Stage Not Age presentation entitled “The New Demographic Reality and Its Impact” which I highly recommend watching.

Human Capital Management

Schurman and Leyhausen consult with large corporations regarding the rapid global demographic shift  impacting their financial success. The labor workforce shortage is unprecedented and alarming. Today we have five generations in the labor force. However, Leyhausen noticed companies sideline older workers reducing their promotions and training opportunities and instead invest in the young ones. He sees this trend as problematic since older workers are a rich resource too often marginalized to the company’s detriment.

“Design with and not for” is reference time and again throughout this presentation. Engaging seasoned workers alongside new hires is the recipe for success. Companies who do so yield a thirty percent higher growth in revenue that those who do not.

The 50 Plus Market Fallacy

Schurman asked the audience if you would cluster people ages birth to fifty into the same market segment, of course not.  Then why do we do the same to the “50 plus” population?  Do you really  believe a 50-year-old and a 70-year-old have the same wants and needs?

Leyhausen told of Heidi Klum’s reaction to a designer who said a particular garment was made for people under 50.  Her indignant response was something like ‘so I am turning 50 so I can no longer wear that it?’   No one wants to be ‘othered,’ not even a highly successful super model.

Age discrimination and ‘othering’ of older folks is so pervasive that we barely notice the greedy geezer or snowbird references as derogatory stereotyping.  Schurman said “Like a tree, the longer it grows, the less it looks like the tree next to it.”  Why then do we believe all people age the same?

Mental Age and Physical Age

Did you miss it?  We recently celebrated the Young as you Feel national day.   Schurman reports our mental age is twenty percent younger than our physical age.  You do the math.  Is that how you feel?  It that how you act?   Cleopatra, Ponce De Leon, and many other historical figures spent their lifetime looking for eternal youth. Today’s longer lifespans and medical advances have changed how we physically age, however it has not changed mental desire to remain younger and relevant.

Senior Products Are Offensive

What do Jitterbug, Flipper, and Depends have in common?  They all target the senior market with ‘seniorized’ versions of other products.  According to Schurman, people 65 and older are the fastest growing consumer group for Apple products (iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Macs). Did Apple set out to produce senior products? Of course not.  Apple is the pricey cool tech for the hippest people, regardless of age.  Apple didn’t make a large button phone to lure in seniors, they made great products that everyone wants.  No one wants to be ‘othered.’ Apple understands solving for usability and like ability, not age.

Stage Not Age

Design for stage not age, according to Frank Leyhausen. A fifty-year-old may be a new grandparent but so can an 80-year-old. Stage refers to many aspects of human life including where you live, family composition, sexual orientation, faith community, employment, and other lifestyle factors that define us. Stage not age.

Durable Medical Equipment

Age is not the marker for disability either.  It is true that advanced age often means more chronic health conditions and physical limitation for many but not all.  How do medical equipment manufacturers design the products on the market today? Certainly, these wealthy successful companies do not design with but for ‘the other.’

No one wants the CMS sanctioned transfer bench, shower chair, rollator, wheelchair, walker, and (shall I go on) other equipment that looks straight out of a 1930s sanatorium.  Too many people with mobility and other chronic health conditions prefer to remain at home rather than venture out using equipment that screams of “I am not equal to you.” Feeling vulnerable, and ‘othered,’  is increasing the social isolation of many people who could contribute greatly to our communities and companies.

It Depends

Adult incontinence industry is booming.  The commercials are hilarious.  Have you notice they only feature middle-aged women in dresses?  The advertisers and manufacturers designed for and not with their consumers.  Were these products made to wear with tight fitting spandex-ed skinny-leg jeans?  Of course not. We see the results everywhere and it looks bad.  The natural curve of the human figure is replaced with a blob of material swaying unnaturally under the tight-fitting jeans. Diapers are made for babies.  Adult incontinence products should not be a ‘seniorized’ version of these products.

Inclusive Innovation

I am speaking on behalf of every faceless, voiceless consumer.  Consumers will speak with their wallets. The ugly designs that past generations tolerated are no longer acceptable.  Design with us not for us.  Think of us as the complex vibrant people living through stages not ages.