Opinion

They Love Tech. They’ve Got Money. Why Does Silicon Valley Ignore Old People?

Silicon Valley isn’t just consumed by youth; often, it’s blinded.

Look at Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg created the social network for college students, but Facebook has been struggling to hang on to young users for more than a decade; usage by people over 25 has steadily grown over that time, and along with YouTube, Facebook has become the internet’s most popular social network among people over 50. This wouldn’t seem terrible for a company that makes money from advertising, as Facebook does. After all, older people are the future of business: According to a recent analysis by AARP, people over 50 now account for more than half of the world’s consumer spending, and their share is projected to grow to 60 percent by 2050.

So is Zuckerberg rejoicing that he owns the preferred online destination of the planet’s wealthiest and fastest-growing consumer demographic, tomorrow’s whales of consumerist desire?

He is not. Instead he seems embarrassed by it. Documents leaked by a whistle-blower in 2021 showed Facebook product managers obsessed with reversing the app’s unpopularity with teens and young adults. In an earnings call with shareholders that year, Zuckerberg promised to refocus the company toward improving its services for young adults “rather than optimizing for the larger number of older people.” Right — why optimize for a larger number of wealthier people when you can be cool with the kids?

This is how it goes in Silicon Valley’s youth bubble. From Meta to Snap to TikTok, the tech industry’s picture of its customers resembles that of the famously exclusionary fruity cereal: Silly rabbit, tech is for kids! Wunderkind founders are revered here, growing old is considered a disease in need of a cure, and ageism is barely concealed. In 2007, a year before he became, at 23, the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, Zuckerberg said the quiet part out loud. “Young people,” he told an audience at Stanford, “are just smarter.”

They aren’t, actually. The tech industry’s hostility to aging “continues to violate common sense,” Joseph Coughlin, the director of M.I.T.’s AgeLab, told me. His lab conducts research on how an aging population is changing business. He said that companies in the auto industry, financial services, retail and other sectors are coming around to the emerging opportunities of the “longevity economy,” the 1.6 billion people around the world who will be 65 or older by the year 2050.

Silicon Valley remains a glaring exception. America’s tech giants are among the world’s largest and most innovative businesses; if they took a more open-minded approach to aging — if they considered solving the problems of older customers as eagerly as they chased teen fads — they could establish a model for aging in a tech-besotted world. Through advances focused on health care, home assistance, transportation, robotics and artificial intelligence, technology will be crucial to address the problems emerging from demographic imbalance. If there are not enough younger people to care for and cater to the needs of the old, we will increasingly lean on tech to add convenience, independence and perhaps even companionship to our lengthening sunset years.

Yet this trillion-dollar industry that imagines itself inventing the future is stuck in the past, its views of older customers, older employees and how to best serve them hopelessly misaligned with facts, business logic and demographic destiny. “The market is aging. The market is numerous. The market has got more money than the people they have been building products for,” Coughlin said. “And yet they continue to ignore them.”

What can Silicon Valley do for older people? One place to look is in health care, where — lured by the vast riches of Medicare Advantage, a program that offers seniors a way to buy private medical insurance paid for in part by Medicare — venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have begun to recognize the market opportunity in aging.

In the past few years, tech investors once wary of products aimed at supposedly techphobic olds have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into start-ups that use tech to improve health services for seniors. Many of these promise to allow older people a measure of independence from family caregivers or health care facilities. (“Aging in place” is a favorite bit of industry jargon.) There are companies that use in-home cameras, audio devices and biometric sensors to let health care providers monitor homebound seniors from afar, something like Life Alert for the digital age. One heavily funded start-up, DispatchHealth, offers house calls to provide complex treatments that might otherwise require hospital stays — a convenience for the patients that might also cut costs for insurance companies.

And then there are some ideas farther afield. A start-up called MyndVR is using virtual reality to provide a sense of liberation to older people. Your body may be unable to travel, but through V.R., you might cross off destinations on your bucket list. The company argues that V.R. could also be therapeutic — that by providing cognitive stimulation and allowing for escape from dreary health care settings, the virtual world can improve older people’s well-being.

Robotics and artificial intelligence could also play a big part in aging. The National Institute on Aging, within the National Institutes of Health, has funded pilot projects to research the use of A.I. assistants to help caregivers, to calm people with dementia who become aggressive at residential facilities and to monitor data from home-based sensors to spot signs of cognitive decline. In a study published in 2021, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada found that robotic assistants and companions — among them Paro, a robotic baby seal that can react to people and changes in its environment — can reduce anxiety and depression and improve the emotional well-being in people with dementia.

But if technology offers some promise for alleviating the health care challenges of an aging society, there’s also a danger of overrelying on quick-fix tech solutions to address deeper societal and economic problems, among them America’s crisis of elder care.

Consider the recent struggles at Papa, a start-up whose app matches young gig workers with older people who need help getting things done — shopping, transportation, household tasks — or are just in need of companionship. Until this year, the company was on a tear. Studies sponsored by the company have shown reduced emergency room visits and hospital readmissions and decreased loneliness among seniors who are connected to Papa’s assistants. The outcomes proved attractive to insurance companies; Andrew Parker, Papa’s founder, told me that more than 100 health plans now cover Papa’s services. In 2021, Papa raised $150 million from, among others, SoftBank Vision Fund, the venture capital fund run by the Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son. The investment valued Papa at $1.4 billion. According to Parker, this year the company’s assistants, called Papa Pals, will conduct about a million visits with older people.

More recently, however, Papa has also become something of a cautionary tale for what could go wrong when the move-fast, break-things ethos of the tech business meets a market of vulnerable seniors. In May, Bloomberg Businessweek reported on confidential company documents that “found dozens of allegations of sexual harassment and assault, as well as an allegation of unlawful imprisonment,” in the encounters between clients and Papa Pals. The company said it regretted these incidents and that it is revamping its security and vetting practices. In July, Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, who heads the Senate Special Committee on Aging, demanded that Papa provide the Senate with a range of data to demonstrate the safety of its service.

If there is more to aging than illness, Silicon Valley doesn’t seem to know it. The largest tech companies (Apple, Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft) rarely design products with seniors in mind; the few times they have, it’s been about addressing health problems — for instance, fall detection in the Apple Watch and Amazon’s service for caregivers to connect to seniors through Alexa.

“Where they are innovating is based upon a predefined idea of what aging is, that it’s a problem, a health problem or an emotional problem,” Coughlin told me. But tech aimed at younger people has never been solely about solving problems; it’s just as often about fun — video games, social networks, streaming apps, hot new gadgets.

I’ve been trying to imagine what fun technologies like these for seniors might look like. Zuckerberg has struggled to get people to hop into the metaverse, his virtual reality world; perhaps he’d have more luck if he designed the digital wonderland for older people, selling it as a way to travel the world, seek thrills and socialize without leaving home.

Another idea: YouTube abounds with educational videos like college lectures and hands-on how-tos. The company could collect these offerings into structured courses for retirees: Always wanted to learn quantum mechanics? Here’s your chance!

And games. I’m in my 40s and grew up playing video games, but I find most modern action games too quick for my sluggish reaction time. But why should I miss out on Fortnite just because my old fingers move like molasses? Let’s have age tiers and tech assists like automatic aiming in multiplayer games. I can’t touch a teen gamer, but perhaps one day I could be the GOAT of the senior-level battle royale.

I’m just spitballing; I’m sure that tech giants could find many better innovations to serve their older customers. If only they tried.

Instead, Coughlin noted, “The greatest innovation we’ve had lately of fun for older adults has been pickleball.”

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