The Sunday New York Times business section recently offered a Barbie-sized photograph, front and back, of a college student strapped into an age-simulation jumpsuit called AGNES – the Age Gain Now Empathy System. (Is there a special hell for tortured acronyms?) AGNES is packed with motion-impairing straps and pads, but the article isn’t about empathy for the arthritic. It’s about the hard sell that marketers face in selling stuff to the over-65 set, “an unfashionable demographic group that might doom their product with young and hip spenders.”
Just as telling is the fact that older buyers are resistant too; they don’t want products that telegraph poor eyesight or balance.
“You can’t build an old man’s product, because a young man won’t buy it and an old man won’t buy it,” said Professor Joseph F. Coughlin, who runs AgeLab, the MIT group that made AGNES. This is despite the growing mountain of evidence of a vast, untapped, and fast-growing “silver market” for all sorts of products, especially those that promote “age independence technology.” “The new business of old age involves technologies and services that promote wellness, mobility, autonomy and social connectivity,” writes Natasha Singer, from wireless health monitoring systems to social networking systems for senior housing. These enable people to stay in their homes longer, and defer or eliminates healthcare expenses. Ken Dychtwald, the C.E.O. of AgeWave, has lots more creative ideas for boomer-centric products and services, like a real estate sector that caters to hippies who want to retire in communal penthouses or farms in Vermont. Or online cemeteries to preserve digital mementos for the grandchildren.
What’s the hitch? Cold feet in the marketplace. As Intel’s global health innovation director Eric Dishman points out, ageism has many retailers uneasy about stocking age-independence gizmos, and many companies don’t want to invest in them. For the time being, marketers figure that the way to overcome this queasiness is to package age-friendly products the way they’ve been doing with environmentally-friendly ones — “to make gray the next green,” as Singer puts it. Unfortunately she ends the article with a snarky, “Their job would be easier if it were fun to wear Agnes.” What’s with that? It’s the fact that AGNES isn’t fun that makes these products important and innovative. And it’s the reflexive dismissal of the AGNES-esque and AGNES-bound that stymies innovation.