Meeting the Demands of an Aging Population

Joseph Coughlin's signature bowtie is a curiosity. He travels the world speaking about the technology needs of a style-conscious baby boomer generation. He warns audiences that we are losing time in creating products for an older population. He talks about the disruptive demographics of today's aging marketplace.

Coughlin's message is urgent and forward-thinking, similar to the political activism and anti-brand mantra of the baby boomers he talks about. And yet, there's that bowtie that makes him seem like the "Father Knows Best" figure the boomers rebuffed.

Perhaps Coughlin's conservative image puts a reassuring face on an otherwise unpredictable future. The disruptive business model he speaks about refers to an increasingly aging population for which our current markets are unprepared. Every seven seconds, an American turns 50. And every American who turns 50 today has more than half of his or her adult life remaining. Over the next 30 years, the number of adults over 65 — the traditional milepost of senior adulthood — is expected to reach 80 million. The marketplace needs to respond, says Coughlin.

"Technology and aging have been caught in a rut," he says. "We consistently ask how we can design products for older adults, but we should be thinking about what is cool, desirable, sexy, and fashionable."

As Founder and Director of MIT's AgeLab, Coughlin works with industry and the aging community to determine the technological needs of an older population. In his frequent speaking and media engagements, he addresses audiences about adapting infrastructure, transportation, healthcare, disease management, financial strategies, telecommunications, and even food shopping to an aged market.

"The power and potential of technology to address the lifestyle preferences and needs of an older population, and those who care about them, must be fully and creatively exploited," Coughlin says.

The problem he faces is that most people have an extremely limited concept of aged people. Many industries see older customers as a captured market with a firmly established set of preferences. The automobile industry, for instance, still views the aging market segment as one that responds primarily to comfort and prestige.

That was yesterday, says Coughlin.

"Car companies and their suppliers remain largely unconvinced that today's older customers are different enough from their parents to merit a significant change in strategy," says Coughlin.

In every aspect of their lives, aging boomers want more than comfort and prestige, Coughlin insists. They want style.

The style verus function debate is the key to most product design problems. Evolutionary biologists are discovering that style is necessary to the success of the human species. Even though it is arbitrary and symbolic, it represents the way we respond to evolutionary forces. In this sense, it is a deep human need.

Coughlin began to understand this concept during his early work in the study of transportation. He realized that a community's preference for highway rather than public transportation depended on its relationship to that distinctly American consumer product — the automobile. A car is not just a product, he discovered, but a physical extension of how we choose to live.

"It is a lifestyle defined by fashion, speed, mobility, comfort, and above all, individual choice," Coughlin says.

Carrying this philosophy over into his speaking engagements, Coughlin urges business and government leaders to pay close attention to not just the needs, but the whims of an older population. As the beloved boomers age, individual choice, or style,  becomes increasingly important as they learn to adapt to an environment that becomes more physically challenging every day.

Coughlin's bowtie may represent the conservative economic theory that a product should satisfy the demands of the market. It may suggest that a sedate or aged appearance often belies the trendy, innovative thinker within. But then again, the bowtie could be something altogether different for Coughlin.

Maybe it's just his style.