From giants like Google and Apple to Uber and other burgeoning startups, tech companies are lining up to cash in on a swelling senior population that’s increasingly living longer and requesting more services to help them age in place.
However, seniors’ tech demand often seems much different from that of younger generations, which raises the question: How will companies effectively reach both demographics over time?
That’s exactly the question Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council and assistant to the president for economic policy, posed to a group of c-suite tech execs during Monday’s White House Conference on Aging, a once-a-decade event that’s been credited for giving birth to such programs as Medicare and Medicaid.
“There is still a gap between older Americans’ use of technology and younger people’s [use]. What drives this gap and what do we expect to happen across time?” he asked. “How should companies respond to these differences? Do we need to plan for a future with two digital markets [or] will things converge over time?”
Based on the experience of companies like Care.com, Peapod and Uber, the demographic gap in technology use closes if that technology enables a valuable service to seniors.
Founded in 1989, Peapod has grown to become a leading Internet grocer, delivering more than 23 million orders across 24 U.S. markets. At its inception, the company assumed its target market would be tech-savvy “yuppies,” or young urban professionals, said Peapod co-founder Tom Parkinson, now the senior vice president and chief technology officer.
However, that mentality changed when Peapod quickly realized the number of older people using the site to order groceries.
“It wasn’t really about the technology, why our customers came to Peapod,” he said. “It was about the service that Peapod enabled.”
The same held true for Uber, which on Monday launched a new pilot program for community-based senior outreach, involving senior living communities in select areas.
While the company was first popular among younger people when it was founded five years ago, Uber’s signature service — which allows people to call for rides and pay automatically via smartphone — quickly became a way to provide independence for older generations.
The tech that enables it to do so is not unlike that used by Care.com or Peapod, said Meghan Joyce, regional general manager for Uber East Coast.
Launched in 2007, Care.com is the world’s largest online marketplace for finding and managing family care across the age spectrum. Among its services for older adults, the site matches up job seekers with families looking for home care, personal assistants and senior care.
“What we noticed very quickly was senior care job posts have been our fastest growing sector,” said Donna Levin, co-founder of Care.com.
In fact, in the first quarter of 2015, alone, the number of senior care job posts were up 67%, she noted.
Despite a significant age difference between Millennials and Baby Boomers, for example, technology should be designed to cater to any audience, Parkinson said.
“I think simple is always the best for all customers. The simpler we make the product and the easier we make the product for all people, the better,” he said, noting that he doesn’t see there being two markets for technology, but rather one market that spans younger generations, the elderly, the disabled and everyone in between.
And as those markets blend, technology — like that behind Peapod, Uber and Care.com — will begin to fade into the background.
“One [possibility] is that it becomes like electricity — it disappears,” said Susannah Fox, chief technology officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Parkinson echoed these sentiments.
“If you can get them away from thinking about the technology and into the app, it’s all about what it’s enabling,” he said. “That’s the key. And then technology sort of disappears for them.”
Written by Emily Study