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The Coming Design Revolution: It's All About Boomers

03/17/2015 10:48 am ET | Updated May 17, 2015

As the boomer generation continues to age, demographers predict that by 2030, when all the baby boomers will have passed age 65, the over-65 crowd will reach 20 percent of the population. 10,000 of us are turning 65 every DAY. But just because we are getting older doesn't mean that we are leaving the scene. We are not going to be the generation that retires quietly to old age ghettos (aka "retirement communities"). In fact, savvy businesses are recognizing that between our size, our purchasing power, and our generational DNA, we represent not just a significant market imperative, but a social and cultural force that still needs to be reckoned with. Design is one of the more important -- if perhaps unsung -- aspects of this commercial wave, and boomers are again driving innovation that everyone is scrambling to keep up with.

At this week's South By Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin, TX (part of the annual gathering of everything that is on the leading edge of Music, Media and Digital), Jose Colucci, Sr. Portfolio Director and an Associate Partner at global design firm IDEO, delivered a presentation called "Getting Old: A Job For The Young" in which he outlined the importance of why today's designers need to pay attention to the aging Boomer population. As we all know, boomers are not quite like previous generations. We continue to be driven by the need to participate in business and society, don't particularly think of ourselves as old, and have no plans to slow down or retire unless and until we absolutely have to. Colucci and his colleagues at IDEO have analyzed us extremely well, and come up with seven design principles that address the needs of our generation.

1. Respect the Individual. It's a natural phenomenon that the older we get, the more differentiated we get, and the boomers are manifesting this concept in droves. We tend to dis-identify with our age group and not think of ourselves as part of an overall trend or generation. We want to be considered as individuals, and we don't want to be condescended to. Colucci talks about the concept of "Stealth Design," where subtle design elements that are oriented towards older people are incorporated into products that are targeted across all age demographics. He references the interiors and dashboards of current automobiles, where the lighting, labeling and accessibility of controls is made easier for people who may have poorer eyesight or reduced mobility -- but that just appear to be better designed, or even more luxurious.

2. Ease the Transition. Boomers are making changes in their lives -- some voluntary, some forced -- whether they are professional, social or financial. IDEO is looking at design options to reduce the impact of these transitions, and to make them more natural and organic. In home design, for example, they are exploring ways that people could reconfigure their homes so that they don't have to sell them outright in order to downsize. Smart remodeling could allow them to turn single family homes into multiple units (zoning permitting, of course), preserving the owner's desire to "age in place," but alleviating the financial pressure of maintaining the unnecessary size of the family home by renting the additional spaces.

3. Don't Help More Than Required. In traditional aging facilities, residents are treated as, well, invalids-in-training. Everything is done for them under the mistaken notion that their abilities are in decline and they need the assistance. We now know that this kind of treatment only hastens decline, while it is possible to prolong life, health and mental acuity by giving older people the responsibility and respect to take care of themselves, and to only intervene when they are actually unable to perform a task. IDEO has experimented with a number of solutions along these lines, including a stylish tricycle that doubles as a cool-looking walker, and a delivery service (called "Overdelivery") that gives customers the option of, say, putting the groceries away by themselves, or with the help of the delivery person.

4. Promote Empathy. Are you aware that the incidence of STDs is on the rise in older generations? According to the Center for Disease Control, among our senior citizen population, since 2007, incidence of syphilis is up by 52 percent, with chlamydia up 32 percent. Rather than treat this by shaming the older population for their sexual promiscuity, IDEO has developed a campaign that uses the headline "You never outgrow a condom," to promote acceptance and inclusion. They believe that this also promotes intergenerational awareness and understanding that can remove cultural and communication barriers between Millennials, GenX and Boomers.

5. Encourage Fresh Thinking. Businesses are waking up to the value of older workers. Among other things, they are more reliable, value their jobs more, and have fewer workplace issues. Rather than reflexively firing older workers, businesses should re-examine the roles that older workers can play in their organizations, and assign them to positions where their value can be productive. In other areas, IDEO is working with a company called PillPack to "disrupt the pharmacy" by pre-packaging an individual's many prescriptions into discrete daily dosages that take all the guess-work and potential errors out of tracking multiple medications.

6. Design for Extremes. Rather than focusing product development on the middle of the bell curve, think about the outliers on either end. As with the concept of stealth design, creating kitchen or garden utensils and tools that can be easily used by children as well as older people is something IDEO thinks makes increasing sense. Including, not marginalizing, outliers is going to be necessary if all demographics are going to be served in the marketplace.

7. Promote Connection. Colucci talked about the importance of intergenerational cooperation as the vehicle for solving problems and promoting innovation. With more and more boomers discovering the quest for meaning and purpose in their lives, this kind of dialog between generations can have thoroughly unexpected consequences as we all examine our needs, our challenges and our opportunities together. The wisdom of older and experienced individuals, combined with the fresh thinking and new paradigms of younger generations is clearly a smarter way for all of us to move forward to solve current and future problems. Relegating anyone to the sidelines for any reason serves no purpose.

Designers like Colucci and IDEO are looking ahead to a world that is more inclusive and, as a result, more effective. It was particularly rewarding for this boomer to see how well his message was received by the largely millennial audience in attendance. This interest and acceptance of our generation, and the opportunity for us to work with younger generations on an ongoing basis, has to be one of the most encouraging signs of a better future for all.

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