Boomers and Technology: An Extended Conversation – is a research project sponsored and prepared by AARP and Microsoft in October 2009. Download the lenthy document here, or read my summary below.
The concluding forecasts suggest some interesting business ideas. These forecasts are based on technology that is either soon coming to market or feasible over the next decade, combined with the interests of the study participants.
- Digital Fitness. Boomers will wear sensor-equipped exercise clothing to keep track of their physical condition during workouts as well as calories burned, all uploaded to an online record. Even their running shoes will contain sensors and GPS to provide additional data. Their mobile devices may even be set to (gently) remind them when they’re falling behind on their exercise routines.
- Chip Me, Doc. Once boomers are confident about security and privacy, they will be early adopters of electronic health records — many even choosing to have them implanted as tiny chips. And they’ll start keeping their own records online, using digital diagnostic devices to upload their weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, even a mini-EKG.
- Gene Scans. Boomers will buy low-cost gene scans that they integrate with their own health data. They’ll then upload the information to new personal health social networks that privately link people with “comparables” — individuals with similar genetic makeups and backgrounds who can compare notes on health issues.
- New News. Some boomers’ morning breakfast routine will include reading the news with mobile devices and sophisticated e-readers, right next to the coffee and cereal. But even when boomers embrace the convenience and customizability of electronic delivery, they will still look to the major news brands for both news aggregation and credibility.
- Goodbye to Tiny Screens. Boomers will demand mobile phones with built-in projectors: push a button and the image is there on the wall. Past that, we’ll see data-glasses, with prescription lenses that are connected wirelessly to mobile devices. The display appears on the lower half of the lens — right in what used to be the reading part of bifocals.
- Social Networks. For boomers, social networks will become as commonplace as the telephone — particularly the way social networks will link them with the lives of their children and grandchildren, in a way that’s unobtrusive yet meaningful. And personal videoconferencing will be commonplace: high definition video cameras on the big screen in the living room will enable regular family-to-family chats.
- Employment, Boomer-Style. Boomers who are past the 9-to-5 routine but still working parttime will become the masters of telepresence: videoconferencing with HD and surround sound. They’ll move to some very pleasant locales, yet stay in the midst of the action. No longer at the water cooler, they’ll instead organize their opportunities through sophisticated business-oriented social networks.
- Parents. Boomers will lead the aging-in-place movement with their own parents, wiring their parents’ homes with smart sensors that monitor motion, power usage, average conversation levels and footstep patterns, and then send regular updates that all is well — or else suggest a check-in to make sure the ’rents are OK.
- A Safer, Kinder Internet. As boomers demand better security online, true Internet identities will become available — the equivalent of a driver’s license or passport — not only improving security but also producing better online manners. Boomers, seeking trust and civility, will be the “settlers” of the current wild-west Web.
- Simple, Self-Healing Computers. Boomers will expect computers to keep track of their own electronic “health” and report problems before they cause serious trouble. They’ll prefer voice commands and touch screens, and mistrust any device that takes more than one page of instructions.
- Money to Go. The mobile device will become both credit card and cash equivalent, and boomers will take to this as a natural progression of online banking. Home, Green Home. The boomer dream home will have a full solar roof, plus energy monitoring that lets residents tailor their usage to maximum efficiency. Domestic robots will be increasingly common appliances and, in new homes, floor plans and kitchen layouts will be designed to be “robot friendly.”
- Video Game Fever. Boomers will become video-game regulars, primarily using motion-sensing video game consoles rather than old-fashioned game controllers. One favorite genre will be games that let players use real sports equipment — from ping-pong paddles to golf clubs — to work up a sweat playing online competitors on the big screen.
A summary of the key insights follows:
1 – Boomers Like to Learn New Technologies and Share Their Knowledge. In short, when it comes to new technology, boomers share. And in all the dinner sessions, that dynamic was much in evidence. One participant would talk about a new technology — personal videoconferencing, for example, or an unusual Web site — and others at the table would immediately ask for more details.
2 – Boomers Want Technology to Be Safer and Easier to Use — Now! When privacy is directly addressed, boomers are reassured: In one recent study, only 34 percent of boomers were comfortable about privacy with Internet sites that customized content or advertising, but that number increased to 52 percent when they were presented with clearly stated privacy policies. Privacy options need to be made very clear. “If we got a one-page explanation of how to keep information private on Facebook that would be fine. But you have to go to six different places to figure out how to set the privacy level you want.”
3 – My Way: Boomers Expect Technology to Adapt to Them Everyone wants technology that adapts to their needs, of course, but boomers see themselves as more assertive about demanding it than their children seem to be. Rather than early adopters, then, call boomers sensible adopters, who aren’t about to change the way they live to fit technology.
4 – Chip Me, Doc: Boomers Enthusiastically Embrace High-Tech Healthcare Boomers are already early adopters in online health: They are 98 percent more likely to visit health Web sites than the average Internet user. So if healthcare reformers want a constituency for electronic health records, the baby boom generation is the place to start. As long as privacy can be maintained, there was almost unanimous enthusiasm about putting properly protected healthcare information online. This is one of those areas where, for boomers, next-generation technology meets personal needs, and they’re ready to go.
5 – Come Together: Boomers Use Technology to Connect in New Ways Texting is an example of a youth-oriented technology that, once sampled, struck a chord with many boomers — sometimes for unusual reasons. Boomers have enthusiastically embraced another aspect of connection through technology: online dating, in part because they’re at an age when they’re less likely to meet a variety of people in settings such as school. For boomers, in short, technology can make stronger connections, and no better example emerged than personal videoconferencing, which one participant described as “like the Jetsons — something from the future that seemed totally unrealistic but now it’s here.”
6 – From Manners to Multitasking: Technology Changes the Rules of Engagement Boomers embrace technology, but at the same time they have strong opinions about how it should be used in a social setting. People of any age object to loud cell-phone users in public spaces. Boomers, however, remember a time when that wasn’t even a possibility. But they’re also not ready to blame it all on technology. But boomers recognize that, in the midst of this change, their children are learning useful new skills as well. Boomers are always trying to sort out whether they have legitimate concerns about social changes, or are merely showing their age. No one wants to appear to be the old fogy.
7 – Boomers See Technology as a Tool, Not a Tyrant Boomers don’t want technology to be intrusive or a disruption in their daily lives.
8 – Show Me the (Digital) Money! If there is anything that reflects how comfortable boomers have become with technology, it’s their relationship with money. An early 2009 survey showed that about half of boomers use online banking, and that figure is rising rapidly.
9 – The Times They Are a-Changin’: Boomers See Technology as Force for Good Boomers generally believed that technology has the potential to change American society for the better, in everything from community issues and local charities to the process of government itself. A surprising number of boomers pointed out that the Internet could change governance itself. For starters, there was strong interest in online voting, as long as the process was secure. In the end, boomers see advanced technology as a key element of democratic society — even on a global level.
10 – Technology Opens New World of Leisure, Creativity and Learning for Boomers Nearly one in five Americans between the ages of 50 and 70 takes classes for personal enjoyment,9 and the discussion participants found computers and the Internet a great source of educational content. Learning a foreign language was the top educational pastime, but not the only one. No matter what they do, boomers want to retain the human touch. In all, Americans over 50 are 27 percent more likely than average to visit Web sites about hobbies or travel. Boomers, who grew up in an era when satisfying curiosity often meant a trip to the library, clearly value the rich information connection that the Internet offers.
11 – Stop the Presses: Boomers Are Taking Their Passion for News Online The boomers are often characterized as the last remaining audience for newspapers. And there was considerable affection for the broadsheet, tinted with apprehension for its future. But there is change in the air. Many are already adapting to a post-paper future. There is wide interest in an electronic reading device that was larger than a mobile phone, still highly portable. When it comes to video, boomers are discovering online sources at a rapid rate; a late 2008 study found that more than a third of people in their fifties had watched an online video in the past week. During 2009, that number has probably increased dramatically: the dinner participants were almost uniformly familiar with streaming video — sometimes, too much so. Those concerns are real. But boomers are facing the realities of the new media world, and adapting with their characteristic mix of enthusiasm and caution.
12 – You’ve Got a Friend: Boomers Connect With Social Networking Boomers are moving quickly to adopt social networking — users over 55, for example, are now the fastest-growing age group on Facebook, and as of summer 2009 there were more people over 55 on that site than high school students. Use of social networks by those over 50 has tripled over the past 18 months, and once boomers join a social networking site a third of them visit at least once a day. The more than half-million registered users on AARP.org have already organized more than 2,300 separate discussion groups. Thus it was not surprising that in the evening discussions, well over half the participants used one or more social networks. Fun is an important part of the social network experience, and boomers are learning to play very quickly. In social networking, boomers are once again applying their own life experience to technology. Social networks will serve at least three main purposes for boomers. First, as a connection to family, as the social network becomes a powerful way to remain a part of their children’s lives without intruding. Second, as a connection to friends —as a way to both meet new friends and, just as important, to re-establish connection with past friends in a way that no generation has ever been able to do before. And finally, it’s very clear that as boomers redefine their roles in the work force, business-oriented social networking will become an increasingly important way to keep track of colleagues and peers, and to create new kinds of employment opportunities beyond the traditional 9-to-5 corporate roles.
13 – Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Boomer Vision for Technology Boomers are ready for more technology. They’re actually more likely than those 18-49 — by a margin of 59 percent to 55 percent — to agree with the statement “Technology will help me live a fuller life.” And indeed, boomers’ ideas for new technology center around health, communications and the home. Beyond cell phones that encourage good behavior, boomers still see room for improvement in communications: They haven’t forgotten the promises of their childhood Sunday comics.
14 – Conclusion: Boomers’ Relationship With Technology a Work in Progress One clear conclusion emerged: It’s a mistake to view the boomers as a generation whose technology habits will remain fixed going forward. They’re nearly as likely (78 percent to 83 percent) as those 18-34 to say they’re “comfortable” or “very comfortable” shopping for new technology. In fact, baby boomers have a dynamic, thoughtful and ever-changing relationship with new technology, viewing the world ahead with great enthusiasm and just a touch of caution. Boomers talked about new technologies they had newly discovered, or ways they had upgraded or learned new skills. And it’s clear that — if manufacturers listen — boomers will also change technology. Their enthusiasm for novel input and output techniques, advanced healthcare and wellness devices, smarter automobiles and homes, even better domestic robots, suggests a market with ideas for what they’d like to see, and a willingness to try new technologies that make sense in their lives. As in other aspects of their lives, boomers remain open to new possibilities in technology.