Why are older people consistently assumed to be entirely lacking in taste?

by Geraldine Badell, Editor, Gransnet

It’s hardly surprising that so few of us are looking forward to getting old. While most people can appreciate that it’s better than the alternative, a lot of the time it’s not that much better. Never before in human history have so many of us lived so long, and we’re singularly ill-prepared for this change in the shape of human lives.

We haven’t come up with the tools we need – and, worse, we haven’t really begun to think in a way that will allow us to do so.

New figures released today by the Technology Strategy Board reveal that 90% of people in the UK aren’t looking forward to getting old – although the good news is that the overwhelming majority believe innovations in products and services could change that.

Too much of what is currently produced in the name of older people derives from assumptions made on their behalf. Marketing departments prefer to target sexy products at 18-50 year-olds, as if the decades after that fall into a consumption black hole of financial services and orthopaedic footwear.

In fact, as the Technology Strategy Board points out, the wealth held by the over fifties is a huge market opportunity. One of the persistent themes on Gransnet, the social networking website for Britain’s grandparents which I edit, is that older people have a wealth of experience and ideas, yet are rarely asked for their opinions.

Another theme is that marketing directed at older people too often becomes patronising. Okay, some people want phones with big buttons. Many covet iPads. Where are the architect-designed retirement homes with Danish furniture? Why are older people consistently assumed to be entirely lacking in taste?

One of the more painful consequences of ageism is that old people are shunned and excluded. Three million people aged over 65 in the UK don’t see someone they know at least once a week. Technology can slice through the sort of prejudice that underlies this.

Online, you don’t have to acknowledge your disability unless you want to. No one can make assumptions about you based on the number of your wrinkles. Shy people may proceed at their own pace. Those who are isolated can find new friends.

In the seven months it’s been in existence, Gransnet has repeatedly demonstrated this in action: “Since I found you earlier this year,’ seventimesfive posted last month, “I have felt supported through what has been a very difficult year. It has become a part of my day to log on to GN and see what is happening in everyone’s lives. I’ve laughed out loud and been moved by problems and difficulties that some of you have faced with great fortitude. I’m proud to be part of such a strong, feisty and funny group of (mainly) women.”

Sometimes people are surprised by the forcefulness, the wit and brio of our discussions. Those qualities were always present in older women but they needed a series of innovations – the internet, social networking, Gransnet – to become more visible. Gransnet is just one example of how innovation (in both products and services) can change people’s perceptions of themselves and each other, releasing capabilities, desires and enthusiasms that would otherwise be dormant or frustrated.

We’re lucky enough to live at a very exciting time, when consumers are no longer passive, when we are all becoming producers and creators. It is imperative that in this process older people aren’t ignored or left out. In fact, it seems increasingly unlikely that they will be: the over fifties are the fastest growing group on the internet, not least because older people find it hard to be heard elsewhere.

The innovations that will improve old age are the ones that embrace users as equals, participants, experts and which acknowledge that older people are highly diverse, and capable of great creativity creative and discernment.

Gransnet is at www.gransnet.com

Tomorrow Together is a Technology Strategy Board campaign. Join the conversation about innovation for later life at www.tomorrowtogether.org.uk

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