How can creativity improve life for the old?

Here’s the bad news. The UK’s population is getting older and we have no coherent strategy to cope with what this means. But what we do know is that we will all be working longer. This will be the age of no retirement

Posters presenting views on ageing at the Age of No Retirement conference

Here’s the bad news. The UK’s population is getting older and we have no coherent strategy to cope with what this means. But what we do know is that we will all be working longer. This will be the age of no retirement.

Now for the good news. Although we as a country (along with most other developed Western economies) are getting older, we are also, on the whole, healthier and fitter. We will all be working longer but work has great benefits that extend beyond the financial. It helps keep us happy and healthy, providing it is the right kind of work and the right amount. This will be the age of no retirement, and that might just be a good thing.

So how can we rethink and redesign our future so that getting old is no longer something to be feared? So that older people are seen as an asset and not a burden? So that our products and services are designed by and for and marketed to the sector of the population with the highest disposable income? So that older people can live as fulfilling, happy and valued lives as the young?

All these themes and more are currently being discussed at a two-day conference in London, The Age of No Retirement. A combination of policy makers, educators, designers, entrepeneurs, carers and all manner of interested others have been wrestling with some of the most crucial issues we face as a society.

As this is Creative Review, let’s address just one, crucial question: how can creativity help us to exploit the social and economic opportunities of a society in which the average person now lives longer?

One of the first sessions at The Age of No Retirement explored questions around technology – digital technology in particular – and older people. A great panel including Google head of design (and Britain’s oldest ‘Googler’) Patrick Collister, Dave Coplin of Microsoft, Gilly Crosby of the Centre for Policy on Ageing and Dave Shepherd, director of Barclays’ digital inclusion initiatives wrestled with a variety of topics the first of which was how to get older people online and interacting with digital services in the first place.

Speaking as someone with parents in their 80s I have direct experience of the way in which the ‘digitisation’ of so many of our services is already leaving a generation behind. If you’re not online, carrying out simple tasks such as renewing a driving licence or booking travel tickets is becoming harder and harder.

Already, there are a large number of groups helping older people to get online – some run by corporates such as Barclays and BT, whose Connected Society head John Perkins was also on the panel. But it remains an enormous challenge, particularly when faced with users who may be scared of either breaking or accidentally downloading the entire internet to their computer, as someone on Perkins’ BT course was. How can we design our digital platforms and services to be friendlier and more easy to use for everyone? How can we improve customer service to help people?

There was a realisation that the digital world is still in its infancy. Things don’t work as well as they should but, as Patrick Collister pointed out, perhaps we are too demanding. Let’s not forget how far we have come. The hope is that eventually this digital technology is a given, that it just works and we get on with using it. But how?

Google and Microsoft, it was pointed out, have overwhelmingly young workforces. How would their products and services change if those creating them were a little older? Why do we fetishise youth so much, particularly in the tech world? How would products such as Facebook change if they were embraced en masse by the over-50s?



Perhaps these issues will sort themselves out as today’s ‘digital natives’ get older but we could help right now by discovering some digital ‘heroes’ for the over-50s. Collister pointed out that since Geriatric1927 (AKA Peter Oakley) sadly passed away earler this year, the oldest YouTuber is 44. There has to be a great opportunity for older people to use the medium to offer advice and help just as their grandchildren are doing with everything from beauty tips to playing games.

And what about the older consumer who, we are told, has much more disposable income than the youngsters that it seems all our advertising is aimed at. Why are the products aimed at them and their needs so uninspiring? A second session, led by Tom Evans of BleepBleeps, suggested some answers.



BleepBleeps is a range of connected devices for parents – will we have similar products for the over-50s?


Anna James of Spring Chicken was hopeful that what has happened for babies and parents may one day be replicated for their seniors. We now have a huge array of products aimed at parents. Department stores have sections for babies and toddlers where we can buy vastly over-engineered buggies and designer babygrows. Will, say, John Lewis one day have a similar department for seniors, stocked with cool carbon fibre walking sticks and hearing aids that look like jewellery? Or will Ikea have rooms set up for older people featuring furniture designed just for them? Or will the stigma of ageing be too offputting? Perhaps we need a change of nomenclature. As Evans said, if he went to a VC investor and pitched a product aimed at the elderly he’d probably get nowhere. But if he pitched a well-being focussed digital wearable, they’d be all ears.

Events such as the Paralympics and Invictus games have showcased innovative designs to cope with physical impairment; perhaps we could apply the same qualities that imbue a runner’s blades with tech-cool to a mobility scooter or stairlift?



Flexifoot walking stick, availabe via Spring Chicken


I think we are some way off. As the panel said, rather like parenthood, it is difficult to care about this stuff until you experience it. But the demographics are with us. Once today’s digital natives, with their overwhelming sense of entitlement, their impatience with bad service and bad products and their drive to build something better enter the over-50 age group, it’s hard not to imagine that they will demand change.

Patrick Burgoyne, age 48 and a half

The Age of no Retirement continues at The Bargehouse, London SE1. Post-event, a report on the major themes to come of the conference will be produced by the organisers, Commonland and Trading Times

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