Why no products for older people?

It’s National Longevity Week this week (9-13 November) and it’s made me focus on a perennial problem; why are so few truly innovative products, services and business models designed to meet the needs of older people?


Let’s face it, we’re all ageing, all the time. The number of people over 75 in the UK today is one in 12. By 2040, it will rise to one in 7. We’re also living for longer and a third of children born now are expected to live to 100.

Business opportunity

This is an opportunity for businesses and researchers to develop and deliver innovative solutions to help us all to stay active and productive in our later lives. This also makes business sense – older people hold much of the financial wealth in the UK.  So, businesses and social enterprises have a fantastic market opportunity – if they can crack it.

There appears to be a number of barriers to innovation; and assumptions – not always correct – that fit into that.

The first seems to be paucity of ideas to serve this market. Older people, like the rest of the market, need genuine innovation and attractive and affordable products.

That may be because ageing populations have, historically, been viewed through the lens of rising demand on health, care and welfare services. But it’s not all about stairlifts and sensible shoes.

Too young, too risky?

Designers, particularly in technology are mainly young and often lack the knowledge of and access to older people to inform the design process.

Or it might be market risk; one well-known High Street retailer has admitted to me that they simply don’t market to the over 40s. Despite the high proportion of wealth controlled by older people, most large corporates have yet to focus marketing towards older populations, with marketing departments typically staffed by younger people and targeting millennials.

I’ve also seen immature services with novel product offerings entering the market but a lack of service providers able to integrate them into solutions.

Yet, when you look at the figures, this makes no sense. An EU review estimated that the silver economy generated 4.2 trillion euros in GDP and 78 million jobs;  In the UK homeowners over 50 hold £3 of every £4 in housing value, which amounts to £2.1 trillion, of which just 7% is still borrowed and they hold the same  (77.3% ) in financial wealth.

If ranked among sovereign nations, the Silver Economy would be the third largest economy in the world, behind only the USA and China.

Willingness to pay

We also need to tackle another barrier; willingness to pay. Research by Glasgow University on adoption of digital health solutions, for example,  found a very low willingness to pay, particularly in older age groups.  That’s in part because people fear that technology is mainly used as a means to enable face to face care to be reduced, but it’s also a circular thing; many digital or otherwise innovative products aren’t designed with older people in mind so they’re less likely to see the value in them.

This is a global trend – which is behind why both national and local governments are interested and is also behind the government’s Ageing Society Grand Challenge mission to ensure that people can enjoy at least five extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experience of the richest and poorest.

One part of supporting that is the Healthy Ageing Challenge – a £98 million investment in impact – in research and innovation for this neglected market.

We not only encourage – and reward – innovation for this market, in effect we ‘de risk’ it. Our aim is to enable businesses, including social enterprises, to develop and deliver services, products which support people as they age, and the novel business models to enable then to be adopted at scale.

Innovation and support

We’ve already seen some incredible ideas come out of this, particularly in the field of homes and design for older people; one project will create a new community of smart homes in Northampton, to attract a mixed age population but with extra help for people with dementia; another, in Manchester, is supporting the creation of a design agency for older people and a third will look at the ways telemetrics, currently used by insurers to risk-assess young drivers, can help older people drive safely for longer.

These ideas, and the ones we hope will come in the next few years of the challenge share one aim; to allow people to remain active, productive, independent and socially connected across generations for as long as possible.

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