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Silver tsunami warning

Aging in place - Research by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School professor Jim JohnsonThe world is getting old.

Every day 8,000 baby boomers turn 65 and that will keep happening seven days a week, 365 days a year for the next 20 years.

By 2040 they will account for more than a fourth of the U.S. population and 50 percent in Japan, Spain and Italy. Chinese seniors will total 330 million – 25 percent of the nation’s total and larger than the entire U.S. population – by 2050.

This silver tsunami poses serious policy, economic and personal challenges. And where there are challenges, there is also opportunity. In this case, it’s a $17 trillion opportunity, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Don’t ignore boomers

“Everyone is talking about marketing to millennials, but about half are unemployed or underemployed,” says Jim Johnson, William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship. “Baby boomers, on the other hand, have financial resources and represent a huge, diverse market. That’s where you’ll find business opportunities – their very aging creates a market for all sorts of new products and innovations.”

Part of what’s driving the market is the demand for helping seniors age gracefully in their homes and communities – and out of emergency rooms, expensive nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

“Everything has to change to accommodate an aging population that has mobility limitations, hearing and vision impairments, and chronic disabilities,” says Johnson. “It spans all professions and industries – nothing will be untouched.”

Watch someone you care about deal with age-related challenges, and you’ll start thinking about solutions. Johnson is investigating what works – innovative policies, procedures and practices – to improve the quality of life for seniors.

Innovation hub for elder care

Johnson started the Elder Care Economy Innovations Hub at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. The joint venture with UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health is leveraging the intellectual capital and entrepreneurial acumen of scholars and practitioners in UNC’s business, medicine, public health and social work schools, as well as its biomedical engineering, city planning and public policy departments. It also forged strategic alliances with experts at the MIT Age Lab, Newcastle University and Cambridge University and affinity groups, including AARP, LeadingAge and the Councils on Aging.

The Hub’s work encompasses rigorous research to inform policy, a new ventures creation lab and a boot camp training program for aspiring “encore entrepreneurs,” who start new business ventures at a higher rate than any other group. The team is using data on AARP’s 30 million members, which includes indicators influencing the ability of individuals to safely age in place with data from other sources, to create a robust, big data portrait of an aging population. With appropriate data analytics and mapping tools, the Hub will profile communities’ aging populations and identify the “big levers” that can facilitate the creation of age-friendly policies and practices.

The business of aging

The business opportunities sparked by global aging are enormous. Pay attention and you’ll see them on city streets, at work, and in grocery stores, shopping malls and restaurants. Your parents, your neighbors and your customers’ needs are changing.

Here’s a snapshot of some business opportunities that can make life better for seniors.

  • Labeling and packaging: Seniors aren’t just price sensitive – they’re weight sensitive, too. Bulky and heavy products need to be offered in smaller units and lower weights. From everyday items to prescriptions, labeling and packaging needs to be easy to read, understand, carry and use.
  • Product design and innovation: Function is more important than aesthetics for aging seniors.  Door knobs were outlawed in new construction in Vancouver and replaced by senior-friendly levers. The beer industry is addressing the need to make their beverages easier to open for people who have less strength and flexibility, and who are more likely to have arthritis.
  • Marketing: For marketers wanting to reach the “silver shopper,” there’s a consumer paradox. “Seniors don’t like to be singled out and reminded that they are old,” Johnson says. “The company that does a great job of making products for seniors takes great pains not to ‘make products for seniors.’” That explains Amazon’s branding of its website dedicated to older shoppers as a 50+ Active and Healthy Living Store.
  • Urban design: Everything in the “built environment” needs to change. That includes extended walk times at pedestrian crosswalks and age-friendly signage and lighting. Architectural firms will design everything from senior fitness parks – which will become the norm as the world continues to age – to universally accessible transport systems.
  • Digital technologies: Boomers might be major consumers of Apple products and avid Facebook users, but they are digital immigrants. Their digital literacy challenges – which are compounded by diminished eyesight, hearing and dexterity – need to be factored in as technology advances. There are smart technologies that reduce the risk of falls and play a huge role in healthy aging. For instance, AT&T is developing smart shoes and slippers that enable caregivers to use their cell phones to monitor their loved ones’ behaviors.
  • Falls and insurance: When seniors fall, medical costs are high – $34 billion in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Indirect costs include long recovery and rehabilitation, $30 billion in lost work productivity for caregivers, people who can’t return home or live independently, and high payouts and litigation for insurance companies. “We’re using big data and predictive analytics to identify and mitigate risk,” says Johnson. “It’s cheaper to be senior-friendly and change the places where people live, work and play to try to prevent accidents from ever happening.”

“We are primed to create a host of jobs and new businesses, generate major cost savings for business like insurance companies and put UNC on the map as a go-to-place for creative ideas and innovations for the impending silver tsunami,” says Johnson.

Dramatically transforming our environment and developing innovations that enable seniors to live independently in their own homes are necessary and inevitable. “There’s lot of uncertainty and risk in our lives,” says Johnson. “Demographics are one of most predictable areas you’ll ever find – you can count on them.”