READER NOTE: The following discussion is a shortened excerpt from my forthcoming book, Generation Reinvention: How Boomers Today Are Changing Business, Marketing, Aging and the Future. The new book will be published this fall and available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online book merchants.
Michael Pollan, an energetic writer about food, once condensed his manifesto about eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Allow me to condense some insights about Boomers and the future of technology to the simplest declaration:
• Boomers like and adopt new technologies
• Not unnecessary complexity or useless frills
• Mostly for learning, entertainment and communication
Now for some details:
Boomers Like and Adopt New Technologies
One of the ludicrous myths that I have been dispelling for almost a decade is the slapdash notion that Boomers are technophobes. Popular culture and media have sometimes conspired to create the impression that anyone who didn’t grow up with Nintendo is somehow bereft of skills to adopt and adapt to new technologies. In Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers, I addressed this myth.
Boomers have been adopting and adapting to new technologies throughout their lives. From among their midst have emerged technology icons such as Bill Gates and Steven Jobs who not only adopted and adapted but created.
In October 2009, AARP and Microsoft published a white paper entitled Boomers and Technology: An Extended Conversation. Author and futurist Michael Rogers makes a succinct and compelling case for technology companies to focus more on those over 50:
In 2010, one-third of the U.S. population will be over 50 and “that’s close to 106 million Americans controlling 50 percent of the country’s discretionary spending and outspending younger adults by $1 trillion in 2010. Consumers in their fifties show the highest intent to purchase consumer electronics among any age group.”
Not only do Boomers like and adopt new technologies, which they’ve been doing their entire lives, they have the discretionary income and assets to invest in new technologies, often priced out of reach of younger adults.
Not Unnecessary Complexity or Frills
I recall my earliest confrontations with a desktop computer, including panic attacks when my computer would freeze up, thinking that I had permanently destroyed documents. I remember reading mind-numbing manuals trying to figure out how to attach peripherals.
This, in a nutshell, is what Boomers hate about some new technologies. When a product requires us to turn our lives over to the product so that we can master its nuances, then we’ll look for alternatives that insulate us from maddening minutia.
Michael Rogers’ white paper echoes my frustrations: “The (focus groups) made it clear that there are two aspects to ease of use. The first is learning how a device operates. The second is fixing it when something goes wrong.”
Technology innovation winners will create products that are intuitive to learn, easy to interact with, and effortless to repair when things go wrong. When you design simplicity into technology products, you appeal to all generations, not just Boomers. Nobody wants to be bogged down by technological convolution.
Mostly for Learning, Entertainment and Communication
Few Boomers are interested in technology for its own sake. Geeks within the generation are in a minority. Most Boomers purchase technologies to achieve other goals—or values—and those motivations generally center on learning, entertainment and communication.
Today, learning involves accessing the Internet’s limitless repository of information and knowledge. According to a study published by the Nielsen organization in November 2009, the primary online destination for seniors (including members of generations older than Boomers) was Google Search, tallying 10.3 million unique visitors.
The Nielsen study further validated something that anyone who understands the Boomer generation already has realized: members of this generation are online daily conducting myriad searches. They are seeking answers to healthcare questions. They are studying travel destinations for historical and cultural background while planning their vacations. And the most ambitious are taking online college courses to facilitate career transitions.
But the Internet is not just a learning tool. In the future, more and more traditional entertainment such as movies and television will expand online user experiences with unique content and depth.
This became very apparent to me when I studied the complementary websites to James Cameron’s blockbuster movie Avatar. Online content for this movie includes in-depth morphological information about the animals and plants that inhabit the fictional world Pandora. A blog and forum allows movie fans to interact, ask questions and speculate about Cameron’s plans for a sequel. Of course, the Avatar website includes provocative movie trailers designed to nudge web surfers into movie theaters.
Communication is perhaps the most compelling virtue of the Internet and fundamental to Boomers’ use of technology in the future.
Internet analysts propose many theories as to why Boomers and older generations have been swarming to social networking sites as these platforms have gained greater sophistication, coupled with ease of use. But it all comes down to two obvious motivations: staying in touch and getting in touch.
Communications through technology are also serving a primal need. Around 40% of adults 45+ are single today, so those lacking love are turning more frequently to online platforms to discover new romantic interests. According to Pew Internet, one in ten Internet users has jumped online to dating websites, and “37% of Internet users who say they are both single and looking to meet a romantic partner have gone to a dating website, which represents about 4 million people.”
Although much of the technology future remains a mystery even for technology experts, product developers and marketers can expect with certainty that Boomers will rapidly incorporate new technologies into their lives, especially technologies and applications that simply and fortify their abilities to learn, be entertained and communicate.
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