WASHINGTON – Dec. 1, 2009 – Most technology companies don’t spend much time thinking about what products best meet the needs of baby boomers. That could be a serious mistake. New research released today by Microsoft and AARP shows that the baby boom generation—through sheer numbers, enormous buying power, and an exceptionally high interest in technology—has more to do with which software, devices and online services survive and evolve than most people realize.
To learn more about baby boomers’ technology attitudes and expectations, Microsoft and AARP sponsored a series of focus group-like discussions with boomers in four U.S. cities—San Francisco, Phoenix, Chicago and New York. They hired author and futurist Michael Rogers to lead those sessions, evaluate the information, and share his insights into how baby boomers are influencing the future of technology.
November 30, 2009
Futurist Michael Rogers says that baby boomers are eager adopters of technology – so long as it’s appropriate for their needs.
Growing up, Rogers was a self-described “electronics geek” who “fell in love with the first transistor” and studied physics at Stanford as a precursor to electrical engineering and semiconductor design. But his hobby had always been writing, and while he was in college he started selling stories to magazines. By the time he graduated, he had two job offers: one with Intel, the other as a writer for Rolling Stone. For a child of the 1960s, it was an easy choice.
Rogers spent 10 years at Rolling Stone, where he also founded Outside magazine before moving on to write a technology column for Newsweek, eventually becoming vice president of The Washington Post Co.’s new media division and earning patents for multimedia technology. Most recently, he served as the New York Times’ futurist-in-residence. Today, as the Practical Futurist, Rogers consults regularly with startups and Fortune 500 companies, writes popular books and articles, speaks to audiences worldwide, and is a frequent guest expert on radio and television programs.
Reflecting on the new research by Microsoft and AARP, Rogers says: “When people think of technology influencers, they tend to think of the millennials—people now in their teens and 20s—and most technology companies take the same view. Not much attention is paid to the baby boomers—a very large generation that adopts a lot of technology, controls 50 percent of discretionary spending in the United States, and will outspend younger adults by $1 trillion in 2010. So we felt it was important to really understand the attitudes and inclinations of that generation, and our research produced some surprising results.”
To learn more about the research on baby boomers and technology, PressPass caught up with Michael Rogers shortly before the release of the report: Boomers and Technology: An Extended Conversation.
PressPass: Was the teaming of Microsoft and AARP an important aspect of the research?
Michael Rogers: It made a lot of sense for Microsoft and AARP to join together for this study. AARP has millions of members age 50 and older, approximately 46 percent of them boomers like me who want technology that works for us. Many technology companies either don’t see the opportunity that represents or don’t understand how to tap into it. For Microsoft, this research is a smart business move. The baby boom generation actually has the highest intent to purchase technology of any age group. We are huge technology consumers. And so, for a company that develops software, hardware and online services, it makes a lot of sense to pay attention to what we like and don’t like.
PressPass: What did you discover during the research that surprised you?
Michael Rogers: The big surprise for me, as someone who follows technology, was how much the baby boomers’ relationship with technology is still changing. It’s not at all what researchers have seen with the “greatest generation”—the parents of the boomers—which has a tendency to be frozen in time with respect to technology. People from that generation get to a point where they have found certain technologies they like, and they’re going to stick with what they know. The baby boomers, on the other hand, are very clearly still adopting new technologies. I call baby boomers “sensible adopters.” They may not adopt technology as fast as their kids do, but when a technology makes sense for their lives they adopt it very quickly.
We were surprised by how open boomers are to relatively radical new ideas about technology. Let me give you a couple of examples. The first is a pair of goggles or eyeglasses equipped with a tiny computer display that projects text and images onto a portion of the lenses so that it floats in front of your eyes. Another is the idea of having a computer chip with all of your medical records implanted into your body. Both those ideas sound very “science fiction” to me. But as soon as each was discussed, most people in our groups said, “That’s a good idea.” These are very radical concepts, but because they make sense within the changing needs of the baby boom generation, people were open to them.
PressPass: What are some of the more distinctive aspects of baby boomers’ relationship to technology?
Michael Rogers: This is a generation that has grown up with technology. We were in our 20s and 30s when the first Apple computers and IBM PCs were around. Baby boomers were the early innovators, and we continue to innovate, but with more of a focus now on ease-of-use and making sure technology really improves our lives, whether it’s enriching our relationships with our children or enhancing quality of life for our parents who may need at-home care.
But it goes deeper than that. As boomers, we see our kids shaping their lives around technology. They create new rules about living to accommodate technology. Consider one friction point between baby boomers and their children: texting and cell-phone use in public places or in the midst of other conversations. That’s fairly acceptable among a lot of millennials, but not among boomers. There is the feeling among boomers that the intrusive, always-on nature of technology is not an acceptable part of a human life and they don’t want to be driven in that direction.
I think the biggest fear among boomers—and it comes from a generation that has long been focused on human values, civil rights, freedom and democracy—is that we might lose our humanity in some way, that we would become more machine-like by adopting technology. It all comes back to baby boomers wanting to adapt technologies to fit their lives rather than reshaping their lives to fit technology.
PressPass: How will baby boomers influence the technology of the future?
Michael Rogers: For starters, baby boomers believe that technology can be used to improve health care and fitness. That was very strong, so this is clearly a generation that will quickly embrace new digital health care options.
Boomers are also going to have a big effect on the design of mobile devices. Boomers are not technology-averse, but they don’t want to spend all of their time learning new technology, so they’re going to demand simpler devices that are safer and easier to use, and also mobile devices with alternative interfaces—because lots of small text on a small screen isn’t a good experience for someone who is over 50.
Boomers will be a big factor in the adoption of e-readers, the new tablet formats that are coming out for media consumption. There’s a lot of interest there. And while boomers have a nostalgic attachment to paper in the form of newspapers, magazines and books, they also recognize that electronic devices let you carry a lot more reading material and view it in a way that is comfortable. So I think that whole mobile area will see a lot of change.
In the area of the Internet, I see two influences. I think boomers will look for services that filter and distill information, whether that’s news or any kind of useful content. They’re interested in reducing the noise level in their lives. They’re not interested in sorting through a lot of disparate information. And I also think boomers will encourage a general move on the Internet away from widespread anonymity. Boomer concerns over behavior in cyberspace and the security of personal information will cause them to favor a more regulated Internet in which real identities exist, you know who you’re dealing with, and you’ve got some sense of security.
PressPass: Are technology designers starting to think about baby boomers when they’re designing new software and devices?
Michael Rogers: In my travels around the technology world, there’s still a fascination with what today’s 15-25 year olds are doing with the Internet and with devices. And that’s great, because certainly I think they’re giving us some clues about what the future is going to be like. But there is a lot more to be done to get manufacturers and developers focused on the enormous baby boomer market.
PressPass: If you were advising technology companies about the best ways to expand their markets and target their research, would you be telling them to focus on boomers or on the younger, early adopters that boomers learn from?
Michael Rogers: I think they can do both. Mobile phones are a good example. When mobile phone companies think about doing something for the “older audience,” they strip out every conceivable feature and create these extremely simple phones that are really aimed at people who are technology challenged. So they either have very complex phones with a gazillion features that appeal primarily to the younger market, or they have these simple phones that seem to be made for 80-year olds. They are missing that middle segment, and that’s what they need to look at: taking existing technologies and presenting them in a way that makes sense for boomer lifestyles – which may turn out to be of interest for the rest of the market as well.