Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 9, 2019
I have issues with the concept of age — or more accurately with aging. Like many, I push back against the force of gravity that slows me up physically and the loss of brain cells that slows me up intellectually. It turns that I am not alone. Approximately 50 million American men and women are over the age of 65, and that number is expected to grow to 95 million by 2060.
Yet much of the startup world is still primarily interested in millennials, of which there are about 85 million. After all, they are on the upswing, and the older folks are on the downswing — but surprise to many, they are not dead yet. And so a fellow named Tom Kamber decided to open an “incubator” for the “alta kakers” (you will need to consult your Yiddish dictionary on this one, but in simple terms — old-timer.)
About 15 years ago, Kamber started Older Adults Technology Services, or OATS, in New York City to provide new initiatives in technology and the arts for seniors. Its mission was to create a technology-themed community center for continued education, the goal of which was to create a cohort of men and women who could add value after they had “retired or been reluctantly retired without complete consent” if they could learn the latest and greatest in the world of technology. Called Senior Planet, his program was created long before the term “incubator” had been co-opted by the startup world. His question was a simple one — can you teach an old dog new tricks? The absolute solid answer is yes, woof woof.
He says that his customers live in an “ageist society, in which your dreams might seem perfectly normal to you, but are perceived as a threat to younger people.” The dark nuance is that the younger folks are also at some level afraid of their own aging — and so they push back against the gray wave, not only because the older person might impact them economically, but also because it reminds them (all of us in fact) that there are no guarantees and no one gets out of this deal alive.
His center is buzzing with ideas and products using Google Suite, Microsoft Word, Amazon Cloud, Pay Pal, Skype and a host of other technologies. He wants to “uncork the lives” of his seniors, to help them realize their dreams now because their time horizon is shorter. This interests me because of the startup concept of scale. How does a company get big fast, how does it reach lift-off critical acceleration speed into the ionosphere? It seems to me that maybe there is a role for the old folks.
I do some coaching, and I frequently get the man/woman between the ages of 55-75 who is not done, who wants to be involved, who wants a job, and who wants to have continued meaning (might need the money, might not). They find they are frequently and quickly dismissed by the human resources gang. If you can do the job, who cares if you have white hair or no hair? So the challenge I throw down to all the incubators and venture studios in this town is — hey, what if you took on a few old folks?
One of my consistent themes is that good ideas do not originate only at the top, from the founder, etc. In fact, if you listen well, they may show up from the janitor. So since we are wound up about conservation, about climate change, about recycling, about solar, about energy, about almost everything, why not create a small space for some still-alive, under-100 folks who have most of their marbles and also have a well-defined sense of urgency (something that is often lacking in my millennial charges)? They are smart and collegial, and they do not exhibit any sense of “entitlement” that some of my younger employees seem to wear.
Remember 2007, when Zuckerberg famously said “young people are just smarter”? Hey, Zuck, Sandberg is 50 today. And ageism is much worse for women, who also live longer and have more of the money. To quote George Bernard Shaw, “Youth is wasted on the young.”
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Email ideas to [email protected].
Rule No. 626
80 is the new 50.