What interviewing 170 elderly people in Japan and China taught us about designing for an aging population.

Today we published Transformation, a report that explores the lifestyles and attitudes of those over 65 years old in Japan and China. It’s based on extensive ethnographic research, and spans gender, career types and a range of living arrangements.

The report was funded by the Japanese government. The research was lead by Studio D, and conducted in partnership with Tokyo based Loftwork.

Download the report here.

For those of you that are tasked with designing products that include “the elderly” (a common societal definition is 65 years or older), and self-identify as “young” (technically, 64 years or younger) I’ve included some additional notes below.

The broad opportunities are as follows:

  • Populations are shrinking i.e. Japan’s population will be reduced by 40 million people in the next 50 years. China’s population will be reduced by 400m people in the next 83 years.
  • At the same time their population is getting older, as shown in the age trees below. The trees are becoming taller and top-heavy. Combined with the above, this presents significant pressures on working populations, health care systems, pensions and public infrastructure.
Age trees:
  • We define four, cross-culturally applicable life stages: new responsibility, transformation, coping and death, each with distinct needs and opportunities. Yes, death and even the after-life are both opportunities for service design.
Twelve life stages, including four for the aged.
  • Urbanisation continues even as populations shrink. Tokyo is slowly becoming denser, China is still urbanising at pace. The “decline” of rural populations push up the costs for those that remain such as less frequent services, higher costs from less customers.
  • There is a large segment of elderly who are reluctant “adopters” of urbanisation, to be closer to healthcare services and to join migrated siblings. For this segment urbanisation can be a burden, separated from friends, familiar environments, objects that they are forced to down-size and peers,
  • There is a shift to smaller family units, smaller apartments, and alternative living arrangements — see chart below. As a side note, this will benefit the short stay housing business, because far more of the housing stock will be studio or 1 bedroom apartments that are easier to rent out than larger homes.
Household type: family units becoming smaller.

What does this mean if you’re looking to design services for the elderly?

  • First understand your life stage, your motivations associated with that life stage, and how it impacts your assumptions and biases about “growing old” and “being old”. A simple, reflective exercise is to consider how your motivations differed from five years ago.
  • Most people associate with being younger than their chronological age. Products and services therefore must be positioned at the user’s perceived age while still addressing needs such as deteriorating motor skills and memory. Consumers may consider products that target their chronological age with as socially stigmatised.
  • The main effects of the latter stages of aging (which these days can span 20 years) are deteriorating health, social isolation and an ever tightening geographic reach. I predict that the biggest potential beneficiaries of autonomous vehicles will be the elderly in the coping stage of life. (Young teens are also impacted, but haven’t yet lived through the same freedom of movement, so they approach the benefits of autonomous mobility as something to gain, not something to lose. Loss of freedom is harder to cope with.) Currently, growing old means ever decreasing circles of mobility, and increasing reliance on family and society, all of which present a considerable emotional and financial strain. This burden can be lifted through smartly thought out AV services that offer practical, affordable travel, without needing to rely on younger relatives.
  • Most elderly people cite “being a burden on family and society” as a primary worry. We mapped this dependency over a lifetime, in the familial reciprocity diagram below. Note the two golden ages where both parent and child are relatively independent and interdependency is in harmony.
  • People will always have family. But it is only their tribe (of seniors going through similar experiences) that truly understand what it means to be “old”. Grandchildren provide unjudgemental companionship for the elderly.
  • Changes in employment and a longer lifespan mean that retirement (as your parents knew it, and as you are expecting it) are moot. The financial burden on pensions and healthcare systems are simply too great. It’s time to recognise new working and retirement models.

As a foundational research piece the findings and perspectives from this project are being used to help our clients reframe the issues and opportunities from aging. Reach out if you want to start the conversation in your organisation too.

Download the report here.

Thanks to all participants for taking part. It always takes a team: Aki, Akira, Asuka, Chiaki, Echo, Ellen, Joey, Koji, Kahori, Mami, Minori, Nao, Norio, Naohiko, Naomi, Shen Si, Shinya, Susan, Takayuki, Teruka Tsunehisa and Venetia.

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