Age Does Not Matter poster for festival

Designing for a world where age does not matter

How can we develop products and services for a world in which age does not matter? Intergenerational design was a buzz phrase at the recent Age Does Not Matter festival in London, and it is a promising approach to the challenges posed by an ageing society. But is it enough?

I had an interesting conversation with my mother recently. She is currently in her mid-sixties and thriving, juggling her role as a successful business manager, zumba classes, gin & tonics with friends and the numerous other activities that put my social calendar to shame. Put simply, she likes to think of herself as more youthful than most youths, and rightly so.

She has recently decided to work remotely for a few days of the week, to, you know, spice things up. I got really excited when she told me this, and immediately mapped all of the trendiest co-working spaces near her house. When I showed her the short-list, I was surprised by her reaction. “I can’t work at those types of places,” she told me bluntly, “I am too old for them.”

Youth, middle aged, elderly, and some millennials and baby-boomers in between

These are the boxes that define us as we progress through life. At closer inspection, they have formed detrimental stereotypes and deeply entrenched schisms upon which we have built many modern institutions, from transportation and healthcare to housing, work and leisure. As citizens live longer and healthier lives, these divides prove outdated and are a hindrance to inclusive and sustainable societies.

How can we go about reversing such deeply entrenched stereotypes and start designing more inclusively? Intergenerational design has been touted as a promising solution, but just as form follows function, function must, in turn, follow values. The way that our current systems function- whether it is the healthcare, insurance, housing or transport systems- are all influenced by societal norms and values. Currently, the major issue is that we (anglo-saxon folk, for all of you cultural relativists squirming) do not sufficiently value the elderly and their contribution to society. Inadequate functions and forms naturally follow suit.

Form Follows Function Follows Values

Back to my mother and co-working spaces. If I were starting-up a business, reaping the benefits of a business network that many coworking spaces offer, or simply just needing to chat about women in the workplace, my mother is just the person I’d like around. I would value her presence, and that of those like her, in a coworking space. At the same time, I’d hope that she would find value in the stimulating environment and the fulfillment of playing a mentor role. This, in turn, would influence the function and form of the entire coworking experience. The same principle can be extended to housing, healthcare, transport and technology.

We need to emphasise the value of intergenerationality to inspire radically different system functions and forms. Events like the Age Does Not Matter festival really bring these issues to light. I hope conversations like the ones that took place lead to the much needed changes in norms and values, so that we can move toward designing more inclusive forms of intergenerational products and services.

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