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Has consumer tech forgotten the baby boomers?

Millennials, millennials, millennials!


A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

Even for those who never watched “The Brady Bunch,” it’s a well-known meme. When it comes to consumer tech, I think many of us feel like busting out a similar sibling grumble: “Millennials, millennials, millennials!” A huge amount of attention, as well as many new products and services, are focused on this admittedly large and amorphous segment composed of people currently aged 15-25. Barely a day goes by without seeing something in my inbox akin to “Marketing to Millennials,” “Understanding Millennials,” “Why Millennials Aren’t Buying Houses.” Investors seem to love anything with good prospects for success in the millennial market.

But what about baby boomers? Even though millennials overtook boomers in 2015 as the largest group in the U.S., there are still around 75 million boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). Some 10,000 are retiring every day. This is the group that drove email, the early days of the web, AOL, the late 1990s internet boom, the early days of cellular and e-commerce, played a big role in the success of BlackBerry and the initial iPhone, and even got comfortable with online dating ( understands this).

Whether it’s Mary Meeker’s seminal “State of the Internet” report or the hottest Silicon Valley companies, products and apps, boomers don’t seem to be a big part of the conversation or the focus of product development. Yet this is a fascinating group, currently aged 50-70, and going through important life stages — midlife issues, empty-nesterdom, downsizing and retirement. I think tech companies are missing some opportunities, given the disproportionate focus on millennials and the up-and-coming Snapchatting, cord-cutting, Pokémon Go-ing Gen Z-ers.

What are some of the wants and needs of this group and what product development opportunities might match up? First, this is a group that wants tech to be easy. They don’t want to have to do a lot of self-provisioning and troubleshooting. They over-index iPhone to Android, they buy AppleCare and they still have cable. I think this is a segment ripe for what Apple is planning for TV. Millennials are cutting the cord because they are comfortable with the perambulations of what’s needed to do it. They think on-demand when it comes to entertainment (what time? what channel? who knows/cares?). But if Apple or somebody else can make cutting the cord and the whole search/discovery process easier, there is real potential to shake up the traditional pay TV space.

Boomers are also a segment that want some level of human interaction when it comes to customer service. Older boomers want someone to do it for them (make sure my phone is set up before I leave the store), while younger boomers might be prepared to do some self-service but will want a human being on the other end of the [phone!] at a certain point. Younger boomers are now reaching a stage where their teenagers, a.k.a., VP of Technology for the Household, are leaving for college. So they are going to be on their own when it comes to tech. Gulp!

A great case study here is Fitbit. The company has achieved dominance in the fitness tracker segment and basically created this market for boomers because such top-selling trackers as the Flex and HR do three things: Address a growing area of interest for the segment (health and light fitness, not super geeky or competitive, which is the target market for companies like Garmin); are easy to install and configure, with a limited but vital set of functions; and come from a company that’s easy to deal with (lots of help resources, good customer service). Fitbit is the Apple of the fitness tracker space.

On the other hand, boomers are not unlocking some of the real value of these products, because product and feature extensions are hard or cumbersome. Trying to configure and connect a scale? Works out of the gate, but often breaks and is hard to troubleshoot. Tracking nutrition? Gotta be easier. Integrating with other apps? Not a lot of standards yet.

We also recognize the boomer segment is moving through different life stages. At the younger end, they are becoming empty-nesters, starting to downsize, moving back to the city, divorcing at higher than the average rate and spending time thinking about what’s next. They have more leisure time on their hands but they also have aging parents to worry about. The older segment is retiring but has the active lifestyle of those 10 years younger a generation ago. They are worrying more about health issues and costs.

So, what does this mean for the tech sector? I think there are some really interesting opportunities here. A few particular areas:

Kids going to college:. One thing boomers will miss about their teens is the in-house tech support. An opportunity for a fresher, more contemporized version of Geek Squad. Maybe even house calls?

Downsizing/moving back to the city: Zillow is a great one-size-fits-all website/app but there could be a better resource to help those 55-70 years old optimize where to live, type of dwelling and lifestyle for their next life stage.

Midlife-crisis stuff: All of a sudden, boomers have more time and disposable income. They want to do new things, have different experiences, meet people again, re-engage with their community. There could be some interesting products and apps that help them do these things. Facebook could do more for them here. Or is there an opportunity for a boomer-centric social network?

Travel: Related to the above point. Travel sites/apps are monolithic and have become a virtual monopoly. They’re adequate for finding the cheapest airfare/hotel/car. But there are some great opportunities that fuse the old (i.e., travel agents) with the new. A guy who seems to understand this is Paul English, founder of Kayak and now founder of Lola, which is a new kind of travel company that provides on-demand, personal travel service through a smartphone app. And boomers are willing to spend. Just look at the success of high-end active travel company Back Roads, which has morphed from bike tours to walking/hiking/intergenerational (and does great in the boomer segment).

Health care. There are lots of health-care sites, apps and a growing number of “connected” health devices. But, other than fitness trackers, there aren’t as many breakout products or services here. Boomers are an important segment in the connected/digital health care space. It was telling that Apple recently bought Gliimpse, a three-year-old startup that helps patients make sense of their medical records. Health Kit has huge potential but has been a disappointment so far.

Finally, as some of the large boomer segment ages, there are lots of little things that could be done to make products easier to use. This doesn’t mean “products for old people,” but minor features and UI elements like bigger buttons, larger fonts, better guidance out of the box and more hand-holding. Thinking about boomers will certainly be important in the burgeoning IoT segments if companies want to sell connected home and connected car products or services to anyone over the age of 50.

A leading wireless industry analyst and consultant, Mark Lowenstein is the managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Most recently, Lowenstein was a member of the senior leadership team at Verizon Wireless, where as vice president of strategy he led the company’s efforts in product and business planning, market segmentation, national pricing and customer intelligence for both consumer and enterprise markets. Reach him @marklowenstein.

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