In Business New Age

Some 20 years ago we made an In Business called (rather romantically, we thought) The World Grown Old. It began (rather romantically, for I was young then) with Kurt Weill's September Song. And here we are, back again, with the same story all over again.

Twenty years ago, it was a future scenario: that sooner or later, the proportion of "old" people in the population (over 65, let's say) would be greater than the proportion of young people, in a lot of the world. But now it's happening, in Britain, the USA, Germany, France, Italy, China and many other countries. Japan is already ageing very fast indeed ... like Russia, it's also shrinking in the total size of its population.

As we warned 20 years ago (and are warning with some urgency in this new programme) the economic implications are profound. In a nutshell, older people who probably have been looking forward to a comfortable old age will have to have their retirement supported by relatively fewer younger workers.

Doesn't really matter whether pensions are funded by stock market investments or paid out of taxes, the Government Actuary himself told me in the original programme. The revenues (whether they are tax or corporate earnings) still have to be provided by the workers.

Older people will lean on the younger ones, or go on working themselves further into what used to be regarded as old age.

It puts a spotlight on that often rather dull phenomenon, productivity. With relatively fewer active workers in a country, the people who are working will have to find ways of earning more for all of us. Either by harder work, longer hours, or more efficient production of goods and services.

Perhaps technology will come to the rescue by rapidly making individual workers more productive. Perhaps.

Snowy

Meanwhile companies established and startup are looking at the grey-haired world as a big opportunity. Technology comes into this too. If there are fewer healthcare workers to look after older people, maybe robots can step in to do the job.

In a snowy Paris just before Christmas I engaged in a slightly lopsided conversation about how I was feeling with a computer on wheels made by the Basque company RoboSoft, specialising in service robots.

The idea is that voice recognition robots like this will take some of the problems out of being elderly and housebound: coping with shopping lists, time of day, a sort of companion keeping the mind alive with dialogue and questions.

It's interesting that modern prospective users questioned by RoboSoft reject the idea of the homunculus robot with a face and arms and legs so familiar from sci-fi movies.

The robot I encountered had a pinhead camera to see where it was going, a computer screen middle, and a big box of processing equipment balanced on top of the wheels. When I asked RoboSoft's chief executive Vincent Dupourque about how older people could get to like this very artificial looking companion, he shrugged off my concerns: these will be for our generation, people absolutely familiar with computers, who just want the convenience of using one that follows you around when you are not so mobile yourself, was his fairly convincing answer.

At GE Healthcare's HQ in leafy Little Chalfont in Buckinghamshire, they are working out ways of remote care for older people living on their own ... not by Big Brother video surveillance but with sensors linked to individualised computer software that recognises regular and irregular behaviour and movements and sends an alarm when something abnormal happens in the house or apartment.

Techniques

The giant General Electric has already identified health and ageing as a potential big new business, just as the same corporation has been repositioning itself to make money out of green ideas and equipment.

And at the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Leeds they are spawning ideas which transcend scientific boundaries as they work on fascinating regenerative medicine techniques.

The Leeds University programme is called "50 after 50", focussing on tools and techniques that will offer to 50 year olds 50 (yes 50) more years of active life.

This work includes artificial replacement knees or hips that don't wear out after 10 or 15 years as they tend to do at the moment, and new biological techniques (from a Leeds startup called TissueRegenix) that strip the original cells out of animal organs such as heart valves and then allow the human body to regrow its own replacements. Naturally.

Another company is finding ways of regrowing brain cells damaged by strokes. Regenerative medicine sounds quite extraordinary.

But we baby boomers are going to need it all. An arrogant generation, we barged our way through the world with the waves parting before us: sex went our way with the Pill; there was a rock music revolution, a flourish of new universities, global travel, young boomer upstart bosses in their 40s pushing aside the patient Buggin's Turn generation of 50-somethings who had expected to inherit the earth.

And as we grow old, the Baby Boomers are reshaping the world all over again: their world, your world, is going grey.

Listen to New Age (07/01/2010)

Previous Programmes

Watch Your Language - Peter Day joins a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the language of business.

Keep it Local - As pubs struggle to survive, Peter Day travels through villages in Yorkshire and Cumbria to talk to local activists.

Space - Peter Day asks what happens next on the USA's journey into space.

German Pencils - Peter Day asks Faber-Castell and Staedtler how they both stay sharp ...

Building BRICS - Peter Day finds out about the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China

Over A Barrel - Peter Day contemplates the turmoil in the Middle East and fears it will affect the price of oil

Reconstructing Capitalism - Peter Day hears all about the challenges to the way capitalism works.

All at Sea - Peter Day hears all about sea transport.

China Dispossessed - Peter Day hears about some of the problems caused by China's rush for prosperity.

Back on the Road - Alan Mulally tells Peter Day how he changed the way Ford works and how it is now back in the business of selling cars.

Asia Bling! - Peter Day ponders how the rise of the Asian comsumer will change business.

Euro on the Rocks - Peter Day asks what is the future for the Euro?

Bitter Pills - Peter Day looks at changing face of drug development.

Operation Robot - would you allow a robot to operate on you? Peter Day looks at robot-assisted surgery.

Growing Pains - Peter Day asks, what is the main component of growth?

After the Crunch - Government funding and regional development: the view from Newcastle.

Chips off the Old Block - Computing in the UK, past, present and future.

Hidden Depths - Graham Hawkes, DeepFlight and exploring the oceans.

Sociability - How social technology makes new business models possible.

Are CEOs Up to the Job? - Two thirds aren't according to Xinfu's Steve Tappin. Peter Day investigates.

In at the Start - Saeed Amidi and Silicon Valley

Power Play - Is the 'smart grid' the start of something big?

Now Wash Your Hands Please - How a simple idea can transform lives in the developing world

Coming Soon - What can the experience of previous financial crises tell us about the current one?

Ticking Over - Can the Isle of Man rejuvenate the business of watchmaking?

Not Just Silicon - what can Silicon Valley teach us about innovation?

Press under Pressure - what lies ahead for the world of newspaper publishing?

Remembering CK Prahalad - in a world of change and multiple opportunities, how does a company keep up?

Rwanda Rising - building a clean safe state where business can flourish.

Life Cycles - building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

Who Sets Our Standards - the business and social benefits of standardisation.

Ready to wear - the ethical issues of the international clothing industry.

Doing It Wrong - what's wrong with the way business works?

New Age - the business of aging.

Project Alcatraz - rehabilitating offenders in Venezuela.

Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

Let Me Entertain You - office parties and away days.

Brazil's Sugar Rush - Brazil.

Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

Student Startups - student entrepreneurs.

Media Mayhem - changes in the newspaper industry.

Squeaky Clean - branding.

Battery Power - Bolivia.

Women's Work - women in the city.

Hell For Leather - John Timpson and Timpson's Shoes.

Learning Curve - organisational culture.

Let's Start a Bank - banking.

Goodbye to Intel - Craig Barrett and Intel.

Location Location - So?

Iceland feels the Heat - the credit crunch in Iceland.

The Cisco Kid - Mike Lynch and John Chambers.

Grand Design - business schools.

Power Drive - the car industry.

All New - innovation.

Europe on the edge - What is this thing called "Europe"?

For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

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