Companies such as Instacart, Uber and TaskRabbit may be known for their appeal to young, urban consumers, but they may soon influence older adults’ lives just as profoundly.
Offering alternatives to traditional, senior-oriented services, these companies stand to transform how the older demographic gets things done.
At 88, Sally Lindover already participates as both a user and a provider in what’s known as the on-demand and sharing economy.
She recently signed up for home delivery services following a trip to France with a younger tour group. “I’m so competitive, of course I had to keep up with them,” Lindover says. The result was some lower-back pain that made it difficult for her to walk to the grocery store when she returned home to Cambridge, Mass.
So she started using Instacart, a company that does grocery shopping for you. “I was very pleased with it. I certainly will use it again in the winter,” she says. For bulky paper products and heavy household goods such as detergents, “I used a service called Jet, which is competing with Amazon — and competing very effectively, I must say — on prices.”
Lindover has a long history of defying expectations about her age. In 1983, she joined the U. S. Foreign Service at age 56. “I became the oldest junior officer at the time to enter the Foreign Service and broke what was known as the age barrier for that reason,” she says.
Now, living by herself in a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment, she rents out her extra room through Airbnb.
In her relationship with that company and others, she has taken a place at the forefront of a trend that’s likely to change the experience of old age. In the past, when frailer, older people needed dinner provided, a ride somewhere or a light bulb changed, solutions tended to be explicitly senior-oriented: Think Meals on Wheels, paratransit services and dedicated senior living facilities. But now, on-demand and sharing-economy companies are offering those very services — and many others — to customers across the age spectrum.
The opportunity comes from tech-enabled efficiencies in how a company is run.
After a brief retirement in the mid-1990s, she began renting a home in Cambridge where, now fully retired, she lives with a rotating cast of Airbnb users. She doesn’t worry about bringing new faces into her home, she says, “because I had so many experiences all over the world with so many people, and I have a lot of confidence in Airbnb’s vetting of people.”
Seniors using Tech
More than half of Airbnb’s hosts are older than 40, and 10 percent of them are older than 60. “Our older hosts have some of the best ratings on our site,” says Anita Roth, Airbnb’s head of policy research. Not only do empty-nesters tend to have extra rooms to rent, but they often also have “the life experience to know what it means to welcome someone into your home.”
Making life easier
Lindover says that because she moved around so much in the Foreign Service, she never bought property in Cambridge, instead holding on to her apartment, whose rent has tripled over the past two decades. “My fixed income is not that high,” she says. Airbnb provided “a way of helping pay the rent. And a rather pleasant way, without too much investment on my part.”
“I like to be here when people come in,” Lindover says. “I like to see them, and they see me, and I can give them some information about the neighborhood.”
Ride-hailing companies Lyft and Uber similarly rely on large numbers of older adults. Twenty-five percent of the drivers at Uber, which recently announced a partnership with AARP, are 50 or older. “We have a lot of retirees who are drivers,” says Mike Masserman, Lyft’s director of government relations. “They know the cities really well — they’re locals, and they love sharing anecdotes,” he says. “We hear from our passengers that some of our retirees are the most popular drivers.”
Between 2020 and 2030, the 65-plus population in the United States will increase by 18 million people, a base that sharing and on-demand companies are eager to gain as loyal consumers. “We think there’s going to be huge opportunity in this market,” Masserman says. At the same time, traditional senior-oriented services are awakening to the possibility that these young tech companies may poach their customers.
“I do view it as both a threat and an opportunity,” says Tom Grape, chief executive of Benchmark Senior Living, the largest provider of senior housing in New England.
The threat lies in the fact that companies such as Instacart and TaskRabbit will make it possible for some older adults to delay climbing onto the less-care-intensive rungs of senior living, instead meeting their needs via their smartphone or computer. The decision not to move to senior living “is already our biggest competitor, and of course we fully expect that technology will allow people to stay at home longer in the future,” Grape says.