Hearing aids fail four out of every five people with partial hearing loss. That’s not to say they aren’t perfectly functional as pieces of electronics. They are—and they’re becoming more so every year. But according to the National Institutes of Health, only 20 percent of Americans who could benefit from hearing aids seek them out, a disturbingly low proportion that doesn’t even account for the many who own but choose not to wear them. That means that, in a way, hearing aids are as broken as if they spewed black smoke from people’s ears.
That is just one symptom of a much broader problem with how businesses innovate for older adults. In most of the consumer-facing economy, a product with such low uptake would likely have been unseated by something cheaper, cooler, simpler, or more useful. Incremental improvements aside, the fact that this has never happened with hearing aids is telling. It suggests that when it comes to designing and marketing products for older people, the normal rules don’t apply.
As I describe in my recent book The Longevity Economy, there’s a simple reason why: A counterfactual narrative of old age has developed over the course of more than a century, and it’s become so ingrained that very few people—and perhaps even fewer businesses—think to question it. When most people picture “the old,” a specific impression usually comes to mind. It varies by country, but this group is often seen as a singular, homogenous population that depends on the largesse of others to survive because it can’t provide for itself. Older people are assumed to live apart, quietly sequestered away in retirement communities, assisted-living facilities, and nursing homes, surfacing to shop and dine only when everyone else is at work.