The new old – office design for an ageing population

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Millennials and Generation Z are the only generations worth considering in the modern workplace.

This has reached the point where their own colour, millennial pink, dominated Milan design week.

It’s only right that we should be focusing on their needs when it comes to workplace design but, as office design specialists, we think that too much focus on the younger generation potentially misses out on an underappreciated group.

An overlooked generation

As we recently pointed out, eventually there are going to be five generations in the workplace.

But rather than looking at the younger end of the age bracket, we thought it was time to focus on the more mature members of staff that are shaping the workplace.

Currently, over-60s outnumber under-16s and by 2040 one in seven people will be over the age of 75.

However, these septuagenarians will be a lot more tech-savvy than their current equivalents.

The New Old

A recent Drum article looked at the implications this mature market will have on the creative industries.

Photography by Luke Hayes

The New Old they reference is the title of a pop-up exhibition at The Design Museum that explored this subject.

Many of the design considerations they highlighted are just as relevant to the creation of an effective workplace. This is hardly surprising, given that the curator of the exhibition was Jeremy Myerson.

As well as being the Helen Hamlyn professor of design at the Royal College of Art, he worked closely with office furniture manufacturers, Kinnarps, on their Welcoming Workplace Project.

We were lucky enough to welcome him as guest speaker at our first Thought Leadership event in 2015.

The demographic time bomb

Myerson doesn’t see ageing as a ticking demographic time bomb.

“I think designers, advertising agencies and marketers have got to see the opportunities, and have got to look at ageing in a positive and not a negative light. We need to stop thinking about older people as a homogeneous grey market and start thinking about the different tribes of older people in the same way that we segment the youth market.”

Extra support where you need it

One of the featured designs was by entrepreneur Yves Béhar.

Image source: Fuseproject.com

The Superflex Aura Powered Suit is an enhanced undergarment using military technology that gives the wearer an extra boost when standing up or sitting down.

Pods packed with sensors and motors pull cords in the fabric to provide extra support.

This is especially topical given the importance of health and wellbeing in the workplace and the fact that musculoskeletal disorders make up around 60% of work-related illness.

But you don’t necessarily need military-grade technology to encourage an active workplace, the layout of the office and some ergonomic office furniture can help too.

Socially connected

Referencing the prevalence of connected technology and the Internet of Things, one exhibit looked at how this concept could be used to enhance social interaction for older people.

Image source: Ideo

Ideo created an AI assistant called Spirit.

It uses accumulated data to build a detailed profile of an individual. Rather than automating processes, it seeks to augment the human experience.

Spirit will suggest everything from who someone speaks to and what they read to what they eat and drink.

Thanks to a group of tiny biosensors inserted into the user’s body, it can even react to how they respond to people physically and emotionally.

In-office apps can already tell you which desks are free and allow you to change the workplace temperature. Plus, social networking apps designed specifically for the workplace are looking at ways to improve social interaction through technology.

So, despite the sci-fi extremes, the concept of Spirit isn’t a million miles away from the current advances in workplace analytics.

Age-neutral design

While it’s important to recognise the specific needs of an older demographic, a slight shift in the attitude towards ageing could bring us closer to an age-neutral culture.

Social enterprise The Age of No Retirement is at the forefront of this debate. They’ve started to develop a new set of universal design principles that aim to build the ‘business case’ for an age-neutral society.

They argue that segmentation by age is no longer relevant and that an age-neutral, intergenerational approach is the key to creating the successful products, services and brands of the future.

There’s no reason why this shouldn’t also be relevant to office design.

While we talk about the “multi-generational workplace”, trend reports suggest that we are moving towards a world of post-demographic consumerism.

Age is no longer a defining factor that prohibits people from doing, saying, buying or working where they want.

In this post-demographic society, free choice is not only encouraged but expected.

A concept that sits comfortably with the idea of a fluid, flexible workplace. One that offers a myriad of workspaces, each designed for the way that they will be used, irrespective of age.

To pensionable age and beyond

With a future workforce that’s looking increasingly older, an obvious benefit will be the experience they’ve amassed to get there.

Barry Johnson, a non-executive director of Learning Partners, explored this in a recent opinion piece for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

He highlighted the importance of upskilling these older workers to not only retain them for longer but also transfer their knowledge.

Keeping older employees engaged has other benefits.

Statistics show the sickness absence records of over 40s are much better than those of people in their 20s and 30s.

If you’d like to find out how your office design can work for every generation in your office, get in touch with us today.

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