The Aging Advantage

At 91, Barbara Beskind is three times the age of most of her colleagues at the global design firm IDEO, but age can be more than just a number in the workplace.
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At IDEO, Barbara Beskind has worked on home health-care robots, alternatives to traditional walkers, and other projects that aim to improve everyday life for aging populations. 9Photo: Courtesy of IDEO)

At IDEO, Barbara Beskind has worked on home health-care robots, alternatives to traditional walkers, and other projects that aim to improve everyday life for aging populations. 9Photo: Courtesy of IDEO)

At the San Francisco offices of the global design firm IDEO, overlooking the blue expanse of San Francisco Bay, 150 people spend each workday bettering how we live by re-thinking everyday tangibles like IKEA kitchens, Tempur-Pedic mattresses, and, years ago, Crest toothpaste tubes. More recently, though, IDEO has started to think more widely about how we might engineer large cultural shifts in areas that aren’t traditionally thought of as “designable”—how we approach topics like religion, aging, and even death. One recent Wednesday morning, a small huddle of people that included industrial designers, mechanical engineers, and roboticists stood at a long, narrow conference table to present a series of prototypes to designer Barbara Beskind. They wanted her feedback on how to make a robot more accessible to those with vision and hearing impairment. As Beskind carefully examined the models, intended for use in health care, the other designers hovered, watching her for signs of approval.

“Are these meant to be eyes? Do they light up?” Beskind asked, not unkindly. She smoothed her black pants, shifting forward in her chair to get a better look at the robots through yellow-tinted glasses. She wanted to know if they would talk, and if they’d have a female voice, which she thought would be friendlier than a male one. She worried that the robot’s toy-like appearance, with its big, blinking eyes, might be infantilizing to patients. She asked one designer if the device could be connected to existing medical systems—“Can your doctor send medications to the robot? Could it be paid for by Medicare, so that more people could use it?” Her questions were focused and came at a brisk pace. I watched the other designers watch her, fully invested in her reactions.

"The ironic thing is that aging is the one thing we have in common, if we’re lucky."

At the end of the meeting, the designers thanked Beskind profusely for her input. She smiled and got up from her chair. Hold the superficial bells and whistles, she said, and the robots could be useful to a bigger audience. “It’s always easier to design the complex, easy answer than the hard answer that’s simple,” she told me as I handed over her walking poles. Elegant simplicity has always been her goal when coming up with a solution to a problem. “I challenge myself by saying, ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’”

At 91, Beskind is three times the age of many of the people around the table. She was hired at IDEO two years ago, after she saw a 60 Minutes segment on the company’s founder, David Kelley. She wrote a letter to IDEO—she found the company’s reliance on multidisciplinary problem-solving teams “most impressive,” and thought her 44-year career in applied design and occupational therapy could be valuable to the organization. For decades, Beskind worked in occupational therapy for the United States Army, designing braces and other equipment for polio patients and wounded soldiers; when she retired as a major in 1966, she opened the first independent occupational therapy clinic in the country. She continued to invent customized equipment for patients, and holds a patent for a series of inflatable therapeutic devices. Later, she attended art school, wrote a memoir, and taught classes in the history of Russian abstract art.

Beskind was first hired at IDEO for an exploratory project on aging: 44 designers from all 10 of the company’s offices pushed the boundaries with experimental, personal prototypes that included a stylish bike-walker hybrid and an “Instagran” photo feed that goes straight to an older relative’s television. In the two years since, her perspective has been undeniably useful for projects that aim to improve life for aging populations—the home health-care robots, the alternatives to traditional walkers—but her experience has also been relevant to those that simply aim to improve life. She works on projects that span all aspects of IDEO’s purview, from refining contact-lens cases to reduce fumbling to conceptualizing a new transit system for a metro area that employs the high-speed mag-lev technology used by UPS to route packages.

It’s fair to say that in the U.S. we generally think about aging as a gradual subtraction—a taking away of things that are important to us. But Beskind thinks differently about the changes that she and her peers are experiencing. “You have to expect change and embrace it,” she says. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t.” Even if the change is that her fingers are less nimble, her balance a little more unsteady, or her vision faltering, she believes those are changes designers can address as she has: by adding rubber rockers to ski poles for additional traction and momentum while walking, say, or constructing a lighted magnifying board for reading the newspaper. Every new challenge presents an opportunity to innovate: This is the fundamental idea that drives her work.

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There has been a lot of ink dedicated to the coming mass retirement of the Baby Boomer generation. When we hear “boomers,” we tend to expect a one-time event coming that we will struggle through and then move on from, says Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging, a think tank based in Santa Monica, California. But the confluence of lower birth rates and increasing longevity is, he says, “a permanent demographic shift happening around the world”—one that’s unfolding rapidly in places like China, Japan, and Brazil. The old notions of retirement—stop working at or around the age of 65, collect Social Security for a while, die within 10 years—are well past outdated. Retirement can last several decades. We innovate for every arena of life, so shouldn’t we be innovating for that time, too?

Researchers who study long-term population trends point out the obvious: We can’t afford to have this productive segment disappear from the workforce. Older people have valuable skills to contribute to the economy, and we will need them in the coming years as the overall labor force shrinks. “Older people are an under-recognized capital asset hiding in plain sight,” Irving says. “No one should trivialize the physical or economic challenges of aging, but it can be an incredible opportunity.”

IDEO designer Barbara Beskind has become something of a celebrity for being the rare older adult woking in Silicon Valley. (Photo: Courtesy of IDEO)

IDEO designer Barbara Beskind has become something of a celebrity for being the rare older adult woking in Silicon Valley. (Photo: Courtesy of IDEO)

Beskind has become something of a celebrity for being the rare older adult working in youngster-driven Silicon Valley, and Irving has been following her story with interest. He balks at the media’s tendency to describe her and other talented older people as charming or exceptional. “If you think that the only cool thing about her is that she’s old, you’re missing something else really important,” he says. “She brings an incredibly complementary skill set to the other workers at IDEO, and that makes IDEO a better business.”

Laura Carstensen, a psychologist and the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, has done numerous studies that show older workers have cognitive and emotional strengths that differ from those associated with their younger counterparts. Though young workers tend to absorb new information more quickly, her work shows, mature workers are armed with a wealth of knowledge and expertise. Carstensen has found that older workers contribute social capital: They are more emotionally stable and better at handling tense situations, and have fewer conflicts as a result. They are also better collaborators and act as mentors, preventing a brain drain that could lead to lowered productivity.

"Older people are an under-recognized capital asset hiding in plain sight. No one should trivialize the physical or economic challenges of aging, but it can be an incredible opportunity."

Because senior-age workers are staying in their jobs longer and Millennials are taking up a bigger share of the job market, Irving believes that a workplace that best harnesses the talents of an intergenerational workforce will have the best chance of being successful and innovative. “Rather than sticking two 30-year-old Stanford grads together, stick one of them with someone who’s 65,” Irving says. “You’ll have a blend of energy, creativity, and risk-taking inclinations with balance and problem-solving capabilities that will dramatically increase the probability of a really positive result.”

There’s a well-being advantage in that equation too. Beskind tells me that she loves being around young people with lively minds—people who, most of all, share her passion for creative thinking. In Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity, Carstensen writes that our approach to aging makes a difference: “Aging is a biological process, but the environment in which we age plays a critical role in steering the course.” A culture of ageism may measurably affect our abilities: Older people may perform worse than younger people on memory tests because they expect to. In one experiment that compared memory in younger and older people, performance differences were found when the instructions explicitly emphasized memory—but no differences were observed when the instructions instead emphasized learning. Another study found that the memory gap between younger and older Americans was significantly greater than that between younger and older Chinese; the researchers hypothesized that, unlike Americans, the less-ageist Chinese were not crippled by exposure to negative cultural beliefs about what being old means.

We’ve marginalized a lot of populations based on blanket prejudices, and our attitude toward old people is no different, Irving says. “The ironic thing is that aging is the one thing we have in common, if we’re lucky.” All generations have to think about aging, since we’ll all be affected. The mixed workplace may help reduce these prejudices. By keeping older adults active and integrated in our communities—and by thinking about our communities as wholes, instead of as isolated pockets—we will all benefit from the knowledge and expertise that comes from lives lived with purpose and vigor.

As someone who knows how to adapt, Beskind allows IDEO’s designers and clients to see older people through their abilities instead of what they can no longer do, says IDEO’s Gretchen Addi, an associate partner who works closely with Beskind. “One of the challenges is to recognize that, yes, we’re growing old—but we’re growing, all the time,” Addi says. “And we all want to be as alive as possible until the day we die.”

“I’ve retired five times,” Beskind told me, “but it never takes.”

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