Aging Of America: Internet To The Rescue

We're running out of money, not technology solutions.

Howard Anderson, Senior Lecturer, Harvard Business School

September 9, 2014

5 Min Read

Remember the Sherlock Holmes short story "Silver Blaze" in which Holmes solves the case by noticing that "the dog didn't bark," which meant that the mutt knew the murderer? Sure you do. But what's interesting is how Arthur Conan Doyle used pattern recognition as the lynchpin.

We're all pattern recognizers, but some of us can Name That Tune with surprisingly fewer notes. Let's take some seemingly random events and see if we can find some interesting patterns.

1. Google unveils a partnership under which it's ready to spend $1.5 billion on research of age-related diseases.

2. Hospitals are employing germ-seeking robots to scrub operating rooms to avoid hospital-created infections. (We used to think that "professional services" are immune to the Internet and computerization. We know better now.)


3. America is aging. There are now 55,000 people in the country 100 or older, up 65% from 1984. It's the fastest-growing demographic, albeit small. We've stopped smoking. We still overeat, but we will eventually take a pill for that. General Motors retirees will make more from their pensions than they ever did while working.


4. Stanford University offered a course, Econ 1v, to undergraduates that was completely online...  and it offered the same course for free to anyone else. Assuming students pay $60,000 a year in tuition and take 10 courses, they're paying $6,000 per course.

[Are you still passionate about your profession? Read What Willie Nelson Taught Me This Summer.]

5. My mother-in-law, age 95, is having a little trouble getting around. How could a robot help her clean? Dress? Ensure she takes her meds? Keep her connected to her friends or help her make new ones? Play bridge with her?

6. About half of prescribed pharmaceuticals are never taken. Or even worse, they're taken twice as often as they should be because the elderly person couldn't remember if she took them in the morning.

7. Some 40% of the world's population uses the Internet. That's 2.8 billion people.

When Social Security was first started, Americans dutifully died when they were supposed to -- around age 65. So Social Security gave them one victory lap. But now that the Aging of America is in full bloom, people are outliving their "three score and ten." Putting an elderly parent in a nursing home costs... about $150,000 per year. Assuming a lifetime of 90, and assuming 15 years of nursing care, that amounts to $2.25 million. And some of those new designer drugs cost... $145,000 per year. Live long enough and you'll come down with something.

In short, we're about to embark on the Great Generational War -- the older people (certainly not me) versus the younger. Those in the middle (yes, you and I) are going to have to decide: Support our parents... or our kids. There's not enough money to do both.

The Internet to the rescue. Since a hospital operating room has to be kept super-clean, the old method was to scrub it religiously. But if a robot could use high-energy wavelengths to clean it in three minutes, why not substitute an Internet-connected method to let the chief of surgery know when it's safe to reuse? And if this $100,000 robot could do that, couldn't it clean my mother-in-law's house? Certainly a lower-cost version; certainly a shared resource. UberRobot to the rescue. Or give her an automated tool that registers when she took her meds; not an easy task when she takes 10 different ones -- some in the morning, some at night, and some twice a day.

And since your kids have obviously inherited your brains, couldn't an online university that has both prestige (Leland Stanford Junior College?) and lower costs make it, especially if it could combine videos and interactivity? Couldn't we clone the professor, not unlike Madden NFL, and have a Siri-like expert quiz the students? You betcha.

One very good reason: We're running out of money, not technology. Furthermore, while some of us are going to be supporting our aging parents, others of us realize that the ol' folks not only have the money, but they also have the votes! When push comes to shove, they'll get their $145,000 per year drug because the politicians will cave, as they always do.

Right now, Netflix and YouTube account for about 50% of downstream network capacity in peak hours, 44% upstream. So what? What happens when 50% of America's 110 million homes have 1-Gbps service? What happens when bandwidth is essentially free? And the Internet of Things such as robots and pills and courses are connected?

They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. When the need is great, the technologists will combine seemingly random solutions to solve the problems.

They say you can't go around twice. How do they know? They say you can't take it with you. Why not send it ahead and have it waiting for you? (FedEx, are you listening?)

In fact, with the Internet you can live (almost) forever.

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About the Author(s)

Howard Anderson

Senior Lecturer, Harvard Business School

Howard Anderson is on the faculty of the Harvard Business School. He was the founder of the Yankee Group and co-founder of Battery Ventures. He attempts to keep his rampant skepticism from morphing into galloping cynicism, a battle he seems to be losing.

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