The elderly will power the jobs of the future? Impossible, right?

Sounds preposterous. Wouldn’t the jobs of the future be powered by the generations of the young and the able – armed with cutting edge AI technology, and cloud computing, guzzling on micro-nutrients and bullet proof coffee? The elderly is the past, and the young are the future. So if you are still intrigued, read further if you want to know how walking sticks and wheelchairs will drive the economy.

A few days back, I received a LinkedIn message from a friend with whom I hadn’t spoken to for over 15 years. He is a serial entrepreneur based in New York, and with young kids. I would, therefore, imagine that he is a very busy person. Which is why, probably, his message was as minimalist as Hemingway’s writing. One of the two lines he wrote was about the elder care company I had co-founded. His message read.

“I see that you have founded an elder care company in India –Great demographics.

The two words, “Great Demographics’, caught my eye. And when I introspect, I realise that big statistics surrounding senior/elder care is what defines the sector today. These big numbers are thrown around, both by journalists and experts. And I must admit, I too have used a few occasionally. A few examples of these statistics are given below.

Seniors comprise 1 in 10 of the population of India – that makes it about 100 million seniors.
This will grow to 1 in 6 in (X) years. This ‘X’ ranges from 15 to 30 years as most of us in the industry have lost the source of the information, but directionally it seems correct.
It’s a USD 4 Billion industry in India, growing by 20%. Comparatively the market size in the US is about USD 450 Billion.
In 2 years, there will be more people over 65 in the world than kids below the age of 5.
In Japan, there are more adult diapers sold than baby diapers.

If you read the same statistics, you can see why someone, especially with a business/entrepreneurship background, would say, “Great demographics”.

Great Demographics indeed– but nothing in the horizon

5 years back when my business partners and I ventured into this sector, we fundamentally believed that there were severe unmet needs in this sector. How big it was, we didn’t know. We did attempt to extrapolate from our limited research, but the actual market dynamics were so primitive, that we just didn’t see the USD 4 Billion market.

And why would that be the case? In any industry/market, you would expect to see the underlying infrastructure, and eco-systems that bring together a market. For example in Banking, you see large banks and exchanges, and business schools churning out bankers. And in the the hotel industry, it’s the hotels, restaurants, logistics, procurement, and catering institutes churning out chefs and waiters.

Primitive infrastructure – little progress

But in the senior care sector, there was very little. There were a large number of tiny providers, mushrooming in the back alleys near railway stations, and operating in a twilight cash economy. They had no modern tools in training caregivers, or managing the elders. Not surprisingly, the products offered to the elderly hadn’t changed from the time of Florence Nightingale!

Everyone wanted to jump ship

To see the big demographics, you would necessarily need to have a birds eye view. In comparison, we were stuck in the everyday tasks and all we could see were elderly patients needing help, and how the lack of infrastructure and processes were impacting service levels.

We also experience another statistic – the world has a huge gap in regards to care givers. It was extremely difficult to get trained elder care and nursing assistants. The few people who worked in people’s home all wanted to jump ship and work elsewhere – an hospital, or a shop floor. And there was no one with the market knowledge we could hire to help us.

We didn’t have a moment to bask in the knowledge that the demographics were great.

Building a canoe, and investing in an CRM

We knew we had a uphill task – build the infrastructure to service the elderly, and simultaneously provide consistent and good service. Like Thor Heyerdahl, we too started building the Kon-tiki to cross the ocean, and take as passengers a whole boatload of elderly people.

Our first job was to create a growing group of General Duty Assistants to care for the elderly. We rented hostels for them to live in. We trained supervisors and coordinators to manage every elder home. And we built a logistics infrastructure to ensure that we have compliance on visits and care provisioning. Service protocols were put into place, and a technology platform was built to monitor all parts of care. Apps for the care managers were designed to aid in care provisioning. And we built Apps too for the children of the elderly to make the care provisioning transparent.

We harnessed all our knowledge of working in MNCs around the globe to put this boat into the turbulent ocean – at a fraction of the cost that it would have cost in any large company.

Marshalling the team

Today, we have a much better view of the sector. We have created a great bunch of people who understand the demographics. When we hired them, they had background in sales of liquor, milk and welding equipment. Today they are battled hardened veterans of elderly care, unfazed by the most difficult emergencies. We hired a back-stage manager, with the skills to run a theatrical production effectively. She now coordinates the back office of the largest elder care company of Eastern India. Women who were too shy to talk to strangers are now marshalling hordes of care givers to people’s homes, and taxi company executives are running logistics.

Building a Pyramid

When we started, the only jobs that existed in this sector were at the bottom of the pyramid – actually the industry only had a bottom. The top of the pyramid never existed. The most basic care provisioning jobs were being done by illiterate maids or ayahs, often because that was the only job they would get.

Today, we not only have standardised protocols and training for this group, we have also created cohorts of care coordinators and care managers – all college graduates. Back office executives are trained on the CRM platform and Microsoft PowerBi is being used to better monitor the day to day aspects of care. At last the higher echelons of the non-existent pyramid has started forming.

The fruits of the labour

Creating an industry almost from scratch, in a sector that is crying for professionalism, gives me, and if I can speak on behalf of my business partners too, a sense of immense happiness. When I wake up every morning to get to work, I don’t ever think of it as a chore. But what makes work even better is when you realise that there are three other by products of our endeavour.

1. Jobs created – where none existed

One, we created jobs where nothing existed. There was an unfulfilled need in the market, and we created a service that directly helped the elders and their next of kin. Consequently we could create care coordinator jobs and back office staff, along with logistics and IT professionals.

2. Care is a calling

Two, care giving is a calling. Unlike being an economist or a banker or BPO consultant, care giving has a sense of compassion and gratitude interwoven into it. While I respect all professions, I still think that there is a difference in selling liquor, or high fructose snacks that encourage diabetes, with that of care giving.

I know that almost all the people that we hire, are those who are actively predisposed to care giving. As a result I have team members who actually enjoy talking to the elderly and the infirm. They know that they can make a difference to people’s lives. I feel good just knowing that we have been able to create well paying jobs for those who have a different calling in life.

3. Work-Life balance especially for women employees

Three, our jobs provide the flexibility to balance work and personal lives better. Therefore its not uncommon for our care givers to meet with elderly members in the morning, then go home for a bit to tend to their own chores, and get back to meeting with elderly members in the afternoon or evening. Thanks to the connected world we live in, a large part of our care givers has moved to working remotely. A further benefit is that this has helped many of our female employees, who form the larger part of our workforce, I am happy to add.

The seniors and the elders – The Great Demographics

So why have I asked the question on whether the elders and seniors, indeed, are the Great Demographics, who could power the next wave of jobs?

Yes, we know that elder care is relevant and important. To answer this question, we don’t need an opinion or a blog. Using David Ogilvy as inspiration, we know that the elderly person is your mother, or in a few decades, it’s going to be your wife, or you. So yes, elderly care is absolutely important.

However, to answer the question on whether the seniors are the Great Demographics and will power the jobs of the future, we have to rely on our basic knowledge of Artificial Intelligence and how AI will change the world.

Huge Senior population + Birth of AI = Huge Change

So how are seniors relevant to the young, and all the people on Linkedin who are reading this. I read a book called AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, by Kai-Fu Lee. Great book and a must read. Lee has quoted research saying that Artificial Intelligence will take away a lot of the jobs as we know it. More alarmingly, we will feel this effect in our generation – 15 to 20 years and not 50 years.

AI will polarise the world – the Thinkers and the Carers.

As a result of this tremendous job shift, the only jobs Lee reckons that will remain, are the brainy research-based jobs, or any job that will directly touch people. In the latter category, one such job that will remain will be Elder care. Your elderly mother will still need someone to help her to the bathroom, much to her annoyance…

The Fully formed Pyramid

Lee also talks about the elder care sector evolving – with professionals who are as highly regarded and well paid as their counterparts in other sectors.

I feel strongly that Lee is spot on in his assessment on the elder care sector getting upgraded. In the few years I have been working in this sector, I have been instrumental in making a few of those changes myself. As I said before, the top of the pyramid has started forming due to the work that my team and others are doing. And yes, there are others who are doing some good work too and thinking about elder care in very structured ways.

Further, there are other sectors that will grow. I mostly speak about senior care in this note, but when you add the other non-care facets of senior living, such as senior recreation, senior finance, senior safety, and so on, there can be many job types forming around this Great Demographics.

Powering the jobs of the Future

To conclude, in my vision of the elder care sector in India, I can see that the senior/elder snow ball has started rolling, and it is a matter of time before it gathers momentum and changes the very landscape of care provisioning of the elderly in India and the world. This will happen with or without AI.

But with the tremendous upheaval that AI, heralded as the new electricity, will bring, it seems certain that there would be huge displacements in jobs. Large swaths of BPO and repetitive jobs will be sucked in by the AI tsunami. This will free up a lot of people, especially for those who find pride in caring, but today have little opportunity in finding well paying jobs in the compassionate sector. These people will finally be able to do what they like, and be the driving force to find innovative solutions for the seniors. After all the senior will comprise of 20% of the population in the next few decades.

The unlikely prediction, that wheelchairs and walking sticks will drive the jobs of the future is a surety – as sure as old age and death.

Before you know it, the rickety canoe will have been transformed, first into a boat, but quickly to a huge ship which would need a platoon of people – the semi-skilled and the skilled, the medical and the paramedical, the technologist and the thinker, all with one objective. To assist the elderly, preserve jobs and propel this ship forward.

This ship is set to sail…

PS: I have used the word ‘industry’, ‘market’ and ‘sector’ interchangeably when I talk of the Senior/Elder care market. Some people I have met do not like to call it that, just like they don’t like to call education a business. But my reasoning is if you use euphemistic language to describe something, it will always be on the fringes. To make something mainstream, it is best to bring it out in the open, and display it for what it is. In my own way to make peace with all, I would probably start calling it the Great Demographics going forward. 

 Topics/Books mentioned

  1. AI superpowers china, silicon valley and the new world order, By Kai-Fu Lee
  2. Microsoft PowerBi – A wonderful Analytics tools for startups especially
  3. Tribeca Care – The Elder/Senior Startup in India

Great Expectations

about the

Great Demographics

in creating the

Great Pyramid