“I live with my old brother, he has 23 years,” says a nervous Brazilian girl sitting at a library computer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “Instead of saying, ‘he has 23 years,’ you could say ‘he is 23 years old,’” says Susan, a brightly smiling 84-year-old American woman. Susan is sitting at a computer too, but she’s in the United States, thousands of miles away from the Brazilian girl.
Welcome to the collaborative (sharing) economy, which is an economic system of decentralized networks and marketplaces that unlock the value of underused assets by matching needs and haves, in ways that often bypass traditional institutional middlemen. FCB Brazil’s Speaking Exchange project, which is how Susan and her Brazilian friend correspond, is just one of thousands of examples available to anyone with Internet access, including older adults.
Peer-to-peer travel accommodation marketplaces, such as the sharing economy poster child Airbnb, are connecting travelers in need of a place to stay to those who can offer them temporary accommodations. Retired people can become bed-and-breakfast owners almost instantaneously. The oldest person renting out his vehicle to neighbors on peer-to-peer car-sharing marketplace Snappcar is 80 years old. Research in Amsterdam proved that many of its older citizens are willing to engage in this new economy, even though they have not tried it yet.
It is fair to state that older adults today are already a part of the sharing economy. Currently, there is a growing number of online marketplaces specifically geared toward this population. Think of Browncow, which connects retired business professionals to start-ups in need of their expertise. Locally, there are many platforms matching people who are willing to teach something to those willing to learn in a peer-to-peer manner. And there are developments around personal and professional care, connecting those in need to neighbors willing to help out. A great example is the meal-sharing platform Shareyourmeal, which connects home cooks active in this marketplace to people that are no longer able to cook for themselves.
Even though older people are not usually early adopters of new innovations, they are particularly well-equipped to join in the movement. There are three main reasons why: 1) older people tend to be “asset heavy,” meaning they usually have acquired a lot of possessions they rarely use that could be shared with others; 2) they have a wealth of underutilized but valuable knowledge and experience; and 3) they are often already familiar with a sharing economy. Many people age 60 and older grew up in a time and location where a sharing economy was a way of life. Indeed, in many ways web-based technologies are bringing back behaviors that were common for centuries, but now take place on a scale that was never possible before (TEDx Botsman, 2010).
The number one challenge is to connect this age group to the collaborative (sharing) economy. Sometimes it will be best to use an intermediary to connect needs and haves, sometimes it will be necessary to just teach people how to use these online marketplaces, and many times both teaching and connecting methods will be necessary. Thus, it is essential to not forget to teach people about important trust mechanisms.
Obviously, many of the marketplaces described in this article require trust between strangers, another hallmark of the collaborative (sharing) economy. This is a general challenge for all involved, but is extra relevant for those who are more vulnerable. Luckily, and in contrast to the offline sharing economy, people can find out upfront with whom they will be conducting transactions. Instead of the “offline hitchhiker” anonymity factor of the past, today you can actually read the profile and reviews of the person you’ll be sharing a car ride with. This pre-vetting of sorts is another key ingredient of this economy’s rebirth.
The number-one takeaway is that the whole concept of older people and the accompanied stigma starts to fade as this generation is enabled to add value to society. Imagine your grandfather connecting to his neighborhood by lending his equipment through Peerby.com, staying in the home of a Spanish couple when on holiday through Airbnb, helping out young entrepreneurs through Browncow, teaching his native language by conversing online with high school students from around the world, or in person with local students through Konnektid—and afterwards enjoying a fresh meal delivered from a neighbor through Shareyourmeal. This is just a snapshot of the available opportunities. With the number of people age 60 and older growing at a rapid pace (exceeding the 2 billion mark by 2050), these opportunities to connect our older adults to meaningful community opportunities is well-worth pursuing.
About the author
Pieter van de Glind is a co-founder of shareNL, the Dutch knowledge and network organization for the collaborative economy. He graduated from Utrecht University, concentrating his studies on the consumer potential of collaborative consumption. His research findings have been presented and applied in the Netherlands and abroad. Van de Glind is a frequent speaker and author of SHARE together with shareNL co-founder Harmen van Sprang. He appears regularly in the media and is an advisor to various industries, ministries, cities, the EU, and international organizations such as the OECD. He consults on the topics of the collaborative and sharing economy and works alongside international opinion leaders. For more information, visit shareNL.nl or contact Pieter directly at Pieter@sharenl.nl.