China

China's Big Tech goes for the Big Grey

There's a huge, growing, rich tech market finally being tapped: China's seniors. What can the West learn from early wins?

An older man looks at his phone while relaxing in People's Park in Shanghai.
LezlieN via Flickr

Fang Huiling, a 70-year-old retired worker from the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, considers herself a "techy" senior. Unlike many in her age group, Fang is active on social media, fluent in online shopping and is able to get around with ease using the digital wallets and codes required on subway and buses. Still, when she was traveling to southwestern China's Yunnan province last year, she had to ask her son to book a taxi for her remotely so that she could catch her flight. "I didn't even have a car-hailing app on my phone," Fang said. (The economical Fang, who usually takes a bus, hadn't realized the extent to which cabs had been replaced by apps like Didi Chuxing.)

Hundreds of millions of China's seniors — or the "silver hair economy" (银发经济) — face similar barriers as China rapidly morphs into a digitized society. As China ages and the tech industry struggles to find users who haven't been exposed to high tech, the elderly — a growing population with tremendous buying power — is becoming the next must-win market that elite tech cannot afford to leave behind.

Just last week, search engine Baidu pushed out an app with enlarged text and a streamlined interface for the older population. On Jan. 25, carpooling unicorn Didi rolled out Didi Care, which allows older users to hail taxis more easily.

China's government has also made its position clear. Last December, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced a year-long campaign to make nearly 160 websites and apps more accessible for the aging and the disabled. The State Council, China's Cabinet, issued a set of measures last November mandating improved technological accessibility for the elderly and encouraging the tech industry to create products compatible with the elderly population's needs and habits. By 2022, China says, it will find a way to close the elderly's "digital divide."

China has 255 million people 60 or older, 18% of the country's total population. By 2030, this age group will comprise one-fourth. During the COVID-19 pandemic, homebound elderly have been forced to digitize their lifestyles, spending more time on social media, news apps and ecommerce sites than ever before. In June 2020, 22.8% of China's 940 million internet users were aged 50 or older, up from 16.9% just three months prior and from 13.6% one year before. According to Beijing-based analytics firm QuestMobile, in 2020, netizens older than 50 spent an average of 136 hours online each month, surging 39% from 2017.

This is a population with larger consumer power than China's indebted Gen X and Millennials; as a group, they've accumulated tremendous wealth following the market reforms that started in the 1980s. A 2020 Alibaba report showed that customers older than 60 were more active on Taobao than other age groups, and the money they spent on Taobao increased nearly 21% over the past three years, a growth rate only second to that of Gen Z's.

'Banner year' for the 'elderly track'

"2021 is going to be a banner year for the silver hair track," said Duan Mingjie, CEO of AgeClub, a Beijing-based consulting firm focused on China's aging economy. (In China's tech industry, the word saidao (赛道), meaning track, is commonly used to describe a subsector.) Duan said three leading Chinese tech companies approached him after the central government came forward with elder-friendly policies to address the digital gap. "Large companies will speed up to enter the market in response to the government's call to launch relevant products and services," he told Protocol.

The elder tech boomlet began about five years ago when several smaller tech companies stumbled upon the large market. Tangdou, an app that teaches dancing to older women, has attracted millions of users and has raised $32 million since 2015, with a Series C funding round led by Tencent. Meipian, one of retired worker Fang's favorite apps, has made inroads in the elderly market by allowing users to edit and collage photos and share them on social media without having to write captions, which they don't like. That company now is worth more than $27 million.

Now, big tech is catching on to the fact that a population it's mostly ignored will be the biggest, and last, source of new users within Chinese border. Ecommerce giants JD.com and Taobao have rolled out apps tailored for the price-sensitive elderly in the past few years, promoting low-priced foods and household supplies as well as health care products targeted at seniors. ByteDance's Toutiao has optimized its news-aggregating app, adding a screen reader for the visually impaired. Short video platforms Kuaishou and Douyin have also acquired sizable elderly user bases by promoting influencers in the target age groups.

It's just a start. "The companies that recently tried optimizing apps for the elderly haven't deeply engaged with the population," Duan said. "They've just started exploring." Duan says American companies are lagging behind and can learn from Chinese tech by developing more tool-based products, such as Meipian, that breaks down the target audience's barriers to use via simplified interfaces and a streamlined function set.

Chinese banks have also rolled out special apps to serve the older population after realizing they make up the majority of the clients consuming their financial products. Government data shows that in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, 45% of China's urban elderly had savings accounts, each with an average savings of roughly $12,400. This is 25% higher than the 2020 average savings of all Chinese citizens.

One big caveat

Sociologists and economists generally support China's elder-friendly policy guidance and tech companies' attempts to cater to the silver market — after all, they're incorporating a much-neglected population into China's economic and digital life. But they are concerned that the profit-driven tech industry, one with often ageist internal cultures, may hurt the very population it is trying to serve.

"This can relieve a lot of isolation, the feeling of being left behind, to really combat that sense of loss as you get into an older age and this society is changing at a fast pace," Baozhen Luo, a sociologist researching aging policies at Western Washington University, told Protocol. The key, Luo says, is having a robust regulatory system in place to protect the elderly.

A 2018 study on the older adults' digital life conducted by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Tencent Research Institute shows that 67% of China's elderly have fallen victim to online scams. Luo also worries privacy problems can be exacerbated for seniors, some of whom are experiencing cognitive decline. "When profit becomes the sole purpose in a sector that is not properly regulated, humanistic values are thrown into the trash," Luo said. China's elderly have already felt vulnerable as the country transitioned into an ultra-competitive market-oriented economy from the socialist planned economy in which they grew up. Tech products catered to seniors offer tech the chance to avoid making the same mistake.

Fang, the retired worker, doesn't know much about privacy. She just looks forward to a more convenient late life. "If the tech companies can design more products that meet old folks' needs, with enlarged text, streamlined functions and simple design, that'd be wonderful."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Baozhen Luo's university affiliation. This story was updated Feb. 12 2021.

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins