Would you like to lose $60B or $36B?

Well, I’d like to lose neither but Americans did lose both last year – whether from tax-payer funds dedicated to senior citizens, or private wealth of seniors saved over a lifetime of work.

fraud

These numbers may be much higher given that elderly victims of fraud don’t report the crime.

In order to get ahead of this pandemic, it’s important to understand why aging Americans are targeted, how extortion happens, and why current solutions may not be effective.

1. Aging Americans make an excellent target

A few simple reasons:

  1. There are many aging Americans & they have lots of money: If you think of agingpopulationfraud as a business and do customer segmentation to find the highest ROI segment, you’ll quickly realize that individuals over 65 are the largest growing demographic in the U.S. And unlike the millennials, this customer segment has a massive amount of private wealth in retirement savings, private pension, and home equity (median savings of $260K).
  2. Aging Americans are the key to a massive pot of public gold: Medicare, Social Security, and parts of Medicaid are dedicated public programs for individuals over 65. Therefore stealing the identity of an American over 65 (or leveraging their health and needs) is worth a lot of public money. Medicare alone spent $672B in 2016 on healthcare for individuals over 65.
  3. Individuals who live alone are more susceptible to fraud: As we age, many of us end up living alone (40%+ of individuals over 65 live alone). This creates a feeling of vulnerability, and an inability to seek council from a trusted partner who is in close proximity.
  4. Cognitive decline makes for easy exploitation: The 13% of Americans over 65 who have some form of cognitive decline are an easy prey and can be confused into handing over their assets and power of attorney to a fraudulent caregiver.

2. Scams come in all shapes and sizes

As expected, human creativity is at it’s best when there’s a large expected payoff. The list below is by no means exhaustive but a good sampling of common types of fraud used against America’s aging population.

medicarefraud

With Medicare fraud, one might think that there’s no direct impact on the individual since this is theft from public funds. That’s incorrect. Medicare doesn’t offer unlimited coverage. If an individual is covered for one procedure, and a fraudster has already claimed it, then the individual will likely not get Medicare coverage for this procedure when they actually need it. Also, there are no consumer protections with Medicare fraud and people can get into legal trouble even if their Medicare ID is stolen and abused by someone else.

medicarefraud_001Finally, the more fraud within Medicare, the less resources are available for other forms of public assistance.

Why doesn’t private health insurance have such high fraud rates?

Because Medicare is legally bound to process claims within 30 days of filing. This limit is not imposed on private health insurance providers. Legacy systems and lack of efficient data flow combined with a 30 day cycle means Medicare can only check 1.8% of all claims filed for fraud.


heartscams

 

Many older individuals experience loneliness. Over 40% live alone. The need for human connection and affection can override caution. These scams are also the least likely to get reported since there’s shame associated with being tricked by someone in exchange for love. Also, in cases where the manipulation is coming from a caregiver (family member or professional), the power dynamic makes it unsafe to report the fraud.


productsscam

3. Existing mechanism are not working

Despite there being lots of literature available on this topic, elderly fraud is on the rise and represents 5M individuals every year. There are public and non-profit hotlines to report scam, but awareness and market penetration is low. Harvard University predicts that only 1 in 40 scams is ever reported by an aging individual. So why aren’t the existing systems working?

  1. Shame: In order to protect individuals from fraud, we can’t just take a logical approach. We have to account for the tremendous shame that people feel when they discover they have been duped. Much like other forms of abuse, victims blame themselves for it.
  2. Fear of giving over the reigns: Very often individuals fear that if they share their story with a younger family member, they will be judged and deemed unfit to live independently.
  3. Post, not pre: While there are several public and volunteer services where scams can be reported after they have happened, there are no scaled out solutions where an individual can ask a trusted professional if some unusual activity in their lives could result in a scam.
  4. I didn’t know myself: Medicare and Social Security fraud often goes unnoticed for a long time because people don’t review their medical claims – it’s tedious and irrelevant to their day to day life – until it’s not, and by then it’s too late.
  5. Too much information, not enough help: The nature of scams evolves rapidly. In order to stay on top of it, people are expected to do ongoing research and remain informed. Imagine if we expected every computer user to know everything about every computer virus out there, because that was the only way to stay protected. It just wouldn’t work.

In order to protect individuals from scams, we need to learn from the tactics of scammers since they’re so effective. Scammers understand the psychology of their victims, and leverage human connection and technology effectively to manipulate them.

Any solutions to combat this threat should consider doing the same.

 

Are aging Americans rolling in money or struggling?

The answer is, both.

financialstateThe wealth of aging Americans is a highly politicized issue because they’re a critical voting demographic. There is “research” suggesting there’s no aging crisis, and counter “research” suggesting that Social Security is bankrupt and aging Americans are doomed unless there’s government intervention. I’ve tried to read as many conflicting news sources and data-sets as possible, and looked at key financial inputs/outputs to get a picture of the financial standing of Americans over 65.

1. The 50/50 rule applies

While the median net worth of individuals over 65 is around $260k, there’s a wide variance. 20% of seniors in America are wealthy. They have large nest eggs comprising diversified investments. They are time rich and money rich. The next 30% are comfortable and can maintain a high quality of life while spending down effectively. This demographic is vulnerable to unanticipated health events but not at risk at large.

networth

The bottom 50% of the population is vulnerable (to varying degrees), unable to meet life expenses and highly vulnerable in case of sharp health decline.

Further analysis of age cohorts within the 65+ group shows that the Silent Generation (now in their 80s – born between 1925-1942) has 1.3x the net wealth of the early Baby Boomers. In turn early Baby Boomers have more wealth than late Baby Boomers. This declining trend of wealth continues so as we think to the future, solutions for the middle and lower deciles will be more applicable.

2. Sources of income vary by wealth

Net wealth is a great big picture assessment of individuals’ financial well-being. In addition, it’s also important to understand monthly income. This may come from an individual’s existing wealth (i.e. IRAs, 401k, rental properties etc.) or from sources that would not show up in their net wealth (e.g. Social Security, assistance from family members). As before, there are 2 distinct pictures – one for the wealthy quintile and one for everyone else. Individuals over 65 who are in the top quintile rely heavily on earnings (from jobs, savings accounts) and asset income. Individuals in the bottom quintile are highly dependent on social security.

topbottomincome.png

Counter to popular belief, Americans that are working longer are more likely to belong to the top quintile and not the bottom one. This also explains the difference in reliance on earnings for monthly income. A huge opportunity exists in mobilizing individuals to work longer and reduce their reliance on social security. This may lead to higher quality of life and less dependence on government support.

3. Homes represent wealth, but also financial burden

homeowners

Most Americans over 65 own their homes and a majority have paid off their mortgages. This explains why many older Americans have low housing expenses (typically these are property taxes and home insurance).

For home owners who have not paid off their mortgage by the time they reach 65, home expenses are very high and represent the lion’s share of monthly cash outflow. The ~30% of older Americans who are renters tend to fare better but are also the lowest income group overall.

rentalexpense

For the 55% of older Americans who either rent or have a mortgage, house expenses are a big burden on monthly income.

homownership

In addition, for individuals that own homes (with or without mortgage), home equity represents a large percentage of total wealth and this wealth cannot be put towards paying for life expenses. While home equity loans and reverse mortgages are available, they are not favorable for home owners, and difficult to setup, which explains low adoption rates.

homeequity

4. Spending changes but doesn’t decrease

This is a common myth – people spend less money as they retire and age. Several research papers in the 1990s posit this. However new research (as of 2016) paints a more detailed picture.

Spending does change as individuals leave the work force and enter into a time-rich period of their lives. However it does not decrease in absolute terms. In many categories, it actually increases. This is directly related to income replacement rate after retirement to sustain a similar quality of life.

hhincome

After retirement, there’s a noticeable decline in individuals spending on food (in home and out of the home), transportation and clothing. Transportation and clothing spend is directly tied to work-place activities like daily commute, business travel, and diversity in work attire. Decline in food spend is a little less obvious, especially given that food consumption does not decline. The explanation is that retired individuals are time-rich and take pleasure in preparing food from scratch. Instead of purchasing pre-made meals or the hot food bar at the grocery store, they shift their spend towards buying fresh vegetables, meats and fruit.

likesdislikes

In contrast to these declining categories, the following categories of spend increase relative to pre-retirement years:

  • Entertainment (including gambling, hobbies, recreational activities and classes, watching movies and TV shows)
  • Charitable donations and spend on community causes
  •  Utilities and housing services

It is also important to note that all retirement wealth quartiles experience these shifts in spend behavior, however the lowest quartile has the sharpest decline in food, transportation and clothing spend.

The only exception to this overall shift in spending is in households that retired involuntarily. Usually this is the result of a sudden change in health, or being laid off. In these households there are dramatic declines in spending across most categories.

5. The truth about the dreaded health care bill

Americans over 65 site healthcare costs as their top concern about the future. This concern impacts their feelings of readiness for retirement, decisions about how long to stay in the work force, as well as how to spend down their savings.

Most senior citizens are covered by Medicare (the federal program that provides healthcare coverage to aging Americans).  If this is comprehensive, what are Americans worried about?

Three factors to consider:

  1. Home care is not health care: Medicare only covers health care costs. Home care (i.e. assistance with eating, transferring out of bed, bathing, eating) is the result of declining health but does not classify as health care. Therefore it must be paid for out-of-pocket or via long term care insurance (which most individuals don’t have).
  2. Gaps in Medicare coverage: Medicare coverage has gaps (many of which seem unpredictable to individuals using Medicare) and must be paid for with Medigap insurance or out-of-pocket.
  3. Policy and politics: Healthcare policy is a heavily politicized topic in the U.S. and perceived as unreliable because it’s dependent on which party is in power.

Lower-wealth aging Americans tend to have higher medical expenses than their wealthy counterparts, and a larger portion of their medical expenses is covered by the government (through Medicare and Medicaid).

medicalspend

Medical spending is also concentrated, with the top 5% (by total expenditure) accounting for 35% of total medical spending. The average annual spend for an individual within this top 5% is $98,000, which is 7x the overall average of $14,000 per year.

Health care expenses also double between the age of 70, and the age of 90. The last 3 years of life account for around 15% of the total healthcare cost incurred on an individual after 65.

Opportunities

There’s been a lack of energy in designing products and services for aging Americans because of beliefs that they don’t have the disposable income or wealth to be a lucrative demographic. The numbers suggest otherwise. At the high end of the wealth spectrum, there are opportunities to create tailored experiences for entertainment, gaming, managing investments, life enrichment activities and experiences. In the middle of the spectrum, there are opportunities to make individuals’ wealth work for them (whether that is equity in their homes, or leveraging social security at the right time and compensating with employment). At the low end of the wealth spectrum there are opportunities to leverage communities to make up for gaps in wealth, perhaps trade in services rather than cash.

Other posts on aging

Aging in America – At a glance

Aging in America – Where is home?

Aging in America – The aging workers of America

The aging workers of America

This is the 3rd post in an 8 part series on the topic of aging.

Work is an integral part of our adult lives. Not only does it provide the financial means to support ourselves, it also occupies the largest part of our day, often representing a thriving community, a place for learning, and a sense of meaning and self-worth. But as we age, the question of “Should I retire?” comes up. It’s a tricky question to answer with many factors of consideration, which are explored in this post.

workchoices

#1: Americans are working longer

When confronted with the “Should I retire?” question, many Americans are choosing the employment path for longer as evidenced by these numbers from Pew Research Center.

workingamericans

retirementageWhile retirement age is increasing for both genders, it is more significant in males. Although less than 45% of the total 65+ population are men, they represent more than 55% of older workers. Within the male population Asian Americans and White Americans are more likely to work longer than other racial/ethnic groups.  

retirementbystate

 

#2: White collar professionals work longer

Management, sales and office administration represent the top 3 areas of employment for older individuals.

employmentbysector

This ranking looks different if we consider older individuals as a percentage of the total number of people in specific role types.

percentemployed

#3 Older employees will be the fastest growing segment of the work force for the next 10 years

Due to lower birth rates and slower immigration rates among other factors, the overall U.S work force is growing slowly, at a rate of 0.5%. However the older work force is growing at a rate of 1.8%. This can be attributed to the tidal wave of baby boomers as well as government incentives to postpone retirement. Combine these two trends and it’s evident that the % of older workers as a % of all workers will continue to rise – from 19% currently to almost 30% by 2060.

rising

rise

#4 Working longer can be advantageous for all

Postponing retirement and participating in the work force can be advantageous for the individual and also for the economy. From the individual’s perspective, there are three key benefits to consider:

  1. Income & Social Security: Full eligibility for social security benefits kicks in at age 67, but individuals can start receiving it at age 62. If they opt for this, they get 70% of the benefit each month.  This can be significantly impact their quality of life in the last 20+ years. In parallel, life expectancy is on the rise and most individuals need every extra dollar they can generate as income and put towards retirement planning to cover for health and home care costs.
  2. Health insurance: Medicare typically kicks in at age 65 (with some exceptions). If individuals decide to retire earlier than this, they have to get private insurance to cover health care costs. Premiums for private insurance can run high since it’s a cost driver for insurance companies and individuals cannot benefit from group rates.
  3. Personal well-being: While studies remain conflicted on the impact of retirement on physical & mental health (some suggesting that individuals are 40% more likely to get a stroke within the first year of retirement, others suggesting that the use of anti-depressants and anxiety medication drops after retirement), it’s universally accepted that transitioning from full-time work to no-work is a stressful experience and unless it’s considered a process rather than an event, it negatively impacts  one’s sense of community, routine and purpose.

The government has been encouraging individuals working longer both through legislation (like the Age Discrimination in Employment Act) and incentives (moving the Social Security eligibility from 65 to 67 years). This is beneficial because:

  1. U.S. dependency ratios are on the rise, which creates pressure on government programs as well as working citizens. By encouraging the aging population to work, their dependence on the other constituents declines.

dependency_ratio

2. The longer individuals participate in the economy, the more they can contribute to government programs like Social Security. While Social Security has $3 trillion in reserves today, 2018 is the first year it had to dip into the trust to cover costs. It is expected that by 2034 this reserve will be depleted, at which point eligible individuals will receive 75% of their benefits instead of the full 100% today. About 60.5 million individuals receive Social Security benefits today and this number will rise to approximately 80 million over the next 20 years.

#4 Yet, most individuals do not work to eligible retirement age

Even though older individuals are working longer, more than two thirds are out of the work force by age 66. This increases to 85% by age 75.

age

#5 Ageism is rampant

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act forbids workplace discrimination against anyone 40 years or older. However many sources suggest that ageism is rampant in corporate America, and incredibly hard to prove. This makes it difficult for individuals to retain their jobs after they turn 50, to find new jobs if they are terminated or decide to leave, and get promotions or rewards within a current job. ageismIn a mass scale study with 40,000 job applications across 12 cities in 11 states, resumes were submitted for 3 types of jobs. The resumes were identical except for the applicant age and gender. The results highlighted 3 key points:

  1. Older applicants had a significantly lower callback rate than younger applicants
  2. Older female applicants were discriminated against more than any other candidate group
  3. Callback rates were lowest for the oldest age group, followed by the middle age group

 

ageism-a

#6 The ideal job

After conducting 60+ interviews with individuals over 55, I have crafted traits of the ideal job based on what I’ve heard.

  1. Part-time – 15 – 25 hours a week instead of high-stress 50 hours a week
  2. Flexibility – ability to set my one’s own hours, work from home and also come into the office, potential to take time off in the summer
  3. Engaging – The job is interesting, and leverages existing skills and intellect
  4. Learning – The job offers opportunities to learn new skills
  5. Giving back – An avenue to help others who are earlier in their career
  6. Dignity in the hiring process – The hiring process doesn’t insult their decades of experience by asking questions one would ask a college hire
  7. Connection – There are opportunities to talk to other people and lightly collaborate
  8. Compensation – There is some (not market rate) financial compensation associated with the work
  9. Healthcare benefits – There is an option to leverage group rates for health insurance, even if it means the individual is paying out of pocket

Parting thoughts

It is in our collective best interest to re-think the cliff that is Retirement. Instead of a precipitous fall, perhaps we can craft a glide path for willing older individuals such that they can continue to participate in the work force in traditional and new types of roles, generating income for themselves and adding value to the economy. There are also opportunities to offer the skills of older white-collar Americans in an international marketplace. Finally, employers need to update benefits and employee programs to account for a workforce that is 30% 65 years and older.

Other posts on aging

Aging in America – At a glance

Aging in America – Where is home?

Aging in America – Are Aging Americans rolling in money or struggling?

Aging in America: where is home?

This is the second post in an 8 part series on aging in America. In this post, I will explore the concept of “home” as individuals age. Before data diving, I want to share that one of the top two things I’ve heard from the 56 individuals I’ve interviewed is their strong desire and intention live independently forever, ideally in their current home. If that’s not possible, then a smaller and more age-appropriate home, but their domain nonetheless.

Here are the 7 lesson’s I’ve learned about housing:

#1: There are many housing options available, but have low uptake

Other can traditional home ownership or renting options, there are many housing options for aging individuals, each type differentiating on the cost/level-of-assistance/level-of-community dimensions from others.

Picture1

smallpercentage

I’ll pick out two to illustrate the spectrum.

  1. Continued Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs): This option offers clients aging-in-place. Residents start off by living independently in a house or apartment within the CCRC, with optional services like house-keeping. They make friends with neighbors and age together. As needs expand, clients get more assistance, eventually moving to a nursing home within the CCRC. This is one of the most expensive options, typically associated with a large upfront free (ranging from $250,000 to $1 million) and monthly charges ranging from $1000 – $10,000.
  2. Assisted Living: This option offers a semi-independent lifestyle to residents who need help with activities of daily living (bathing, dressing, medication management, transportation and meal services) and also have additional services available (housekeeping etc). The average cost is $3600 per month with variation based on quality and geography.

#2: Americans are aging in the homes they raised their kids in

whereamericanslive

While this pie chart looks different for the 65-75 age cohort and 75-85 cohort (with the latter representing higher shifts to assisted living and living in another family member’s home), these differences are small.

Other interesting facts to add color:

factsonhousing

Households run by someone over 65 are on the rise relative to total household increase

householdsinusa

americans2035


#3: Health changes can make aging at home challenging

Despite the rise of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes, Americans are living healthier lives. Still, physical disabilities steadily increase.  The most common disability among all aging sub segments is lack of mobility. This poses challenges in maintaining the house, cooking, cleaning and running errands etc.

health

There are two types of needs to consider:

  1. Health care – this includes medication, hospital bills, prescribed physical therapy, speech language pathology etc. Most of these expenses are paid for by Medicare and Medicaid, however there are gaps in coverage which are paid for out of pocket, or via supplementary insurance.
  2. Custodial/home care – this includes help with medication management, cooking, transportation, bill management etc. Most of these expenses are not covered my Medicare. Medicaid provides some coverage but is only available to individuals in poverty. Most of these expenses are paid for out of pocket, by an adult child or family member, or via long term insurance (however most individuals don’t have this coverage).

Single-individual households are most likely to need assistance and represent over 44% of the 65+ households.

homecareneed

 


#5: Financial liquidity and the desire to age at home can be at odds with each other

I’ll cover the complete financial picture of individuals over 65 in a subsequent post. Needless to say, there’s a massive need for home and health care, and a large portion of it must be paid for out of pocket. That’s where housing comes into focus.

Home equity represents a substantial percentage of the net wealth of individuals over 65. This trends downwards among wealthier individuals, who also have more dispensable income to spend on home care.

homeequity

Reverse mortgages offer home owners federally backed loans such that they can free up the equity in their homes without needing to sell their home and move. However they have incredibly high premiums, insurance costs, complexity of terms, and recently have made the news for litigation, which means equity is not being unlocked effectively for most households who need it.

Moving to a smaller home is potentially the most efficient way to unlock equity to pay for home and health care, but is perceived to be difficult and overwhelming.


#7: Within challenges exist opportunities

Many of my friends in the technology industry spend time thinking about defying age and out-living death. While that’s intellectually interesting, there are real needs today that need to be met. Every need presents an opportunity, every opportunity welcomes creators to find new and elegant solutions. I’ll share my personal heat map of opportunities as I look at aging and home ownership.

 

oppty

 

I hope you learned something new and it piqued your interest. The next post will be on employment after 60.

Other posts on aging

  1. Aging in America – At a glance
  2. The aging workers of America

Pulses of connection

Two parallel streams of thought, combined into one post.

Stream 1: Perception

aaFor the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring the concept of perception – how our brains choose to take specific sensory stimuli and perceive meaning from them. For instance, when I try to perceive my friend, Samantha, I recall the blueness of her eyes, the prosody of her voice, the way she moves her hands. In doing a similar exercise with my top fifty people, I realize that for over 40% of them, my primary perception of them is digital – the specific spelling mistakes they make, the way they use emojis, how quickly they respond to my IMs, whether they use capital letters or not, their name spelled out as I see the “H is typing…” on Whatsapp.

 

Stream 2: Transience of friendships

I’ve beaten myself up over being a fickle person, especially when it comes to friendships. People that were incredibly important 20 years ago are entirely forgotten now. Batches of friends have come and gone, each one more promising than the next, yet the story often ends the same way. I understand this logically. When we share a context like school or work, not only do we have a lot in common to bond over, we’re also co-located, which makes spending time together quite easy. Once the context changes (as it must), investment increases and return declines, and our internal capitalist walks away, letting the relationship die on the vine.

A new type of friendship

The merge of these two streams is the recognition of an entirely new type of friendship – i.e. relationships formed in the physical world but almost entirely transitioned to the digital world. Friends from prior places of work, or school, or a random meeting in a foreign country,  are now comfortably settled in a snug spot on Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp.

I have observed that I “text message” approximately 300 times a day. I call BS on phones leading to personal disconnection. I am connected all day, in the best way possible, with friends who would otherwise probably be non-friends because of lack of shared context. The ease of being able to have a pulse of connection in the middle of the day, after a stressful meeting, in the loo whilst taking a shit, in the Starbucks line, lights up my entire day.

Our conversations are deep and wide, funny and vulnerable. The 2D nature of this medium makes for more honest conversations, more silly conversations, more flexible conversations.

Here’s a sampling from my phone over the last month, just to make the point more obvious.

Conversation 1: Right after an insanely boring meeting

A: “Check this out ”

2018-07-30_1123

A: “Hilarious but also looks like an expensive prank”

B: “How much is a dildo?”

A: “I’m guessing like $20 for a cheap one. Even if they found a bulk deal for $8, that’s over $100 in dildos”

B: “They should donate them to prison”

A: “Haha great idea”

B: “Where else could dildos be donated?”

A: “Convent?”

A: “All girls school?”

B: “They make park benches from recycled plastic. Why not make one with dildos?”

A: “Oh man, that’d be fun to sit on.”

B: “Vatican?”

A: “Vatican people would probably be happier if they accepted a shipment of dildos every once in a while”

B: “Stick to plastic penii instead of small boy penii? Definitely”

A: Smile.

B: Smile.

Conversation 2: While waiting at the airport

P: “I want money. All the money.”

Q: “Ok 😊”

P: “But in the meantime, please suggest some good books.”

Q: “What type of books are you in the mood for?”

P: “Books that are jolts to the heart.”

Q: “Scary jolts or sad jolts?”

P: “There are other types of jolts too.”

Q: “Like romance? Puke”

Conversation 3: While folding laundry

A: “I feel like I’m drowning”

B: “Ugh, I’m sorry”

Silence.

B: “When your mind is racing with thoughts and you feel like you’re drowning with sadness, there’s always a part of you that is observing you having this experience. This part of you is always quiet, always calm, just observing, not participating. It’ll remain alive as along as you do, and it will always be calm. Sometimes we have to reduce ourselves to this Observer to feel peace, to regroup, to find a way to wake up the next day and go at it again.”

Silence.

Silence.

A: “I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again”

B: “But can you find, create, and take notice of moments of joy?”

A: “Moments doing what?”

B: “Well…like watching Southern Charm, or eating cake”

A: Smile

Silence.

Conversation 4: While doing groceries in a pissed off mood

A: “My manager just doesn’t understand how to work with a Creative”

B: “What’s a Creative?”

A: “You know…like me…I’m a Creative.”

B: “What do you create?”

A: “That’s not important – I connect dots”

B: “What type of dots?”

A: “Just random stuff…it’s about the creative process.”

B: “Can you help me understand this process?”

A: “It’s different for everyone – sort of hard to explain if you’re not a Creative.”

B: “Ok. Perhaps I can understand it in terms of inputs/outputs. What is the the end-product of this process? A poem, a story, an animation, a document, code?”

A: “You sound like my manager.”

B: “I’m sorry.”

Silence.

A: “I should go.”

B: “Yeah, ok…hope you feel better.”

A: “Thanks.”

B’s inner rant on the drive home (guess what, B is me :-))

“When did Creative become a country, with citizenship restricted to rare unicorns that poop sparkles, and an immigration ban on the masses who are clearly too ordinary to understand a concept that can’t be described with any rational language.”

“Doesn’t creating an imaginary box, then labeling it with capital C Creative, then putting oneself in it fundamentally challenge the concept of creativity? Or have I been wrong this entire time that creativity denies and defies the existence of all boxes.”

“Even if I can be convinced to believe in the Creative, shouldn’t it be a requirement to create things if you are a Creative. Objects, physical or digital that others can interact with?”

“Is it pedestrian of me to think that Creativity without impact on the world is entirely narcissistic and a waste of human energy?”

Time for dinner.

Watch some Succession.

Let this day be over.

Phone buzzes.

oooh…Nadya just text, lemme see what’s up with her…

 

 

Where are we going, Amazon Go?

My coworkers and friends won’t stop talking about Amazon Go – how fast it is (once you justify the insanity of standing in line to get into the store), how easy it is (you don’t have to checkout or pay for anything, just grab and go), how wonderfully anti-social it is (you don’t have to make inconvenient eye contact with the old lady or the disabled guy at the till).

It bothers me.
It bothers me deeply.

Because I know the hype and excitement is dangerously true and sticky.  I know 10 years from now all grocery stores will be just like Amazon Go. Efficient models override inefficient ones, at least in a marginally “free” market. This efficiency can be passed on as savings to customers and profits to shareholders. It makes logical sense to follow this path paved by measurable positive impact on business and customer – the two Gods we worship in our corporate lives.

It angers me to hear my fellow hyper liberal braniac techsters talk about the progressive arc of our evolution. Mona, you’re over-reacting – of course there will be some “displacement” but new opportunities will be created and it’ll all work out in the end. Displacement. What a sterilized word to use when referencing people losing their jobs, their homes, and their self respect. It’s so convenient to hold this opinion as we buy $9 pasture raised eggs, obsess about personal growth and extoll the benefits of almond milk, antioxidants, LSD and charcoal.

The argument that it’ll all work itself out is the most lethargic reincarnation of trickle down economics I’ve ever encountered. We pride ourselves on being data oriented, having SMART (puke) goals. We obsess about measuring everything from quarterly goals to customer conversion to the hours of REM sleep we got to the % of fat in our butts. Yet when it comes to  examining the impact of our work on the community we exist in, somehow irrational optimism is more than sufficient.

Here’s the thing – I grew up in love with Ayn Rand. I still love her. My idealism for capitalism remains intact despite the disturbing trend of unchecked greed. I believe that once a human is satiated (though some of us seem to be infinitely gluttonous), she will become wise and create organizations, corporations that are as enlightened as she is. She will produce tremendous value in the world through her corporation and do it with complete freedom, and she will know the value of benefitting her community, her employees and her environment. She will truly know that ultimately we are all hopelessly entangled with one another, no matter how averse we are to making eye contact with a stranger when we buy eggs.

I envision 21st century corporations with triple bottom lines – to serve the shareholder, to serve society, to serve the environment. The same instruments at play with the one bottom line we all know and understand well, should be applied to the other two. Metrics, goals, ruthless prioritization, tradeoffs, and most importantly RESULTS.

We have enough compute and data collection to turn all our advances in machine learning and AI to model and predict social impact – it won’t be perfect, but it will be directionally more correct than “it’ll work itself out”. We have measures of carbon emissions and the same thought process can be applied to other aspects of environmental impact. Again, the measurements won’t be perfect but 1000x better than current state.

Governments are an old construct. They will die out just like manned grocery stores. Corporations are the new governments and the singular pursuit of the profit bottom line no longer passes the sniff test. So let’s ask our places of employment to go beyond philanthropy and the occasional gesture of courage and truly make the environment, and social impact the counter balancing bottom lines that each one of us is measured by and rewarded on.

In our mad rush to go wherever innovation takes us, let’s not forget to bring others with us. Let’s not arrive and only then realize that hopes, wishes and prayers don’t pave the path for progress for everyone; REAL plans, REAL goals, REAL results do.

 

No selfies please

Why does Kim Kardashian instagram naked selfies on a random Monday evening?

Why do we poo-poo the selfie culture and yet turn ourselves into circus monkeys with props in a photo-booth at some random party?

Why must we believe that the customer is always right when she’s just another flawed human being doing the best that she can?

Why are marketers spending billions of dollars trying to personalize customer experience?

Selfies, personalization, bespoke experiences, the cult of celebrity….where is this coming from?

I grew up in a culture where collective identity overrides individual identity. Your values are your family’s values, your choices are for the betterment of your family, not for the pursuit of your own vanity. You are not driven by passion. You are driven by duty. In turn, your family is part of a biradari (literal translation: brotherhood; liberal translation: community). Your family’s honor and respect are measured by how well it fulfills its duties towards the aunts and uncles that make up this community; every tea party, every family dinner, every wedding an opportunity to comply, an opportunity to affirm the norms of the brotherhood. In this culture, the pursuit of acceptance is the unsaid law of the land.

I resisted this culture the entire time I lived in Pakistan. My poor mother had to explain to her biradari why her twelve year old had an eye brow ring, didn’t attend weddings because she didn’t believe in the institution and picked fights with uncles over women’s rights. I recall reading Atlas Shrugged when I was 15, and feeling a tremendous sense of vindication and relief – there were others like me who believed in individual excellence and uninhibited individual expression through creation of value and beauty in the world.

Choosing to live in the U.S. wasn’t just an economic choice but a philosophical one. To me, it represented a culture where the individual is celebrated above all else. Parents encourage their children to find their own path and optimize for their own happiness. There is space and time to discover oneself and create value from that place of self-awareness. And it’s been all of those things for me.

And yet, over the last two years I’ve become aware of something corrosive that’s come along for the ride on this adventure of self-exploration and expression.

And that is self obsession. I see it in myself. I see it in my friends. I see it in my co-workers. I see it in random people I meet at social events.

My goals. My travel. My spirituality. My stress. My happiness. My story.

Somehow self-awareness morphed into navel gazing. Self-reflection became blatant narcissism.

I don’t think the answer lies in one culture or another. Both are essentially the same with the line of “Self” being drawn in a different place. The outcome I’d like to explore is to remain an individual with a strong sense of self, but with a purpose that’s Other-oriented, where Other is not just a connection of blood, love or money, but a connection of empathy that should exist between any two living beings.

This journey begins with creating awareness (with ruthless honesty) of who I am serving with my time, my energy and my money. Once that is apparent, the next step will be to make durable life changes to orient towards service of others as the core mission, while staying true to myself.

Very scary. And also feels exactly right.

P.S. And no selfies!