Banking for the older old

Hospitals are not banks and so turning up at hospital for a routine operation with a shoebox of cash is probably not best advised. Then again, banks have not exactly covered themselves in glory over the last few years and so perhaps taking it with you is not that bad an idea after all. Nevertheless, carrying large amounts of cash around in this way reveals a certain set of attitudes towards money. The existence of it in physical form, as opposed to carrying it in the form of a debit card, suggests a certain contrarion disposition towards the banking and financial services infrastructures available in contemporary society. 

The anecdote about the shoe box stuffed with cash comes from a geriatrician and was revealed to Prof Andrew Monk a computer scientist and psychologist at York. He's recently launched a research project exploring financial services for the older old and I"m delighted to be involved (albeit in a marginal capacity) as Chair of the Advisory Panel on the project. It got a little peice in The Engineer today, and then attracted some fierce comments. Perhaps some of the ideas don't resonate – but the intent of the project – to make an increasingly cashless economy more age friendly, accessible and attractive to all, seems to got missed. 

There's some context worth revisiting to remind us why this project and those like it might matter:

1. The first is that banking is, er, not what it used to be. It's hard for all but the very wealthiest (or luckiest) individuals to claim that they have a bank manager and anything approaching a stable relationship with their bank. Where businesses have trodden so government is following. The push online is relentless. (See this new report Online or in-line: the future of information and technology in public services). All of which is fair enough, totally understandable and explicable in terms of both cost of service provision and often, but always, quality of service. 

2. The relentless drive of all commercial organizations to push cost away from their transactions with their customers by encouraging a self service mode has been taken to an extreme by banks – and if you're not doing it online you're probably doing it with some who has doesn't know you from Adam and is reading from a script anyway – be that from Bangalore or South Shields. 

The first of these two points are wonderful captured in a old advert from Natwest, which really summed up how all of us who don't fly to Geneva to see our "Customer Relationship Manager" feel about banking most of the time. 

3. Older people are, as many of us know, a growing proportion of the UK population and they are also a population which have much material wealth (Yes, wealth inequalities actually become more entrenched in later life but the older – 65+ – population of the UK has less debt and more wealth than many young segments of the population). Within the older population, the old old – 80+ segment is the fastest growing in society. This report on The Business of Ageing, from Nomura, is well worth a gander on the wealth of older people, worldwide.

4. There remains significant inequalities in terms of online access amongst the UK population, as the work of Martha Lane Fox, the UK Digital Champion has highlighted. In a world where transactions with business and government are expected to occur online that creates significant issues – both for the institutions and organization and for their 'users' – who are likely to incur additional costs by doing it face to face, in the post or over the phone. And as Race Online rightly point out, heavy users of public services come from these digital excluded communities. 

5. Money has been for most of history a tangible and fungible entity – something you can finger in your pockets and count out in your wallet. Electronic payments, M-commerce, Paypal, Debit cards are slowly taking over. When did you last write a cheque?

6. People, especially older people, value Post Offices and Banks not because they are recalcitrant luddites who want to throw a spanner in the works of the business process re-engineering consultant who advised a bank to provide a new channel to its customers but because like the rest of us they value the social interaction that a trip to a space like a Post Office affords. 

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So, who knows what the project will bring. My hope is that it creates a space for some interaction with older people AND organisations who provide services, and financial services for them and that this feedback is heard. I also hope that is creates the space for designs and interventions that are not specifically positioning themselves as 'solutions' to be implemented but probes to become a form of currency in a more general debate about how all of us interact with money in a cashless economy.