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Older Adults' Participation Stands to Strengthen Cities’ Innovation Districts

Image Credit: Brookings

While millennials have largely been the focus of city leaders’ efforts to attract new talent and residential growth, a new Brookings study finds that innovation districts — areas which are highly walkable and transit-oriented, rich with amenities and employment opportunities — would also benefit from attracting and serving adults 50 years of age and up, who can fill gaps in the innovation ecosystem, including age diversity, professional expertise and investment capital.

The portion of the population over 50 is one of the most rapidly growing demographics in the United States, totaling nearly 110 million in 2015 — just under 34 percent of the total population. By 2050, that number is expected to expand to 150 million, or 29 percent of Americans. Additionally, this segment of the population contributes approximately $5.6 trillion of the country’s $10.4 trillion in consumer spending — a number that will continue to increase as the demographic expands. Individuals 55 and older also accounted for nearly 45 percent of all individual federal income tax paid in 2014, contributing $1.8 trillion in federal, state and local taxes. Yet despite this staggering figures, the 50 and older group is often overlooked by planners, developers, employers and other stakeholders.

Using Chattanooga, Philadelphia and Seattle as case studies, Beyond Millennials: Valuing Older Adults’ Participation in Innovation Districts explores the mutual benefits that can accrue from older adults living, working and supporting entrepreneurship in cities — innovation districts in particular.

As walkable, amenity-rich communities, these neighborhoods offer attractive and accessible environments — boasting close access to essential services — for aging in one’s community. At the same time, as a key demographic for wealth and consumer spending, those 50 and older stand to contribute considerably to local economies by patronizing local businesses, strengthening area tax bases and supporting local housing markets.

Businesses also stand to gain significant benefits from a more age diverse community. As people continue to delay retirement, the creation of more flexible jobs in innovation districts could provide opportunities for older adults to share their skills and expertise and collaborate with younger colleagues.

The presence of older adults also provides an opportunity for emerging enterprises, who can derive benefits from this demographic’s expertise, guidance and resources. Innovation districts could offer fulfilment and financial rewards to older adults interested in sharing their skills and experience, mutually benefitting both parties.

Despite these mutual benefits, city and district leaders will need to be intentional about cultivating intergenerational communities, with special attention being giving to issues of housing affordability, accessibility and age discrimination in the workplace. To overcome these challenges and maximize the benefits older adults bring to the table, the paper recommends innovation districts’ public, private and civic stakeholders:

  • Design for all ages and abilities: Improve the built environment and expand access to resources and social interactions.
  • Increase access to affordable housing: As high demand for residential real estate in city centers pushes up home values and rents, cities should preserve, expand and diversify housing stock.
  • Promote intergenerational engagement and understanding: Implement district-based mentor programs, service learning projects and social activities to promote cross-generational communication and workforce cohesion.
  • Increase age diversity in the workplace: Treat age as a diversity and inclusion issue and develop strategies to recruit and retain older workers, such as flexible work options and opportunities for professional growth.
  • Target older adults for workforce training and education programs: Use age-specific outreach to improve older adults’ awareness of and access to educational resources like basic digital literacy and more advanced tech training.
  • Encourage older adults to participate in the entrepreneurial ecosystem: Develop opportunities such as pitch nights, entrepreneur/investor networking events and programming designed specifically for older adults.

City and innovation district leaders who look beyond strategies focused on millennials have an

opportunity to leverage the assets of those 50 and older to strengthen communities and bolster the character of these neighborhoods. Through intentional effort and thoughtful engagement, innovation districts can become places that benefit — and benefit from — the participation of older adults.


Launched in 2006, Sustainable Brands has become a global learning, collaboration, and commerce community of forward-thinking business and brand strategy, marketing, innovation and sustainability professionals who are leading the way to a better future. We recognize that brands today have… [Read more about Sustainable Brands]


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