When I walked into Senior Planet Exploration Center in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, I notice people at computers tweaking fonts on their Wix websites and others chatting about their latest projects. It’s like any other coworking space: busy, lively, and without an empty table around. But the difference is that at 22 years old, I am pretty much the youngest person around–by decades.
The center is the flagship coworking space and learning center of the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Older Adults Technology Services (OATS). Dedicated to people 60 or older, it offer members classes like “Start Up!” or “Connecting in the Digital Age” to advance their business skills. It also has workshops on how to use iPads and navigate online banking– and everything is free. As we move forward in a world where people are living longer than ever (globally, the number of people aged 50 and older will rise to 3.2 billion by 2050, a twofold increase since 2015), the idea of relocating to a retirement community near the beach and golfing until the end is now passé. Instead, people continue to work and develop new skills as they age. Institutions such as this coworking space–exclusively photographed here for Fast Company by Celine Grouard–are a crucial part of supporting the rich lives older people have, and will increasingly have.
Carlos Lewis, 73, founder and designer of Carlos’ Hats, started going to Senior Planet in 2016 at his daughter’s suggestion to get him out of the house. When he first started coming, he said he didn’t know how to type. Fast forward to today, and he’s currently working on building a Wix website and an Etsy page for his hat business. “I’m glad to be here, because there’s always something to learn and something to do. And if I think that I’ve learned enough, I can come here and help someone else learn something,” he says. “I’m rejuvenated. I don’t feel like I’m 73 years old.”
Building a community
Tom Kamber is OATS’s executive director. He has a PhD in political science from the City University of New York and taught at Columbia University for 14 years. During my visit, he shows me a photo on his phone of a rec-league basketball team. “That is a picture of the San Antonio Senior Planet basketball team,” he says with a proud smile.
With Senior Planet centers in six states, over 43,000 class sessions have been taught (and yes, one basketball team has formed) since the nonprofit started teaching 15 years ago. Kamber also mentions he’s in the process of pursuing Senior Planet spaces in Spain and Japan.
The nonprofit is successful: Today it sees $6 million in revenue, up from just under $3 million three years ago. Staff count is at 70. Kamber notes that most of its revenue comes from the government and donation checks, and the rest comes from earned revenue from corporation sponsorships. As an example, a bank might sponsor Senior Planet in holding a class about digital banking.
OATS launched in 2004 with a mission to tackle the ageist narrative that exists in the American professional world–a world where terms like PIP (Previously Important Person)–are associated with retired or older people in the workforce. The organization’s slogan is, fittingly, “aging with attitude.”
“OATS sees ourselves as making forays into the social networks that older adults inhabit– their communities, their rural towns, their online spaces– and creating communities around optimism and around great design for older adults collaborating and learning,” Kamber says.
A safe space for seniors
Why create a coworking space exclusively for older adults? Most coworking arrangements cater to young workers. Kamber notes that what pushes seniors out of typical coworking spaces is not the amenities like ping-pong tables, kombucha on tap, or the marketing. Rather, it’s the dearth of conversations about how to treat seniors. “It’s a subtle thing, but when you’re 75 years old, and you walk into a space and you’re unleashing your inner badass, it should feel comfortable there. And in many places, it doesn’t feel like you’re being taken seriously,” he says. “That’s where micro-aggressions are quite relevant.”
And when older people are comfortable, they’re more productive, as with any age group. “Seniors have no problem producing. They want to produce,” Kamber says.
That’s been the case for Senior Planet member Bonnie Mackay, 67, who published a book on Christmas ornaments, Tree of Treasures, with Penguin Random House in 2016. She meets with groups of other members at the center that have organically formed for support and collaboration. She notes that group members brainstorm with each other about topics close to home, such as ways they can help solve issues around dementia from a business perspective. “People [want] to create a new business and new life for themselves,” she says.
The future of senior coworking
OATS may be a nonprofit, but Kamber believes there’s significant potential for senior coworking in the for-profit space as well. If a for-profit space is to succeed, though, it has to “market to people’s sense of continuity with themselves“–the idea that nobody “feels” old, they just one day look in the mirror and see gray hair (or no hair at all).
But we don’t have to wait for a for-profit space before we make coworking spaces more inclusive. There’s opportunity right now for existing spaces to better welcome productive, information-hungry seniors. All it takes is some empathy and a mental shift. To encourage change, Mackay says she would ask someone to reflect on what they’d want for themselves. “Where do you want to be?” she’d ask. “Where do you think you’ll be when you get to be 60? Or 65? And where would you want to work?”