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MIT's Coughlin: Beyond 'Disruptive Demographics'

Editor’s Note: Joseph ­Coughlin, founder and director of MIT’s AgeLab, will give the keynote speech at the Oct. 9 Opening ­General Session of the APTA Annual Meeting & EXPO in Atlanta. In advance of the ­meeting, Passenger Transport invited Coughlin to answer a few questions about what he calls “disruptive demographics” resulting from the convergence of baby boomer expectations and technology.

PT: You’ve often characterized current demographic trends as “disruptive.” What does this mean, and how will it affect public transportation?

Coughlin: Previously, change came to organizations, including public transit agencies, from innovators within or from a changing operating context. These changes might be in the form of budget pressures or the introduction of new technologies. The changes, particularly technology-related, are typically considered disruptive to business as usual.

Today we have a new source of disruption—the customer. Today’s rider is no longer surprised by a new service, feature or app; he or she expects them.

Disruption today is coming from demographics: the changing face of the rider will demand an unprecedented level of new services, personal engagement and flexibility. Moreover, the primary rider will decidedly not be the traditional journey-to-work traveler, but rather may be characterized best as gray, delayed [experiencing lifestage events later than their parents did], small and female. In my new book The Longevity Economy, I outline how the new generation gap will be an older consumer who expects and demands more than any previous generation—and all generations that follow, who have a rising tide of expectations that will disrupt every industry including public transportation.

PT: Please share your thoughts about the impact of “disruptive demographics” throughout the spectrum, including millennials. How will these trends ripple throughout the workplace, from hiring practices to worker ­expectation and from wants to workplace technology?

Most organizations have been lulled into believing that they had to manage younger and older workers—essentially, two generations of workers. This was true for decades.

In sharp contrast, the new reality is a five-generation workplace. These generations are not defined by age but by experience.

Previous generations had faith in employers to be there for the long haul, 30-40 years of work. However, younger generations have seen titans of industry go bankrupt or “downsize” their parents. This experience has made Generation X, and certainly the Millennials, far less trusting of their employers. This loss of trust and constant social and technological change has made coming generations of employees far less willing to devote decades of their work life to organizations that have not earned their trust.

In addition, there has been a change in how the generations see work. Older workers and Boomers see work and career growth as an investment of decades, not just a few years, while Millennials exhibit a desire for a new flexibility. Many would rather have flexibility to live the life they desire than the financial security priority of previous generations.

However, there is a coming convergence. Older workers now transitioning to retirement or simply wanting to work fewer days to pursue other interests or to provide care to a loved one are looking for flexible schedules, benefits and flexible work overall. We are also likely to see many new employees in the transportation enterprise begin their careers at ages that many would consider midlife. Women re-entering the workforce, people changing careers in their 40s and 50s and older workers staying longer in the workplace will likely be major sources of human capital in transit and across the transportation system.

PT: Some of your research focuses on the convergence of demographics and technology, and how that will drive innovation across several industries including transportation. Please share your thoughts about the changes you see ahead.

Coughlin: Today’s consumer demands personalized engagement. The creative uses of artificial intelligence and related big data, for example, will enable transportation service providers to deliver personalized public transit. Finding information not on the platform but in my hand is expected, not a surprise for a generation of riders who don’t think “there is an app for that” but rather believe “of course there is an app for that!”

While transit agencies have always been dedicated to serving their ­riders, new technologies will enable them to identify micro-travel behaviors that have largely been subjects of research studies rather than operational strategy. This will enable general managers to make optimal use of limited human, equipment and capital resources and excite and delight the rider.

PT: How will innovation-driven companies like ride-sharing services change public transit operations?

Ride-sharing services are setting a new benchmark for what consumers may come to expect from transit. Some may see many of these services as being a new competitor for transit alongside the single-occupant vehicle. However, I have another vision with less conflict: Ride-sharing services may not necessarily be direct competitors but vital partners in serving riders and locations that line-haul transit has difficulty serving, perhaps even managing the explosive demand for expensive services such as demand-response.

For example, creative partnerships between public transit agencies and ride-sharing service providers may improve suburban mobility for all ages, augment special needs transportation and increase mobility options for transportation disadvantaged populations such as older adults aging in place in the suburbs.

PT: What do you think the public transit systems of tomorrow will  look like?

Public transit has continually endeavored to improve for decades in an often hostile budget and technologically dynamic environment. The new demands of a multigenerational workforce will introduce a far more flexible workplace to meet the needs of younger people who want flexibility in hours, people who are changing careers at mid-career and older workers who want to continue working but may need time to transition into retirement or to provide care to a loved one.

As with every other consumer-facing organization, there will be unprecedented pressure on public transit to provide personalized service. Personal is the new premium. The creative use of partnerships with ride-sharing companies, big data and artificial intelligence will empower public transit agencies to deliver innovative rider-centered services where consumer experience is as important as system efficiency.

Finally, autonomous vehicles are likely to disrupt the motor carrier and transit industries long before passenger cars are whisking and whizzing riders away as envisioned in the imaginations of driverless vehicle advocates.

The public transit system of tomorrow will be an exciting and highly dynamic test bed of workplace policies, a living laboratory of how to deliver a public service with the experience of a private provider, all while integrating autonomous vehicle technologies that may displace some workers while creating entirely new professions we have yet to imagine.
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