With the meteoric rise in the sale of earbuds, there’s an increasing amount of speculation about what this means for the hearing aid market. Most miss the fundamental difference, which is that earbuds are selling in the hundreds of millions because consumers like them, whereas hearing aids are still seen by many as a product of last resort, because there is a stigma attached to them. That means that most people with hearing loss don’t go for a hearing test until around ten years after they should. If we could get rid of that stigma, and make hearing aids as popular as earbuds, life would be very much better for hundreds of millions of people.
Hearing aids are not the first products to have a stigma. I’m old enough to remember a similar situation with glasses. A child with a sight impairment would do everything they could not to admit it, lest they were labelled “four-eyes” or “speccy” by their classmates. Most children’s books up to the 1960s had a glasses-wearing child as the scapegoat of the story. Then John Lennon came along and all of a sudden, glasses were cool. Nobody could quite explain why, but glasses changed from being something you tried not to wear to being a multi-billion dollar fashion industry, which conveniently managed to restore your sight at the same time. Whilst the arrival of contact lenses threated their existence, glasses resisted the competition and remain immensely popular. You no longer make a spectacle of yourself by wearing them, and nobody would consider them as a “seeing-aid”. So how is that changing for hearing aids?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Dickens’ could have written that opening line to preface an account of the Covid year for the hearables industry. Over the last six months consumer demand for earbuds has risen to an unprecedented level. In contrast, hearing aid manufacturers have been dealt a body blow, with sales tumbling by up to 75%. As one industry executive put it “we’d have done better if we were an airline”. Covid has also had unexpected effects on the service industries which have been traditional drivers of hearables growth. Audio streaming services like Spotify have seen listening times go down, while video streaming and video conferencing have experienced unprecedented demand.
As countries came out of lockdown during the summer, we saw further shifts in usage, but it’s apparent that overall, hearables have done well out of the crisis. That trend looks set to continue as we face a second wave of the pandemic and further lockdowns.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the largest in the world, with around 2,500 different performances taking place each day. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors over the course of three weeks, sells almost three million tickets and showcases some of the best performances from around the world. It also seems to attract the world’s worst sound technicians, who think that volume is the only thing that matters. So it was refreshing to find a couple of shows this year which highlighted the issues of hearing loss. Around a quarter of us will experience hearing loss during our lives, so it is important that people become more aware of how to protect their hearing, as well as understanding the consequences of hearing loss and for society to remove the stigma of wearing hearing aids.
The twentieth century has seen many revolutions in the way we live our lives. One of the less discussed is that it has given us the mass ability to actively injure our health. Over the last fifty years, the miracles of modern science have turned the medical profession 180 degrees, sending maladies to the grave rather than its patients. To compensate, we’ve taken the opportunity to find highly successful ways of throwing that newly found health and longevity away. Throughout the twentieth century we have developed generational and lifestyle diseases on a massive scale as we live longer and indulge our addictions. From smoking and lung cancer, alcohol and cirrhosis, to fast food, obesity and type 2 diabetes, humanity has shown its unerring ability to put short term pleasure ahead of long term health. Each of these diseases impact society, not least because of the cost of supporting a population which is avidly collecting a growing range of self-inflicted, long term chronic conditions.
Another one, which we don’t talk about and generally don’t want to hear about is quietly joining the list of widespread chronic conditions – hearing loss.