Joe Coughlin, the director of the MIT Age Lab, wants to help companies unlock the world’s fastest-growing, most misunderstood market: aging Boomers. His new book, “The Longevity Economy,” describes how companies can prepare for the guaranteed — an aging world. Below he answered our questions about his book and an $8 trillion market.
Q. Why are so many companies unprepared for an aging world?
A. The problem is not so much that companies are afraid of age. It’s that they think they understand it — but that “understanding” is woefully incomplete. The dominant narrative of old age, taken for granted by almost everyone, portrays a highly specific image of “oldness”: a need for rest at all times. A diminishment of output, such as work, ideas, cultural products. An overarching idea that older people are always takers, never givers; always consumers, never producers. And as a result, companies make products that, at their core, are designed for passive participants in society. Meanwhile, older people increasingly demand to be active participants. That fundamental disconnect, combined with the mind-boggling wealth and size of the burgeoning older population, is enough to turn entire industries inside out as new entrants figure out how to give older adults the tools they need to participate, create, build, and influence the world around them.
Q. You write that the idea that there exists one single state of older that kicks in at age 50, 65, or any other single age, defies all logic. Why?
Imagine taking any other 50-year swath of the lifespan and connecting a handful of specific attributes to all the people in it. It would be a ludicrous exercise. And yet we do exactly that for the stretch of life starting in our 50s, 60s and 70s. The set of “older adults” contains people of every conceivable sort: ethnicity, religion, sexuality, medical status, political persuasion — and anything else you could name, other than age. Even if we personally know older people who defy the stereotypes, most of us still paint the idea of “older people” with a single, insanely wide mental brushstroke. “Old” is not anyone’s defining attribute.
Q. A new better story of life in old age will replace our current narrative of aging? What is that story?
A. A pursuit of meaning. It’s impossible to say exactly what tomorrow’s older adults will find meaningful as they begin to explore new possibilities in old age; likely, it will be a variety of things broad enough to defy description. But what will change will be the presence of products and services designed to support them on their journey.
Q. What do you make of wealthy and highly educated Americans reaping the bulk of longevity gains?
In the U.S. alone, unlike the rest of the world, there has been a recent downward blip on the otherwise decades-long trend toward longer life. Look closely and you’ll see that mortality has risen in particular for economically disadvantaged people with relatively low levels of education. Look even closer and you’ll see that the recent mortality spike has affected this group in late midlife more strongly than in older age ranges. Many of these deaths have been dubbed “deaths of despair,” the result of suicide, alcohol, and drugs. But what is the source of the despair? Depending who you ask, it could be the result of anything from economic forces to the collapse of social institutions. I would add another to the list: Many people in middle age think their future will be terrible. Economic considerations are a major part of this assumption, but so is the ambient, negative idea of old age. (In fact, average self-reported happiness reaches a nadir in midlife and rises thereafter.) So to answer your question, changing the way we think about what’s possible old age is anything but frivolous in light of these alarming mortality statics. The challenge will be to make sure the new narrative of possibility is an equitable one: for people across income and education levels, and — crucially — across lines of race.
Q. Who will be the agents of change in the new world of longer life and older age?
A. Women, particularly those of middle age and above, are likely to be the leaders in identifying new wants and needs on the aging frontier. And, given a fair chance, they will be the ones to innovate answers to those demands in the form of products. (Hint, Silicon Valley finance!) Not only do women typically live longer than men, but they are most likely to be the chief consumer officer of the home. Women make or directly influence purchasing decisions in key consumer categories including the automotive, health, and many other domains. Moreover, it is the deeply unfair truth that women provide more eldercare than men. Research we’ve done at the MIT AgeLab suggests that women enter old age with a clearer, more detailed picture of what’s ahead. That makes sense: The firsthand knowledge that comes from being the primary buyer and caregiver gives them a unique vantage in understanding what products, services and experiences are effective as they respond to the challenges and exigencies of old age — and which could be improved upon.
Unfortunately, older women are often invisible to the investment and technology communities. The unacceptable result is that the needs and wants they are responsible go unanswered, and the tools they deserve never get built.
All told, the notion that young men are the face of innovation hurts older men and women alike. When young people attempt to innovate for the older market, I see them come up with the same stuff again and again: Pill reminders. Fall detectors. Emergency response technologies. All useful, noble technologies — but evidence that young people can’t get past the idea that older people are a medical problem to be solved. In reality, older adults come with the full spectrum of economic demands; it’s just that young men just don’t have any idea what they are. Older women do. And smart venture capital will bet on their ideas.
Q. What is the legacy of Baby Boomers?
A. The Baby Boomers are the loudest generation in history. Now, someone turns 65 every seven or eight seconds. They’ve had companies cater to their every whim throughout their lives, and they don’t expect that to stop now.
That will mean enormous demand for products that don’t merely work for tomorrow’s older adults, but will actively excite and delight them for decades to come. The new generation gap will be the gap of expectations: not just to live longer, but to live better. Fascinatingly enough, that heightened level of expectation, combined with both the Boomers’ political and economic power, may change the fabric of what is possible in old age. As the Boomers demand and use the tools to pursue meaning later in life than ever before, our narrative of aging will change. They may lay the foundation for others to live in a world that is ageless: where old age is a stage where the norm is not to withdraw, but to engage.
Robert Powell, Special for USA TODAY