Longer life is humanity’s greatest accomplishment, yet there’s an absence of infrastructure for the older population. The industry still focuses on youth, but we can no longer assume that capturing this market means we’ve bagged them for life. The “new” older generation is well educated and tech-savvy, with high expectations to match. Nevertheless, companies all too often develop new products and services with an old vision, focusing on purely medical matters. It’s time for a paradigm shift. It’s time to create new products and services that boost the economy, to find innovative ways to engage older people and increase the productivity of our global workforce. Old age needn’t be a hindrance to be solved.
In this feature, Colin Milner, chief executive of the International Council on Active Aging, interviews visionary thought leader Dr Joseph F. Coughlin, founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab, about active ageing – today and beyond.
How did MIT AgeLab come to be?
The greatest achievement of humankind has been longer life. So MIT’s AgeLab was started in 2000 to cash-in on the longevity dividend. We seek to develop new ideas, technologies and, indeed, business models that not only create things, but also create experiences to improve the quality of life of older adults and those who work with them.
We started by looking at older drivers and then realised there’s an absence of infrastructure for an older population, or an ageing world. As a society, we hadn’t thought through housing or transport, work or play. AgeLab became the first multidisciplinary, multidomain centre to seek a new future for old age.
Why have business and society neglected the older consumer?
Life expectancy in 1900 was 47 and today it’s well into our 70s. The fastest-growing part of the population is 85-plus. We’ve never been confronted by this many older adults with this much education and expectation for their future.
New technology also enables us to live longer and better. We are far better medicalised, with new experiences, activities and engagement. So I think we’ve ignored old age because, quite frankly, it’s brand new. Also, business in particular has always had a bias towards youth.
You could say that the Boomers and their parents are reaping what they sowed decades ago – that is, if we market to the 18-30 year old, we’ve got you for life. So why should businesses worry about the older consumer? Well, we’ve found that Boomers are willing to drop car brands at the drop of a hat when those brands haven’t answered their demands. So, no, you can’t assume that if you capture the youth market, you have them for life. Now is the time to understand how to capture the customer across the lifespan.
Our challenge? We’re trapped in our made-up vision of old age. We are trapped into believing that older adults do not have money or like new things, that they’re not educated, and that they’re afraid of technology. That paradigm gets in the way of inventing the new old age.
How long before people get the message?
When AgeLab started, Japan and Italy were the only places where I could find an audience and resources for an ageing-society discussion. Now there are companies out there saying, “Yes, we acknowledge there’s an ageing population, and they have both the resources and the aspirations to do more.” That said, those companies are still trying to develop new products with the old vision. That’s why we’ve profoundly medicalised ageing.
Rather than creating toys for play, we create toys for company. We remind older adults to take their medications rather than creating exercise and services for them to engage with, be productive and make new friends. We focus primarily on the diseases that we can help manage. It’s not that those things are incorrect but they’re woefully incomplete. Business needs to expand its understanding of older consumers: they’re far more than a medical problem to solve.
Could the “Me Gen” become the “Forgotten Gen”?
As Boomers are at the helm of our institutions, businesses and governments, perhaps their legacy is to make those 30-plus years something to look forward to. To invent a new social contract that says, “If you work very hard for 50 or 60 years, we’re not going to send you out to pasture for the next 20 or 30; we’re going to prize you as a resource, as an opportunity, as part of society”.
Boomers, if they act now, have the possibility of giving perhaps their greatest gift to future generations: a new vision of longevity. A vision that views old age not as a time to retire and to ignore and pull away from society, but as another life stage to be invented. Not only can they give the benefit of this legacy to Gen Xers and Millennials and Gen Zs, but the Boomers and their parents will also benefit.
What happens if we don’t act now?
Greater longevity is something humankind has wanted since we crawled out of the ooze, yet we’ve translated it into something terrible. If we don’t act now, when one Boomer turns 71 every 7-8 seconds in the US alone, we could have bankrupt health plans, insufficient retirement pension plans, and inadequate housing and care.
So, we have a global opportunity to invent a new vision of old age and a new way to engage the older population to help themselves, to create new products that grow the economy, and to find new ways to engage these individuals to increase the productivity of the workforce. As well as to delay those periods of life when the older generation can’t be productive.
If we act today, we’ll not only live longer, we’ll also live better. Our legacy for future generations will be that we seized the opportunity and saw old age and longer life as a resource, not as a problem.
Why the optimism about the future of ageing and role of business?
We have both a desire (to seize the opportunity) and all the tools at our disposal, and to be anything but optimistic is to relegate us to a past that’s not going to promise a good future. So I believe that business and related organisations, with the catalyst of lead adapters in the consumer market, will create entirely new visions of what to do with those extra years of life.
I’m convinced that three things will converge to create an entirely new life stage of products, services, public policies and experiences to benefit everyone. They will also improve the social contract for the very young, so we think across the lifespan as to what our quality of life is, not how long our life is.
These three things are: the technologies available to us; the expectations of the next generation of older people – especially older female consumers, who are lead adapters today and will continue to be tomorrow; and the awakening of business to the market and the fact that the longevity economy equates to a whopping 70 per cent of the nation’s and the industrialised world’s disposable economy.
Is old age going to be quite different in the near future?
Not only is old age quite new, but the context of ageing has also changed. We are having smaller families and live in more dispersed locations; 70 per cent of the 50-plus US population live in rural and suburban areas, and this is happening around the world. So now we also have to reinvent the whole notion of how we stay connected and how we receive care. We also now expect technology to improve our lives because we’ve seen it throughout our lives, from the power of computing, to the space programme to the wearables on our wrists. We also have more education.
This all leads up to an expectations gap – a gaping void between the way Boomers expect to be catered to by business and how business has historically treated older adults. This next generation of older adults will not be as patient nor as polite as their parents when their needs go unmet; they’re going to expect a policy, a pill, a product, or something else to improve their lives as they advance in age.
What part do women play in the future of ageing?
Women these days have more education than men in all fields but engineering. They’re also the researchers in our society. They’re the ones who go online to look for information – and not just for themselves, but for their immediate family and friends. And they’re the ones who age better because they maintain a social network.
If you ask men after they’ve retired what they do, chances are they look at the polish on their shoes and turn to their partners and ask them, “What do we do?”. Women are more connected. They want to do more in later life. They’re also the number one primary caregivers of an ageing society. So women’s roles, assumed responsibilities, education, and willingness to use technology for a defined purpose make them a catalyst for change. That’s both in the home – as the chief consumer officer of every household in the world – and in the marketplace.
How should our young business generation consider older consumers?
Look at old age as a continuation of life and question all your built-in assumptions. Old age is not just an opportunity for a start-up to create a new wheelchair, walker or pill-reminder system. Those things are necessary, and we need to continue to develop them. But if you have verve and intelligence and understand technology, ask yourself: What new thing can people do with that extra time? What do they want to do? How do we enable lifelong learning across the lifespan?
Start rethinking the fact that life-stage models and market segmentations created by industry are plain wrong. People are getting remarried and downsizing after age 50. They’re running businesses – on average, small business owners are in their late 50s. People are going back to school in their 50s, 60s and 70s. What life stage is that? What segment is that? So throw out your assumptions, and don’t be afraid to watch and talk and listen and learn. More importantly, do not run your business opportunities by focus group. Start thinking about what people are doing, and what else they could do that you could enable with a new technology or a new service, or by working with government in a new public-private partnership.
For your own old age, plan for the long haul, take care of your health and be a lifelong learner – and not just because it’s good to keep engaged. If you’re coming out of education today and looking at the older-adult market, it’s one of the most exciting times because you’re not just working for organisations that already exist – you have the opportunity to invent life tomorrow.
Are wearables a new health platform for active ageing?
Wearables are becoming the new health platform, particularly for chronic conditions. The challenge for the Internet of Things and related wearables market is to introduce more than medical care in quantified living. It’s about how well they introduce fun, how well they remind people of places and spaces they’ve enjoyed, and how well they remind you to connect with friends and family – going well beyond shelter, water and “Did you take your meds today?” Unfortunately, this field is being introduced by companies that still use the old vision of old age: “Can I keep you from falling?” Wearables, technology and the like are enabling devices. If we don’t use them carefully, we’ll be relegated to simply taking our blood pressure or glucose level.
The companies that will win, the organisations that will deliver innovation, and the people who will benefit are those that create a new vision of what to do with those extra years of life, well beyond a medical condition. Those that take into account that although an older person may have a chronic disease, they can still walk a dog, work part-time, go to college, and connect with family and friends.