People over 50 make more than 50% of consumer decisions and own 83% of the wealth of the United States. But you wouldn’t guess that if you analyzed the marketing or product development strategies of most companies. Despite the far-reaching impact of one of the biggest demographic shifts the world has ever seen, with the number of 65+ soon outnumbering those under 18, companies seemed largely uninterested in aging data – everywhere.
Susan Golden’s new book, Stage (Not Age), should inspire more companies to rebalance their attentions through longer lives and longer careers. A venture capitalist and a Stanford Business School professor with a background in public health, Golden is well positioned to convincingly sell the huge global opportunity she describes. Here’s a roundup of seven suggestions she makes for everyone from established businesses to budding entrepreneurs.
1. Follow the money
In the United States alone, the longevity economy, including the jobs, services and products created to support longer lives, is worth more than $8.6 trillion. That swells, says Golden, to $22 trillion worldwide. Rather than seeing the 50+ population as a soon to be decrepit stage of life, it’s time to update our collectively sticky stereotypes. The new reality of the third and fourth trimesters of life is increasingly healthy, active and engaged. This large and fast-growing segment also makes most of the purchasing decisions and holds the vast majority of the country’s wealth (83%). Ignore them at your peril. Most companies still do this, preferring to target 18-34 year olds who they believe are the future. The future is grayer (and more feminine) than most companies’ current practices (and talents) suggest. Getting ahead of this change should provide a clear competitive advantage.
2. Don’t call them “old”
Only 35% of people over 75 consider themselves old, so calling them old might not be the best way to sell them. Rob Chess of Stanford Business School recommends a “stealth” strategy when communicating with people in the second half of life. Since most of them don’t think of themselves as old and are still busy working, occupying themselves, or thinking of themselves as “athletes forever”, marketing that is aimed at seniors, elderly and even the wise may be dead in the water. NIKE discovered this when designing the CruzrOne, a running shoe for the “slower”. It was inspired by NIKE founder Phil Knight when he was over 80 and needed a shoe to keep running, just a little slower. NIKE added it “stealth” to its lineup and found it was being bought by people of all ages who wanted more support and less speed. Golden also points to eyewear company Warby Parker, whose original fashionable eyewear line did not include bifocals. Until they realized after a few years that they were leaving half of the potential market behind. Rather than changing up their hip look, they’ve brought the traditionally understated bifocal hip, delighting oldies without dulling them.
3. Watch your words
Golden recognizes a real problem around vocabulary and how everyone is dancing around terms that no one wants to know. She found more than fifty labels to refer to the “new old” and happily categorizes them metaphorically – colors (gray, silver or gold), flowers (perennials) and letters (Gen A, B or R) unleash to tackle with the emerging wave. She even started a naming project at Stanford to try and bring out something with broad appeal. Unfortunately, it was harmlessness that limped off with the winner going to…”older adult.” Interestingly, it underscores that this group just doesn’t want to be categorized at all, and almost any age-related nickname will do more harm than good. Traders have been warned.
4. Life in quarters
We need a new roadmap for longer lives, and Golden presents a number of overlapping concepts here. It divides life into five quarters (the mathematically problematic fifth quarter being an “extra time” beyond the 100-year lifespan now often predicted). As a subscriber to the idea of quarters, I applaud its adoption as a simple framework around which to understand phase changes in adulthood. Its five overlapping quarters are:
- Start (0-30) – start school, work and families
- Growth (25-55) – build adult lives with work explorations, transitions, pauses and learnings
- Revival (55-85) – redirect, rejuvenate and reassess with more education and development.
- Legacy (75-100) – evaluate lifespans, define legacies
- Additional (100+) – bonus time!
It then adds to the five quarters with 18 phases spread over four phases (Growth, Career and Family, Reinvention and Shutdown) which gets a little complicated. But given that companies today group the 50 or 60+ into one category, a bit of complexity is welcome. It will be useful for people in marketing and product design to dig into the real and growing diversity of the second half of life.
5. Generational balance
Balancing internal talent to mirror external customers will be as relevant in the age space as it has been in the gender and diversity spaces. Golden describes Merrill Lynch’s efforts to embrace the aging trend in customers by reorienting the company around reality. They established a 7 Life Priorities program to pace their products and hired the financial world’s first gerontologist in 2014 to equip their teams with the skills and understanding to serve a changing market. It then used the framework to respond to the lives of its own employees, Golden says, beginning to offer elder care benefits and end-of-life flexibility and support. It also explores the 5-generation workforce and how cross-generational teams will be better prepared to respond to the longevity dividend while recognizing the challenges of today’s often aging business contexts.
6. The future (more than ever) is female
The client is complex in the space of longevity. It is a collection of end users, buyers, payers and influencers. It is also often feminine. Companies, she advises, will want to know the different stages of women’s lives so that they can anticipate and support their needs. Women will be the “largest target audiences for products and services. They live longer than men. More women live alone through more stages. More age in place. Plus keep working through more stages. And more women tend to be primary buyers and influencers for their families. We’ve been saying this for a while, ever since Marti Barletta wrote the ever-relevant Primetime Women in 2014. So if you’re interested in longevity, most experts will agree, be interested in what women want – as employees and as consumers. .
7. Think further – and go further
Golden’s book is a welcome contribution to the growing pile of books on longevity economics. Not least because so many of them seem to be written by men – when the opportunity they describe is so clearly led by women. The issues of aging and longevity are intrinsically linked and overlap with gender in multiple ways. This book is packed with case studies of companies innovating in an entirely new demographic and social reality. The 21st century will be defined by the companies and countries that successfully manage change. This book sheds light on what that might look like. If you want to look a little deeper, you might want to embrace Golden’s own choice for this phase of life – the future. A time for all of us to hopefully go further together.