Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The key is to stop thinking of older adults as one market: Susan Wilner Golden

A major demographic shift is under way the world over—more and more people are living longer lives and have a better health span too. Golden, an expert on the subject and a teacher at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, talks about the expansive scope of the longevity market and why businesses should market to 'stage' instead of age, an argument she explores in her book Stage (Not Age): How to Understand and Serve People Over 60—the Fastest Growing, Most Dynamic Market in the World

Published: Jul 19, 2023 05:00:33 PM IST
Updated: Jul 19, 2023 05:12:11 PM IST

The key is to stop thinking of older adults as one market: Susan Wilner GoldenSusan Wilner Golden of Stanford Graduate School of Business

Q. The narrative around ‘old age’ is deeply entrenched in our collective psyche. How best can we reinvent it?

Traditionally, we have come to think of our lives in three stages: Education, work, and retirement. Instead, with longer lives, we now need to have a narrative around living multistage lives, with many of those stages neither sequential. A 40-year-old and an 80-year-old could be experiencing the very same stages of life, filled with vibrancy and purpose, and good health. They may be working, caregiving for a loved one, and engaged in new learning opportunities.

Q. What are some of the best terms to replace ‘old’ or elderly’?
We need to retire words like “retirees”, “seniors”, and “elderly”. A more acceptable term that is gaining favour is “older adults” and “older people”. However, even that does not fully capture the vigour and vitality many will experience. I have suggested “Furtherhood”, and welcome others to create more. I think about going further in life, and contributing in new ways. By reframing ageing, we diffuse stereotypes and ageism. We also need new terms to capture the many new stages of life older adults will experience. I view these new stages as the Renaissance years, filled with resetting life priorities, repurposing, relaunching, and describe up to eighteen stages people may experience.

Q. “To understand the swelling ranks of people over sixty-five is to recognize stage, not age.” Please explain.
People over 60 are a deeply diverse population. They are travelling through different life stages and, therefore, want and need different products and services at each of those stages. People are not only living longer, but living healthier and for a longer time. The key is to stop thinking of older adults as one market, or that all people over a certain age—60, 65, 75, or 85—are the same. Rather than defining people by their age, think about the different stages of life they are experiencing, to better understand them and their needs and desires.

Q. Why is it imperative to draw up a longevity strategy?

A longevity strategy is important both for an individual and a company. Each of us needs to reconsider what a 100-year lifespan will mean for education and the need to be a continuous learner throughout a 60-year career span. We will need to develop a financial plan that will support a 100-year life, and plan for multiple career breaks and transitions. And we will need to develop wellness practices on all levels and integrate those throughout the lifespan, including nutrition, sleep, strength training, purpose and community.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch has diligently integrated longevity as a part of its business strategy. They have identified six major life stages for their clients and a map for understanding the unique needs within each. This has helped them to create more specific financial planning tools and products.

Companies also will need a longevity strategy for their workforce and recognise that they will routinely have a multi-generation workforce, which can benefit their product design and services offered. The largest growth in the workforce will be from those 50 and over. Mixed age teams can be more productive than same age teams. Their customers may also span multiple generations, and that will enhance their business strategy. Most companies do not yet understand the enormous business opportunities of the longevity economy.

Also read: Peer to peer: How to beat ageism in the job market

Q. How best can marketing adopt a stage approach?
Know which customer you want to acquire, and recognise that not all 75- or 85 year-olds are the same. This is a very heterogeneous market. “If you have seen one 85-year-old, you have seen one 85-year-old.” Marketing to consumers based on age will reinforce ageist stereotypes. Using images of older adults who are vibrant and not frail will broaden your customer base, as well as using appropriate language.

Designing new products and services to enhance healthspan will require having older adults on your design team who have insights into the needs and wants of this broad and diverse population, rather than having those in their 20s and 30s designing “for” their needs. BMW, for example, enhanced the design of their cars to enable better accessibility by working with older adults who understood the need for easier entry and larger fonts and colour contrasts on the dashboard.

Eyewear company Warby Parker, which initially catered to the ‘hipster’ market, found an opportunity in those moving to progressive lens. Instead of designing different glasses for the demographic, they put progressive lens in hip and popular frames—recognising that there are people in different stages who would like fashionable glasses. They also brought in changes in their advertising strategy to include older adults in their ads.

Q. What are the perks of a multigenerational workforce?

There are still many myths about older workers that promote ageism and limit the opportunities for many who want to work well into their 70s and 80s. Organisations need to understand that older workers want to and can learn new technology, and have lower turnover rates and are more loyal than younger generations. They do not cost more because they often are willing to work part time and have more flexibility about compensation models.

A multigenerational workforce will benefit from the wisdom, experience, and institutional knowledge of older workers, and will help to ease the labour gap that many companies experience. Organisations will need to have leadership that embraces and values a multigenerational workforce. Such organisations will need to develop an infrastructure and systems to support and engage them, including supporting lifelong learning and training.

Also read: Workplace equality for all (unless they're old)

Q. Which are the domains that can benefit the most from the longevity opportunity?
There are many “obvious” domains that have growth opportunities such as alternative housing and intergenerational housing, caregiving (a $490 billion industry in the US), transportation, food services, telehealth and financial planning, end-of-life care and planning. Some of the “non-obvious” domains include digital literacy, entertainment, travel, leisure, dating fashion, transition planning, lifelong learning, fitness, intergenerational engagement and mentorship.

Q. Do you see the entrepreneurial ecosystem waking up to it?
Yes, but not quickly enough. We do not yet have enough seed and early-stage capital to support innovators in this space; and we do not have enough entrepreneurs entering this field. Older entrepreneurs, sometimes referred to as “sidepreneurs” or “olderpreneurs”, have a lot of experience and wisdom to offer. We hope to see intergenerational teams working on addressing the many needs and wants of century long lives to enhance healthspan. We also need more marketplaces where the longevity customer, or the caregiver, can easily find the many products and services they want, and the providers can identify and acquire the customers.