Each of us will grow old — if we’re lucky. The same can be said for nations: luck, in the form of prosperity, gives rise to older populations as surely as a good growing season leads to an ample harvest. Today, most countries around the world are about to haul in the biggest longevity crop of all time: the fruit of all the affluence, education, and technological progress that burgeoned in the second half of the 20th century.
The effect will be enormous. The aging of populations represents the most profound change that is guaranteed to come to high-income countries everywhere and most low- and middle-income ones as well. There may be other big shifts headed our way — related to climate change, say, or global geopolitics, or technological advancement — but their particulars are still up in the air. We can only speculate about how London will cope with sea-level rise, or Tokyo with self-driving cars. But we know exactly how global aging will unfold. We know when and where it will happen and to what degree. We know which subpopulations are likely to live long lives, and shorter lives, and how prepared they are for their future.
Because population aging will manifest in such dramatic-yet-predictable ways, when companies make long-term plans for the future, there should be nothing higher on their priorities list than preparing for an older world. It’s worth planning for the unexpected, after all, but only after you prepare for the guaranteed.
With few exceptions, however, companies — and nonprofits and governments — are not getting ready. The reason why is a mystery. In fact, from my perspective as the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab, a research organization devoted to studying the intersection of aging and business, it’s the mystery.
Happily, I’m here to report, there is an answer. It’s so simple that it almost defies belief: Old age is made up.
That doesn’t mean I think arthritis is imaginary or that we can will ourselves to live forever. Rather, the meaning of “old” — whether you’re talking about the life stage, the “senior” population, or even your conception of self — is what academics would call “socially constructed” and everyone else might call a mass delusion or a story that no one realizes is fictional. Certain bits of our current idea of old age are grounded in biology. But most of it was invented by human beings for short-term, human purposes over the past century and a half.
Today, we’re stuck with a notion of oldness that is so utterly at odds with reality that it has become dangerous. It constrains what we can do as we age, which is deeply troubling, considering that the future of our older world will naturally hinge on the actions of the older people in it. It also distracts companies from serving the true needs of aging consumers, an already staggeringly powerful group that is growing larger, wealthier, and more demanding with every passing day.
The world is growing older for three reasons, the most obvious of which is the fact that people are simply living longer. The story of the United States resembles that of most high-income nations: The majority of American babies born in 1900 could not expect to see their 50th birthday; as of 2015, life expectancy in the United States had reached 79 years. Even larger gains have unfolded in Western Europe, East Asia, and elsewhere. Of major economies, Japan leads the world with a life expectancy of 84 years; it’s followed closely by Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and Singapore. Nipping at their heels are most other western and southern European countries, as well as standouts elsewhere in the world such as South Korea, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Israel.
If I were teaching this information to my graduate students, some wisenheimer in the back of the room would have chimed in by now: “What about childhood mortality?” It’s true: The biggest component of the post-1900 life expectancy bump is due to the fact that far more of us survive childhood than we did over a century ago, particularly the gauntlet of diseases that threaten kids from birth to age 5. However, it would be woefully incorrect to say that all of our life expectancy gains are due to diminished child mortality. For one thing, we’ve also cut back on deaths for people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. A 30-year-old American man in 1900, for instance, was six times more likely to die within a year than a 30-year-old man is today. And a 30-year-old woman was 12-and-a-half times more likely to die within a year. As a result of things like public health measures, indoor plumbing, a lack of world wars (knock wood), modern medicine, antibiotics, safer workplaces, and — a big one — safer childbirth, far more of us are reaching 65 than ever before.
And the gains don’t stop there, because those who make it to 65 now get to stick around longer. In 1900, a 65-year-old woman in the United States could expect to live to 78; 76 for men. Today these figures have reached 85.5 and 82.9, respectively. That is to say, over a century’s worth of scientific and economic progress has bought those of us who make it to 65 an extra seven years. And that’s just the United States — in Japan, the average 65-year-old woman can expect to reach age 89. That’s right: It’s now utterly unremarkable for Japanese women to live well into their 90s — and Spanish, French, Italian, and Korean women are right behind them.
But longer lives only account for part of why the world is growing older. A bigger factor, especially in lower-income countries, is the fact that birth rates around the world plummeted in the second half of the 20th century, a trend that in many cases has only picked up speed following the turn of the new millennium. As of 2015, fertility rates in every world region except Africa are near or below what’s considered the “replacement rate,” which in most high-income countries hovers around 2.1 children per woman. (Slightly more than two children per woman are needed to keep a population stable, because not every one of those children will survive to childbearing age.)
A third factor is contributing to global aging: the baby boomers. Many countries involved in World War II experienced a massive, postwar fertility bump, and, with some variation (Japan’s boom was limited mainly to the second half of the 1940s, for instance, while Germany’s was delayed by about a decade and followed by a baby bust), those babies are now becoming grandparents and even great-grandparents.
Thanks to both increased longevity and the baby boom, we now live in a world chock-full of older people, with, as of 2015, 617 million people aged 65-plus, a population roughly double that of the United States, the world’s third-largest country. That number will increase to 1 billion by 2030 and continue to grow through the first half of the 21st century, reaching an estimated 1.6 billion by 2050. During that time, low fertility will do its work: The world’s youth population will remain flat, and its working-age population will grow only modestly. As a result, by 2050, the worldwide proportion of the 65-plus will have doubled from today’s 8.5 percent to 16.7 percent — nearly the age breakdown of 2015 Florida.
What’s most remarkable is that none of this should be remarkable. As of 2017, the leading edge of the baby boom generation is well into its retirement years, something companies were first told would happen decades ago. And yet, the Economist Intelligence Unit has determined that just 31 percent of companies take global aging into account in their marketing and sales plans, while the Boston Consulting Group has determined that less than 15 percent of companies have established any sort of business strategy focused on older adults. Age 49 still serves as a de facto cutoff that many marketers don’t bother to cross, and less than 10 percent of marketing dollars are aimed specifically at the 50-plus. Even as late as the mid-2010s, despite a small uptick in cross-generational casting in commercials, advertisers spend 500 percent more on millennials than on all other age groups combined.
What no one seems to be willing to acknowledge is that there may be a reason for why businesses are acting the way they are. Think about it this way: If businesses did in fact knowingly work against their own best interests by refusing to give older adults the attention they deserve, that would constitute a spectacularly large, systemic failure — the kind that could only happen if everyone in business were either an absolute moron or ageist bigot or both.
I don’t think that explanation quite describes what’s going on. Rather, the apparent failure of the business community to act in its own best interest hints at something deeper.
The source of the problem
If you’re like most people, when you picture “the old,” a remarkably specific impression comes to mind. With some variation by country, we tend to think of this group as a singular, homogeneous population that depends on the largesse of others to survive because it can’t provide for itself. We expect older people to live apart, quietly sequestered away in retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes, surfacing to shop and dine only when everyone else is at work. We consider their natural role to be that of the consumer of goods, services, and ideas, never the producer. Most important, we assume that they like it that way. Because we’re taught to think of retirement as the reward for a long working life, we suppose — often despite personal experience — that to be not working and separate from other age groups is to be living the dream. In this all-too-common reading of age, older people are somehow simultaneously needy, because they’re considered constitutionally unable to provide for themselves, and greedy, because they are at their most conspicuous when they’re out in the world, having fun, and — the default assumption suggests — spending other people’s money.
The fact that old age is also the only time in life that routinely sees new years added to it, meanwhile, gets lost, as do many other possible reads on aging. “The old” make up a population so diverse that it almost defies characterization. Depending when you decide old age begins, the group can be said to account for people found anywhere along a 50-plus-year span of life, with every imaginable level of physiological health, cognitive ability, and wealth represented, along with every type of personality; ideologies of every stripe; and every race, nationality, creed, gender, and sexual identity to be found on this blue Earth. Yes, many things become harder with age, and biological reality eventually limits what we can achieve as we grow older. But aging unfolds differently for everyone. We all enter the process at unique starting points and then proceed through a wild variety of physiological experiences at rates that vary from person to person. The idea that there exists one single state of older being that kicks in at age 50, 65, or at any other single age, defies all logic. So does the idea that there is one single, normal way to live a later life.
If the way we conventionally think about old age is not tied fast to the facts of biology, economics, or sociology, it must contain elements of fiction. My preferred term for what’s considered the normal way to live up to and through late life, given our limited way of thinking about oldness, is our narrative of aging. It’s a story that’s been passed down from generation to generation.
Our limited narrative of old age has already cost businesses untold losses in terms of failed launches, missed opportunities, and off-target products. Worse, because products and marketing reinforce social norms, the narrative’s prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. Products that treat older adults merely as a needy, greedy headache to be taken care of, not an enormous group of people with diverse goals and motivations, remind us every day to be old is to be always a taker, never a giver; always a problem, never a solution. Even more troublingly, subpar products restrict what we can do with ourselves. When we grow old, we simply don’t have the tools we need to stay competitive in the workforce, or contribute culturally, or stay connected, or remain independent for as long as possible, because those products either don’t exist yet or are built for younger users. Or — though intended for older users — they are presented in such a way that many find them embarrassing or alienating to use.
Such failures to connect with older consumers, however, are about to come to an end. Our new, older world is arriving, and the going narrative of aging will soon give way. It couldn’t happen at a better time. Should the current, dysfunctional narrative remain in place, the approaching demographic swell of older adults would mean that many of the worst assumptions of old age’s doomsayers — the wrinkly-time-bomb-planet crowd — would come true. Old age would become an anchor dragging down society, just like our narrative of aging predicts.
But it won’t come to that, because the approaching older world contains the seeds of that narrative’s demise. You might have heard of these agents of change, since they’ve run the world for the past 30 years or so. They are known as the baby boomers.
The people our parents warned us about
The baby boomers, in short, will act as a sorting mechanism in the longevity economy, ruthlessly separating the companies that solve their real demands from those acting on a tired, false idea of oldness. The ultimate effect will be profound: a new, emergent vision of later life — reflected in and normalized by the myth-making apparatus of the private sector — which hews closely not to an antiquated vision of old age but how people actually want to live. In some ways slowly, and in some ways with astonishing speed, a new, better story of life in old age will replace our current narrative of aging.
How history will remember the baby boomers remains an open question. Will they be seen as the generation that gave rise to the environmental movement, for instance, or the one that ended the environment? Will they be the generation that closed the curtain on the Cold War or the one that killed off trust in institutions?
The answer will probably be “all of the above.” What’s more, I believe that the boomers have one additional legacy left in them. Thanks to their ingenuity and economic demand, the boomers have the potential to open up possibilities for older adults across the economic spectrum, across nations, and even far into the future.
Old age, as it stands, is ridiculously unequal. Although populations in most countries are growing older due to a dearth of births, the gains in extreme longevity I mentioned earlier are enjoyed mainly by wealthy societies and often high-education and high-income populations within those societies. In the United States, higher-income groups generally live longer, and life expectancies for African Americans and Native Americans, despite recent increases, trail those of white, Latino, and Asian Americans. Meanwhile, in 2014, life expectancy dropped for white women — a rare and disconcerting demographic surprise — and between 2014 and 2015, the U.S. population as a whole followed suit, the result of increased midlife mortality among white men, white women, and African American men. This average decline — unique to the United States and still little more than a blip in a decades-long upward trend — masks a disturbing divergence: Wealthy and highly educated Americans are reaping the bulk of our continued longevity gains, while poorer, less-educated groups are taking on major longevity losses. A metric called healthy life expectancy — how long you can expect to live without frailty and disability — tells a similar tale: Wealthier, better-educated people not only live longer but enjoy better health in late life.
Of the causes of death that have climbed in the United States in recent years, most are at least somewhat preventable, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, suicide, and drug and alcohol poisoning. The fact that prevention is not happening — particularly among lower-income, lower-education populations — is both horrifying and mystifying. All told, we are staring at a possible future in which the gift of extra years of life is diverted straight to the wealthiest people in the world, while those less fortunate get sick and die earlier — sometimes far earlier. Historically, wealth has always made it easier to live longer, and yet the fact that things are somehow getting worse, not better, for certain low-income populations is beyond dismaying.
There are many things that can and must be done to reverse this course. Changing the fundamental rules of old age is among the most important. By building a vision of late life that is more than just a miserable version of middle age, companies won’t just be minting money, helping older people and their caregivers, and making aging societies more viable. They’ll also be creating a cultural environment that values the contributions of older adults, which may make it easier for those who need employment to find it. They’ll be building better tech products that, as they inevitably become commoditized, stand to improve life across the incomes scale. Most important of all, they’ll be giving young and middle-aged people a reason to hope for their future — no insignificant step, given the outsize toll that preventable and self-destructive behaviors are taking on public health.
Change starts today, with companies finding the vision needed to invest in the burgeoning older market. It starts with businesses recognizing older consumers, listening closely to their demands, and building them better tools with which to interact with the world around them. It starts with bold leaders willing to erect a new narrative of possibility in old age.
It starts, in a word, here.
Published October 5, 2018
From the book The Longevity Economy, by Joseph F. Coughlin. Copyright © 2017 by Joseph F. Coughlin. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.