Oldness is a social construct at odds with reality that constrains how we live after middle age and stifles business thinking on how to best serve a group of consumers, workers, and innovators that is growing larger and wealthier with every passing day.
My guest today is Joseph F. Coughlin, PhD.
Joe is founder and Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab. He teaches in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning and the Sloan School’s Advanced Management Program.
Coughlin conducts research, speaks and consults on the impact of global demographic change and technology trends on consumer behavior, business innovation & public policy.
He produces the online publication Disruptive Demographics and he’s author of The Longevity Economy: Inside the World’s Fastest Growing, Most Misunderstood Market, the topic of our conversation today.
Here’s my conversation with Dr Joseph F. Coughlin, author of The Longevity Economy, in episode 304 of Informed Choice Radio.[clickToTweet tweet=”Oldness is a social construct at odds with reality” quote=”Oldness is a social construct at odds with reality”]
Martin: Well welcome back to Informed Choice Radio. I’m joined today by Joe Coughlin from the Age Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. So Joe, welcome to the podcast.
Joe: It’s great to be here, thanks for having me.
Martin: Now you’re founder and director of the MIT Age Lab. Can you tell us a bit more about what that is and what work it gets involved with?
Joe: Sure. Here at MIT we are exploring the future of not just living longer, but living better. So at the Age Lab, we are a team of multidisciplinary researchers from the School of Engineering, School of Business, data sciences, psychology, and of course gerontology and the like. And we work with businesses around the world to work on a number of issues around ageing. And if you think about it, ageing is far more than health and wealth. So we look at the future of home services and the Internet of Things. At a future of work that includes five generations of people under one roof. Transportation. Before you do anything, you’ve got to get there first, so how do we think about the future of mobility? And of course, longevity planning.
So even though we may have your money retirement, or we hope, there’s also many other things to consider and that’s one of the things that we work on as well.
Martin: So it’s a huge number of different areas, and I think sometimes when we consider ageing and getting older, we don’t necessarily think of it in such wide terms. So why is that so important to come at it from a multidisciplinary point of view?
Joe: Yeah, well, first off, it’s kind of funny is that ageing, if you think about it, is a multidisciplinary sport. We have basically every flavour of psychology here in the lab you can imagine, along with engineering, and data sciences, and the social sciences. Largely because one of the things that we’re trying to make that people understand, it sounds obvious, but unfortunately is forgotten by most folks, society, and certainly business, is that ageing is about life. In fact, ageing is life tomorrow, because with any luck, it’s the one class of people all of us hope to be.
And so we take this multidisciplinary approach because frankly, we really are inventing an entirely new frontier of where we live, how we move, what we do. And even the ‘F’ word, that is, how do we think about fun in the future?
Martin: And we are still allowed to have fun, aren’t we, as we get older?
Joe: We hope so, because frankly, we’re living long enough where ageing is becoming a very long time. If you give me a second, Martin, I want you to imagine this. Life between birth and shall we say drinking age of 21 years old is about 8,000 days. From 21 to what the age that most of us would call midlife crisis, say in our 40s, 8,000 days. And from midlife crisis to what many of us would call pension age is 8,000 days. But here’s the kicker. Do you know that from pension or retirement age to when most of us are likely to live, that is in our mid 80s and beyond, is 8,000 days.
Martin, this is not about old age. This is about inventing an entirely new life stage.
Martin: And I read something you’d written on Forbes recently, which was basically pointing out that retirement and that stage of life shouldn’t be a vacation. We shouldn’t be treated in the same was as a vacation. So what were your thoughts on that?
Joe: Yeah, I know we’ve liked to have the vision, if you will, or shall we say the countless brochures and websites that make retirement out to be a vacation to the beach, or golf course here in the United States, or to Spain for many of those in the UK and the like. But the fact of the matter is is that 8,000 days, if you played golf only a few times a week, that ends up being 3,000 rounds of golf.
And so one of the things we have to start thinking about is that what we think might be fun for a few days, a few weeks, maybe even a few years, is not something that most of us want to do for a few decades.
Martin: And so how are the demographics around retirement changing? Obviously we’re living longer on average. You mentioned earlier, you want it to be about the future of living longer, but also better. So what’s different now than maybe a generation ago?
Joe: Well one of the things that’s really changing is just the obvious one is that we are living longer. While there have always been older people, the average or age or that we are likely to live is now getting longer. We’ve been able to have children get over childhood diseases, we are treating many conditions today that once were lethal, that today are become chronic, even certain cancers have become chronic conditions rather than a death sentence.
But there’s some other big differences. And one that we’re seeing both in the EU, and UK, and US is that we’re starting to see our pensions change. We’re going from defined contribution versus a defined benefit. That is it’s becoming all about you being able to plan for tomorrow.
By the way, the number one way we retired well was not just saving our money, and not just having our health, but it was our family. And family dynamics have changed profoundly. First off, the next generation of retirees are having far fewer children, if they had children at all. And so therefore, that support, that typically oldest adult daughter who stepped in to help all along the way, she either moved away, she’s either too busy, or maybe she doesn’t exist at all.
And frankly, for the guys that are listening, there’s even a bigger issue. Grey divorce, as it is called, that is divorce among the 50 plus in the UK, US, throughout the EU, is the highest divorce rate around the world of any age group.
And so as a result, we have now a very different context of how we will life in retirement, and how we age. And you combine all of that with the expectation that we will live longer and that we will live better, this is a great opportunity to invent a whole new life stage. It is also a coming challenge to society, families, and government to ensure that they can deliver on that expectation.
Martin: I assume one of the challenges from both of those factors, having fewer children, or not children around at all, and also grey divorce, is the potential for loneliness in later life. If you’ve got no children nearby, if you’ve separated from your partner, you potentially could face a very long time in retirement on your own.
Joe: Absolutely. In fact, some of the major work going on here at the Age Lab with companies around the world is looking at the issues of social isolation. And so yes, it has a lot to do with frankly, is your family nearby? But also think about the following. The whole vision of retirement, the whole story that we subscribe to in western culture, is that retirement is a time to relax, to withdraw, to sit back and wait. Well part of that problem, of doing that kind of lifestyle, is it takes you out of the game. That is, it reduces those chance collisions to meet new people. And why do we want to meet new people, other than just general interest? Sadly, I have to report, Martin, that as we age there’s a natural attrition to our friends. They move away, they get busy doing other things, or some, unfortunately, pass away.
So social isolation is about social connection, about where we choose to live, what we choose to do, and it goes very much, not just to our mental health, but to our physical well being as well.
Martin: Now you’ve written a book called The Longevity Economy, it explores the way businesses should be the approaching this issue of older people. Where do you think businesses have been getting this change in demographic trend wrong in the past?
Joe: First off, this is the greatest opportunity, frankly, I would argue in humankind. We certainly have had older people in the past, we’ve never seen it on this scale. And frankly, demography as we like to say in the trade, is destiny. Technology is one part hope, two parts engineering. Economics is really one part witchcraft and two parts math. But demography, we now are witnessing an unprecedented demographic transition.
Imagine the following. By 2047 there will be more people in the world over age 60, with new expectations, more money, and education than any other time in history, than children under the age of 15.
So businesses getting it wrong because they are succumbing to an old story of what they think old age is. They think that older adults are needy and greedy. They think that they are, shall we say, only needing those things that one would equate with being an infant, such as soft foods, and walkers, and wheelchairs. They only sell us visions of retiring and going away. And they believe that we don’t buy, or older adults don’t buy, because we’re not interested in the new.
Or worse yet, the big mistake, they believe that once I have your brand loyalty by age 30, or 35, I have you for life.
And lastly, the big one that we pay attention to at MIT is there’s also the mythology that older adults don’t like technology. No, the answer is, they don’t like bad technology.
Martin: So what about businesses who are getting this right? Have you got some examples?
Joe: Well there’s a couple of them that I’m particularly fond of, watching, shall we say, here from the cheap seats. One is right there in the UK. Saga does a very nice job of putting together not just a series of experiences, if you will, but an entire package, making the shopping, if you will, for everything from leisure to other services, in one package.
One of the things that you’ll find is that businesses who do it well with older adults, do it well across the lifespan. There are certain business values that appeal particularly to the 50 and 60 plus, but that everyone likes. They like things that are safe, they like things that are easy, they like things that are personalised. They like things that are particularly focused on their wellbeing.
So I’ll give you an example. The Apple iPad, or any tablet, if you will, not just to pick a brand, is something that allows me to take off my glasses and crank up the font and still allow me to have the cool factor. I’m using the technology that is ageless, but is able to adapt to my personal needs.
Dyson is another great example. Of really cool technology designed well, designed to be easy, but truly, and this is the phrase I like to use in my book, The Longevity Economy, that uses design that just isn’t usable or accessible, but truly excites and delights.
And then probably lastly, Marriott International has done a really job of understand that the older consumers, not just the one is spending the money, but they are the ones who want to buy, not just a place on the beach, but the experience. To bring together grandchildren, adult children, to have a family trip, not just a family vacation.
Martin: And that’s obviously mentioned in technology there, with the likes of Apple, iPad, and Dyson. You mentioned at the start that one of the disciplines in the Age Lab is engineering. So what benefits do you think that improving technology can bring to an older population in the future?
Joe: First off, technology’s going to play a role in everyone’s life, regardless, if you will, of age and capability. The number of rules that technologists should pay attention to is, they really need to understand the consumer. Unfortunately, as I write in the book The Longevity Economy, is that most technology developers design technologies for themselves. And those techies tend to be, if I may be shall we say a little bit glib, tend to be 27 year old young men wearing sneakers and hoodies, designing technology that they alone either understand, or they alone appreciate.
Instead, we should be thinking about technology that makes life easy. That gives us access to services, and makes things fun, as well. Transcendent design of technologies that not just give us what we need, but remember, technology fundamentally is about inventing an entirely new lifestyle. It brings values, it brings access, it brings a new way of looking at the world. And with an ageing population, we’re not just helping an ageing population age well, Martin, we are inventing an entirely new life stage.
Martin: I know you’ve got some thoughts on driverless cars, I read one of your Forbes articles on this earlier. So what role do you think driverless cars and that sort of technology can play is assisting the older generations?
Joe: Well here the lab we’re doing a lot of work on artificial intelligence, deep machine learning, and yes, one of the major areas that the lab started in is autonomous vehicles. And certainly autonomous vehicles will make it safe and seamless mobility for people of all ages. But older adults in particular will be, I think, the big beneficiary of a safe, seamless mobility system.
But one of the challenges we have is not just that vision of a car that comes and picks you up, and whisks you off to where you want to go. Technology, and public policy, and businesses need now to start thinking about how do we make that little connection work? Which is the car may come to your curb and take you to where you want to go, but how did you get in to the car? How did you get your groceries in to the flat? How did you get to the restaurant you want to go?
So while the technology is wonderful, and will revolutionise how we live, it is the soft things, such as how we pay, how we experience, how we will use it, that is going to the new frontier of innovation in the longevity economy.
Martin: So what steps can businesses and individuals take to understand these issues better, and to incorporate some of this thinking in to their plans for the future?
Joe: Well, the first thing is, they must do away with this old story of old age. That is not just about older folks who are sick, ill, and needy and greedy. Certainly, maybe that may be appropriate for a very small percentage. But we now have a new face of an older consumer, that has new expectations because we have more education than the older population than any time in history. They have more money than any time in history.
I want you to imagine this. Do you know that around the world, the longevity economy has been estimated to be roughly 15 trillion, that’s with a T, dollars as a global market. That’s 30% of the world’s buying power, making it the third largest economy after the US and China.
So the first thing is the reality that this is a market, not just a need. And speaking of needs, the user is not necessarily the buyer. So while you may be thinking you’re making things for older adults, it may be their adult children in their 30s and 40s and even 50s that are buying for their parents in 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond.
And by the way, this is one of the big things that my wife and my two daughters like to remind me. The future is female. When we think about the longevity economy, the number one caregiver, the number one person who is the chief buying officer of the home, is a woman roughly between 47 and 57 years old. She’s responsible for 80 cents to 90 cents on the dollar of healthcare decisions, whether it’s here in the US, or the NHS and the UK. She’s buying the groceries, she’s now working not just part time, but full time. She indeed is society’s chief consumer officer in the longevity economy. And yet, to business, older women, if we define older as 45 or 50 or older, are virtually invisible. This is not just an oversight. This is just plain, frankly, stupid.
And then finally, business needs to realise that old age is not just about filling medical needs. It is not just about a new pill reminder, a wheelchair or something like that, it is about inventing a life stage that hopefully has fun, fashion, and a way of making new friends.
Martin: Now finally, I know that you were previously appointed by former president George W. Bush the White House Conference on Ageing Advisory Committee. Now do you think that the current incumbents in the White House has his same view on ageing, and has the same priorities as previous governments? Is it on the radar for Donald Trump at the moment?
Joe: I think ageing and demographic change is on the radar of nearly every government, regardless of their partisan views and the like. And with some irony, it is interesting that the current occupant of the White House, as well as everyone who is running for that office, was either near 70 or well over 70. So not only is it something that is a matter of policy, shall we say it is something very personal.
And in the UK where they have named ageing as one of the major development issues for the government’s agenda, this is something that the time has come, not just for us as individuals, and families, but as a matter of societal opportunity to turn ageing not in to a challenge, but as an opportunity to invent an entirely new life stage in the longevity economy.
Martin: Joe, thank you so much for your time today. Before you go, where can we find out more about your work and also about the book?
Joe: I would urge you all to follow me on Twitter, Forbes, but also on my lab’s website, agelab.mit.edu. And the book can be found at longevitiyeconomy.com, or at any bookstore vendor near you.
Martin: Thank you very much, we’ll make sure we share all links to those in the show notes as well. Thank you for your time.
Joe: Many thanks, take care.