I seldom write book reviews on this blog. But when I come across a book that is aligned with my blog’s raison d’etre, I’m willing to make an exception. It took me two months to finish Joseph F. Coughlin’s new book, The Longevity Economy, but I remember the book’s subtitle, “Unlocking The World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market,” attracted me to purchase it on my Kindle in the first place. And having finished the book, I am more convinced that Coughlin’s rationale behind his book was similar to mine when I first started my blog in 2007.
Coughlin is the founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab, upon which I relied for research behind a number of my blog posts. What I like about his book is that it’s not just one man’s or a small group’s opinion; but all the premises in the book were backed by science and research. The book describes how companies can prepare for an aging world and capitalize on the opportunity to tap the US$8 trillion market.
In the author’s interview with USA Today when the book first came out last November, Coughlin said that companies think they understand the aging market, but they really don’t. Companies often perceive that “older people are always takers, never givers; always consumers, never producers. And as a result, companies make products that, at their core, are designed for passive participants in society.” But older people are increasingly leading an active life and demand to be active participants. This is the major disconnect that makes so many companies unprepared for an aging world.
Like me, Coughlin also believes that the aging cohort is not homogeneous. He said that the set of “older adults” contains people of every conceivable kind: ethnicity, religion, sexuality, medical status, political affiliation – and anything else you could name, other than age. But even if we personally know older people who defy the stereotypes, most of us still paint the idea of “older people” with a single, insanely wide mental brushstroke. I’ve always said that the boomer demographic spans a 20-year age gap, and that alone implies that no one single formula would be able to apply in terms of marketing to boomers. Leading-edge (older) boomers have different needs from trailing-edge (younger) boomers and only customized solutions, also taking into account their ethnic, gender, sexual, medical and political backgrounds, work well and effectively.
Coughlin also said that a new generation of older adults is beginning to demand far more out of later life than ever before. They are not looking for passive consumerism, but the active pursuit of meaning in life. So companies and marketers should come up with products and services that are designed to support them on their journey.
When asked by USA Today about who will be the agents of change in the new world of longer life and older age, he pointed out that women, particularly those of middle age and above, are likely to be the leaders in identifying new wants and needs on the aging frontier. They will also be the ones to come up with demands in the form of products. This is nothing new. We already know that women typically live longer than men. We also know that marketers and advertisers have always labelled women as the chief consumer officer or chief influencer of the home and they make purchasing decisions in key consumer categories including the automotive, health, and many other sectors. It’s also common knowledge that women provide more eldercare than men. What’s enlightening is that Coughlin pointed out that the research done by the MIT AgeLab suggests that women enter old age with a clearer, more detailed picture of what’s ahead. The firsthand knowledge that comes from being the primary buyer and caregiver gives them a unique vantage in understanding what products, services and experiences are effective as they respond to the challenges and demands of old age.
Coughlin said it’s a sad truth that women are often invisible to the investment and technology communities. That’s why the needs and wants they are responsible for go unanswered and the tools they deserve never get built. I’ve also pointed out many times that the advertising and marketing community keeps hiring young people to innovate for and advertise to the older market which is far from ideal. Coughlin mentioned in his book that when young people attempt to innovate for the older market, the same stuff comes up again and again: pill reminders, fall detectors, emergency response technologies. This is evidence that young people can’t get past the idea that older people are a medical problem to be solved. He said that smart venture capital companies, should instead, bet on older women’s ideas of what innovative products or services that would help older people lead a positive, meaningful life.
Seven years ago when I gave a keynote speech at the Digital Divas Conference in Toronto, I was advocating that companies should come up with innovative products and services that would focus on wellness and life enhancement solutions that would help improve boomers’ quality of life. It is, therefore, gratifying to see that Coughlin believes that there is a huge demand for products that will actively excite and delight older adults for decades to come. Marketers need to help the greying population “celebrate life in old age while they’re alive.” And may I add to that: make grey the new green!