Author Talks: Older, wiser, and not going anywhere

As people live longer and work longer, the market for where they spend their money continues to grow in size and variety.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Susan Wilner Golden about her new book, Stage (Not Age): How to Understand and Serve People Over 60—the Fastest Growing, Most Dynamic Market in the World (Harvard Business Review Press, June 2022). Citing trillions of dollars in spending power, Golden says companies should cater more products and services toward the people with the most wealth: those in their golden years. Members of the 60-plus crowd are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives, and the products and services they use are part of a market called the longevity economy. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What is the longevity economy, and why is it worth trillions of dollars?

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The book talks about how the 60-plus economy is vibrant, it’s worth over $22 trillion worldwide, and every business and every entrepreneur, going forward, should be thinking about how we can support healthy aging and longer life spans with a variety of products and services.

The longevity economy includes all the jobs, services, and products that are being created to support longer life spans and all the contributions of long-lived lives. This is a new concept, and it’s worth over $8.6 trillion here in the United States.

Traditionally, people always looked at aging as a frailty, or as a declining stage of life, but in fact, older adults are living much greater lives with longer health spans (the healthy periods of a person’s life), which enables them to be productive and to contribute to society. That’s how this longevity economy concept came about.

The longevity economy includes all the jobs, services, and products that are being created to support longer life spans and all the contributions of long-lived lives. This is a new concept, and it’s worth over $8.6 trillion here in the United States.

Why did you write this book now?

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The book is a combination of many years of research and work that I had done as a Distinguished Careers Institute fellow. In 2015, Stanford University started a new program for people who were what they considered midcareer—anybody from their 50s all the way into their 80s—to come back to the university and rethink what they want to do with the next stages of their lives.

No longer does the concept of learn, earn, and then retire make sense when people are living 100-year lives. I had the good fortune to be in the second class of the Distinguished Careers Institute in 2016. There, I learned about the concept of longevity—that people are living much longer lives, and that our children can expect to live well into their 100s.

As a former venture capitalist and somebody who had a career in public health, I began to see opportunities and began wondering, “Why aren’t more businesses supporting longevity? Why aren’t they creating products and services to help people live longer lives with greater health, purpose, and engagement?”

The concept of longevity is new, and we just don’t have the products and services to support healthy aging that are going to be needed. The book teaches the concept of how every company needs a longevity strategy—not just for their products and services but for their workforce, because people are going to have 60-year career spans.

During that period, they’re going to need upskilling. They may need multiple career breaks for caregiving, both for their own children or to take care of older parents. There are many ways a company should be thinking about having a longevity strategy, and this book targets all companies. For companies that exist, it’s about how they can think about a longevity strategy. For entrepreneurs and innovators, it’s about opportunities for creating new companies to support longevity.

Do companies need a customer longevity strategy?

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Traditionally, a lot of companies target the demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds without knowing that the greatest amount of wealth is controlled by people 50 and older. The majority of consumer spending is controlled by people 50 and older, and over 83 percent of wealth in the United States is controlled by older customers.

Companies should be thinking about a product and service that they may have targeted just to younger people, and perhaps modifying it so that it can be a multigenerational product. One company that has done that successfully is Warby Parker. We all think of it as the hipster brand for eyeglasses for a younger market. It turns out that now, over 50 percent of sales from Warby Parker is for older adults who need progressives but still want hipster frames. The concept that you can expand your customer base is something new that a lot of companies haven’t thought about.

What do you mean by marketing to stage, not age?

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Most people have stereotyped all older adults by age in saying that everybody’s the same over the age of 60, without recognizing there’s great diversity between 60 and 100. You can have an 80-year-old working or running marathons like Dr. Anthony Fauci and being as vibrant as a 40-year-old. Traditionally, by thinking that everybody [over 60] is in a declining mode, people have marketed to the frail elderly.

I looked at companies that have done well by instead marketing to stage and asking, “What stage of life is somebody in, and what types of products and services are they going to need?” They may need some modifications, but they still want to be vibrant and not stereotyped by what they need. Many companies haven’t considered a multigenerational product to support that. In turn, new companies need to be thinking about how they would market to an older adult based on their stage in life, not their age.

Why do you recommend a ‘design with, not for’ approach?

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It’s not reasonable to think that all younger people can understand the wants and needs of an older adult, so bring an older adult into your team and have a multigenerational workforce. It will add value, and your team will be more productive as a result.

When you design features that may need some accommodations as somebody ages, you don’t want to call it out. Big, beige, and boring are the traditional characteristics for products for older adults, but [the products] might have what we call stealth features. A good example of that is BMW. They’ve redesigned their entire dashboard, recognizing that most of the people who buy their cars are 55-plus, so they may need bigger dials, they may need some contrast in color because people need that more as they age, but the exterior of the car looks the same.

The overall feel of the car looks the same—they’ve just created some modifications that will help an older adult enjoy that car more. That’s an example of a stealth feature designed with a multigenerational team to understand what the needs of an older adult might be.

Nike, interestingly, had traditionally targeted the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, but they realized that as their athletes were aging, they were continuous athletes or athletes forever; they may be running slower, but they’re still running. Nike initially designed a new athletic shoe that would support the features of an older adult in terms of cushioning, padding, and ease of access for entry. They called it the Cruiser 1, and it was a pilot project to get a sense of what would be needed for older adults who are continuous athletes.

It’s not reasonable to think that all younger people can understand the wants and needs of an older adult, so bring an older adult into your team and have a multigenerational workforce. It will add value, and your team will be more productive as a result.

Now they’ve revamped their strategy. They’ve demarcated between the needs of men, women, children, and across all spectrums in order to integrate athletics for all ages, not just for the 18- to 34-year-old.

What are Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs)?

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I learned about Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs) from one of my professors at the school of public health who was my dissertation adviser. He lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I visited him one time and he said, “I live in a NORC.” I said, “What do you mean? You live in an apartment building.”

He said, “Yes, but there are many apartment buildings here in this neighborhood, and it’s easy to access because we have elevators, it’s easy to get food, it’s easy to get transportation, and it’s easy to cross the street because in NORCs, they have slowed down the change of crossing lights so that older adults can cross the street more easily. They are also close to a hospital and close to medical care.”

It’s not that people have to move out of their neighborhoods. They can stay in their neighborhood and still access all the services that they need. It can become a community of services to support them. It’s really exciting to see that cities are trying to support older adults aging in the environments that they want to be in within their communities. This is happening throughout the country.

Why do women matter more in tapping the longevity economy?

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That has everything to do with stage. Often, particularly in healthcare and very much so in caregiving, you will find that the caregiver is a daughter or a daughter-in-law. Traditionally, three-quarters of caregivers have been female. They often are the decision makers or influencers around products and services to support the care recipient. We see that in healthcare as well.

Marketing to a daughter is different from marketing to the older adult who’s the care recipient. Finding that daughter and figuring out how to market to them is important for any company that is thinking about products and services that can support older adults. We see that, increasingly, there are different types of longevity customers. In fact, there are eight different types, the daughter being one.

Should the AARP rename itself as the American Association of Renaissance People?

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Ah, I love that idea. The AARP is doing amazing things around innovation: they have an age-tech collaborative, and they have many hubs where you can create new products and services. They are very innovative, and most people, traditionally—including me when I used to get mail—would just throw it out and say, “I don’t need insurance,” not knowing that their website has all these resources for caregivers and healthy aging.

I love the concept of renaming AARP for renaissance people because that’s one of the stages I articulate in my book. I think people who are at this later stage of life are repurposing, transitioning, and rethinking their life priorities. It truly is a renaissance stage. Most people really don’t want to retire. They may want to take a break, and they may not want to do the same type of work or career that they had, but they may want to repurpose, rejuvenate, and start in an area that has more meaning for them or that gives them more flexibility.

The concept that everybody over 65 is called a retiree or is of retirement age puts them all into one bucket. I think it’s important to abandon those kinds of words. It’s the same for senior and elderly because, again, it often has the connotation of the end, whereas you can have another 30 to 40 years of vibrancy to go.

Most people really don’t want to retire. They may want to take a break, and they may not want to do the same type of work or career that they had, but they may want to repurpose, rejuvenate, and start in an area that has more meaning for them or that gives them more flexibility.

Why put people in that kind of bucket? People have tried out many different terms for this period of life, which I put in the book—anywhere from bloomers to different colors, like the silvers or the golden. In talking with a friend, I came up with a new concept, which is furtherhood.

We’re not in elderhood, we’re in furtherhood. We keep going further, and we have more to look forward to. This can be the happiest time of life and one of the most productive times of life, rather than an ending stage that goes on for a long period.

Watch the full interview

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Susan Wilner Golden on getting older, wiser, and not going anywhere

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