We live in exciting times. Some of that enthusiasm comes after reading the book The Longevity Economy—Unlocking The World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market by Joseph F. Coughlin. Why? Even though the book appears to approach the topic from an economics point of view, the vision it paints for the coming years is provocative, uplifting and filled with potential for anyone over 50. While no one can deny that we all face challenges on a global, national and even personal level depending upon individual circumstances, the cresting wave of baby boomers signals something momentous. The question is: Are we going to ride the surge or just sit on the sidelines? Are we going to create a better future, or just attempt to maintain ourselves until we die? Those are questions for business, governments and every single person alive today.
The author, Joseph Coughlin is the founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab. He is an author, teacher and thought-leader that focuses on how businesses, government, and cultures respond to aging trends and lifestyles. Not only has he completed hundreds of research publications, he has been named by the Wall Street Journal as one of the “12 pioneers inventing the future of retirement.” Anyone interested in aging well and retiring happy ought to be drawn to his ideas. I know I was.
And lest you believe this book is another boring economic book, you would be wrong. He spends the first part of his book uncovering the myths of aging that our world currently holds along with the birth and evolution of retirement as a concept. He goes far beyond merely calling ageism a problem that we must overcome by addressing the mindset in which it was created. He then covers how and why Social Security was designed and its many evolutions to become the institution it is today. Only after exploring the myths about the past does he address the future—and the problems and the potential it surely contains. In the end, he offers many inspiring possibilities for business, individuals, and governments that one can only hope will eventually become more common as we age.
A primary theme throughout the book is that our very idea of old age is outdated and needs to be drastically overhauled. Unfortunately, most people seem to view our current thoughts on aging and retirement as something that has always existed and inflexible. Coughlin however, repeatedly points out that old age is a “socially constructed, historically contingent, and deeply flawed” narrative created out of the last 150 years.
In fact, that story has become so prevalent that business, our government and younger generations primarily see getting old as a problem to be avoided at all cost. Coughlin clarifies by saying, “it’s a line of thought that can be followed back to the moment at the beginning of the 20th century when society collectively decided that ‘the aged’ was something that required solving. Declaring something a problem is another way of saying that it’s of negative value: that the world would be better off without it.” In other words, society has come to believe that the growing advance of an older population is a “monolithic mass” that is “needy and greedy, always consuming and never producing.” No wonder none of us want to get old!
Another unforeseen and often unacknowledged aspect of this challenge has been the “normalization” and later “glamorization” of retirement. Prior to the early 1900s, retirement was considered bad because the only people who retired were either physically unable to work, or forced to quit due to the American obsession with efficiency at all costs. To support those nonworkers, Social Security was gradually introduced to those 75 and over. Not only has that age limit dropped throughout the years to 62, now citizens have the choice to draw benefits even while working. That was never something it was originally designed to do. And yes, people are living far longer than was ever imagined at the time.
Those actions helped to engineer the idea that, “retirement” is now “a stage of life” rather than an unfortunate situation. But a downside for calling retirement a “stage of life” is that it continues to reinforce “the idea that older people prefer to be consumers taking support from society, as opposed to producers adding to its strength.” Coughlin goes on to connect how this new stage of life developed as an answer to the “aimlessness of a population learning to define itself in terms of what it bought, not built.” Naturally, business and marketing decided to capitalize on the movement by glamorizing leisure as the ultimate goal for the aged, resulting in a big push for consumerism.
Another interesting fact is that Coughlin’s research shows women approach retirement differently than men. He says in regard to a particular study, “Our male study participants were approaching old age with a fuzzy, optimistic mindset while women were coming to it with a much more precise conception of the challenges in later life. Men were looking forward to a relaxing few decades. Women were planning to grow old. When asked, the top five words that best described their life after their primary work concluded, men said “Retirement. Relax. Good. Hobbies. Travel.” On the other hand, women said: “Fulfilled. Peace. Calm. Accomplishment. Family.” Research also points out that women typically provide the majority of eldercare in our country and live longer than men. In many cases, their view of a long life is often very different than men. For that reason, Coughlin is convinced that “the future will be grey, female, and proud of it.”
Once we arrive at a deeper understanding of how older age has become defined in our culture, Coughlin points out current limitations in terms of new innovation. The majority of businesses are now run by men, young men to be exact, who have little insight into what older people want or need. Even the majority of money to fund new innovation is in the hands of (young) men. Clearly, this current “failure to innovate” shows that in the past “the field of geriatric technology lavishes far more attention on basic needs like health and safety than higher-level needs like the desire for human connection, personal or professional ambition, contemplation, and yes, fun.” Now, with an enormous amount of the world’s financial resources ($5.6 trillion in 2015 alone) held in the hands of those over 50, this enormous (and growing) number of aging population deserves much better attention.
Coughlin also shares numerous stories of epic fails in the marketplace. Who can forget the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up?” Or what about “senior foods?” Does anyone remember those phones with big numbers that could only call home—neither do most other people! As long as products continue to be made and marketed in an outdated stereotypical view of what old means, people won’t buy them regardless of whether they are helpful or not. He says, “When a product is for ‘old people’ and the user, whatever her age, doesn’t think of herself as ‘old’ she’s not going to buy it.” And yes, women control the majority of household spending. Only those products designed to make life easier, happier and more fun for all ages, including the growing number of older people, will be the most successful in the future.
Another provocative section explores the success of retirement communities like The Villages in Florida. Even though 87% of people over 65 say they would prefer to “age in place” in their current homes, destinations like The Villages (or Sun City near where I live), are still very popular among those who retire. Coughlin wonders if that is because they “can seem like the only good, reliable option, simply because it’s the most visible choice.” Remember, most existing houses and those being built today are designed for large families in suburbia, rather than an aging population with different needs. So how can we “age in place” when we live in a house (like a two-story) built in the suburbs where we can’t get around? So if our narrative about old age stays outdated, and without a new agreed on “story” to replace alternative ways of growing older, retirement communities like The Villages can appear “spellbinding.” Coughlin is concerned that senior communities like The Village may continue the old story of aging as needy (people with limitations) and greedy (consumers rather than producers) and further distance future generations and their view of getting older in a positive way.
Is Coughlin hopeful? Yes. The products and businesses that “will succeed in tomorrow’s longevity economy will treat older consumers not as crises to be triaged or puzzles to be solved but as full-fledged members of society with recognizable wants, needs, and ambitions.” He concludes with, “The most important thing about an improved old age will be the simple fact that it will be good to be old.”
Clearly, Coughlin is positive about aging. He repeatedly cites credible sources that state that most people as they age will likely stay reasonably healthy and active throughout the majority of their remaining years. For example, he reports that “59% of people around the world erroneously think that Alzheimer’s disease, the most prevalent form of dementia, is a normal part of aging—(but) dementia is far less common in old age than the absence of it. Even among those 85 and older, two-thirds of people don’t have dementia.” And while he admits that our mobility diminishes as we age, most of the issues we encounter come from lifestyle designs created for people under 30 rather than the inability of people to continue to manage on their own. Again, the past failure to design and plan for this new demographic is a large reason so many people become mobility-challenged at an advanced age.
Like with most books, I can only scratch the surface of all this book contains within this article. But for anyone who is interested in a positive future for our country and our world—aging baby boomers and all—then you might want to read this book. Business and our governments will either conform to the opportunities of this new updated vision of aging—or they will be left behind. And together, in true SMART Living fashion, Coughlin believes, “Best of all, if you make the right choice now, future generations may thank you for it. In building a tomorrow where older adults can chase their dreams, have fun, contribute, achieve meaning—and yes, leave a bit of themselves behind—you won’t only be helping them leave a legacy. The legacy you create may well be your own.”
Okay, how does this apply to your life? Can you “age in place” where you live right now? Is your primary goal as you age to “retire” and relax? Or do you see your longer life as an opportunity to find greater fulfillment? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
One of my beefs is the lack of technical outdoor wear in sizes appropriate for midddle-aged people and seniors. I see lots of older people on hiking trails and on the ski hill. Yet unless you are blessed with a body type that mirrors an athletic twenty-something, it is almost impossible to find outdoor wear that fits. The industry is missing a huge slice of the market. I am wearing ski pants that are 25 year-old hand-me-downs.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Jude! Thanks for pointing out a very clear example of how manufacturers are missing the boat by not designing something that works for all ages. The book does point out that certain companies are making an effort to be more ageless in design. They mention Chicos and a few others I’ve not heard about before. But as you say they are missing a huge slice of the market and anyone who can fill that gap would surely be successful in the years to come. ~Kathy
Caree Risover says
Retired people make an enormous contribution to British society not least as carers (sometimes for their partners, sometimes for their grandchildren) and as volunteers. Our local library and hospital rely on the additional services volunteers provide and without the elderly the funds raised for charities especially through their networks of high street shops would be negligible, meaning that both global and local aid would suffer.
Your points about social security are a little scary. Retirement should be a phase of life to enjoy and now into the 21st century, retiring Boomers and Traditionalists still have to “explain” their retirement choices to people, as these myths get in the way. When I retired from my 32-year day job, one of my cards read “Get up then take a nap, eat lunch, nap…” It was all about the encouragement that now retired, I can take a series of naps all day! I’m not a dog and I can’t take naps! I tell my students to not call their rec programs and facilities for seniors, “Senior Programs” or “Senior Centers.” Boomers simply do not think of themselves as seniors and never will, and we will not attend those programs! I hope enough of us retired and retiring folks can change the tide of these retirement myths and show the rest of the world why we are Thee generation to change this. To the X-ers and Millennials…you’re welcome 🙂
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Terri! Thanks for pointing out that most of us aren’t that interested in just “napping” for the rest of our lives. I think that is something great that you point out on your blog–that there are so many great things we can accomplish and do–and with so many years ahead of us, why not? And it so happens that our city recently changed the name of our “senior center” to “wellness Center”…for exactly the reasons you mention. Yes, the future generations will thank us! ~Kathy
I recognize some concepts covered in your “Positive Aging” book! 🙂 If I ever “retire” I want to just do nothing for the first few weeks and read books and watch TV series, until I am energized again to travel and explore. Ideally, I volunteer with kids and/or animals, learn a couple new languages and try different creative outlets. Can’t wait!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Liesbet! Thanks! I do believe a lot of these ideas are included in my book–but thankfully there are LOTS of other details, research and facts for those of us who enjoy that sort of thing. And while nearly everyone wants to sit back and relax once “work” is done, I believe that in the future more and more of us will do like you and Mark and find work that is more meaningful and flexible no matter what our age. Then we won’t be quite so anxious to ditch it all for the promise of leisure. Working isn’t necessarily bad–but working at soul-sucking jobs is. And yes to doing all sorts of things in life, like volunteering in purposeful ways, at all points of our lives. That’s what I call SMART! ~Kathy
Lynne Spreen says
Wow, what a fabulous review! I wish I had time to read the book, but my goal for 2018 is to write at least 2 Silver Romances. But thanks for sharing!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Lynne! Glad you liked it! And good for you for writing romance novels for those of us over 50! It is a GROWING market for sure. And even if you don’t read the book there are lots of ideas in here that you can include explaining how our future will unfold in positive and SMART ways. I’ve read your earlier books and am looking forward to those to come. ~Kathy
Must be serendipity—I’ve just posted my article for the week, and it’s (wait for it) about longevity! A different perspective, but it’s a topic people are interested in these days, for sure! The book sounds great, and since I’m interested in the demographics, the history, the possibilities of longevity, I’ll more surely read it! Thanks, Kathy!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Diane! Yes, it actually should be a big topic on all our minds, right? I think you would appreciate all the details in the book. Far more in there than I covered about certain advancements in technology, robotics, and yes, medicine and medical advancements. However, he said that the FDA’s strict guidelines actually make it extremely difficult to touch any advancements in the medical field as they try to protect us. An example is hearing aid technology. Even though millions of people (old AND young) could benefit by advancements, the industry is closely monitored. That’s why hearing aids are so very expensive. It’s only been recently that steps are being taken to loosen up the requirements. But because it is such a huge institution, medical innovations happen very slowly. If you do read it, come back and let me know what you think. ~Kathy
Jan Wild says
I blog in the retirement lifestyle space and was literally gobsmacked several months ago when a woman in her 40s commented that it was hard to get support for a blog like mine because older men and women don’t spend much time online and aren’t tech savvy. Just a small anecdote but symptomatic of the lack of understanding of the power (including financial) of the baby boomer demographic. Like you say will the market and governments wake up too late? I hope not.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Jan! What a great example. Coughlin actually addresses that issue by saying that baby boomer parents did not typically use technology to the extent that later generations did…but most baby boomers used it on the job and now are just as technology literate as any age. But of course because everyone over 50? is lumped into the same category as the oldest of old, none of us apparently know much about technology. Wrong, Wrong, WRONG! As baby boomers we will be changing that outdated perception–and it is actually part of our responsibility–to change how younger people see us in the future. Because, guess what? Most of them will eventually be our age too! Thanks for bringing that up! ~Kathy
Hi Kathy! I’m 60 and have been retired for 4 years. My husband will be 70 this year. We have an apartment by the beach and currently still live in our home in the city. We chop and change our minds constantly as although we would like to retire and relax our mindset is such that we need more in our lives to stimulate us. This sounds like a very interesting book and hits the aging myths on the head. The retirement years are so different to our parents generation and most in our age group are living longer so you are right in saying we need to find ways to feel fulfilled. I know I do!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Sue! Thank you for sharing a bit of your personal experience. I think it is so important to keep remembering that we are all so very different that no “one size fits all” for retirement or any other phase of life. Even when some of our needs might be similar–no one can lump us all in one group. The author of the book repeatedly mentions that with us living 30 to 40 more years after a retirement age, there are so many levels of health, mobility, desire, sexuality, talent, education, etc. But again, most younger people and society itself wants to just throw us in a box and leave it that way. I think that was one of the most interesting considerations when he was talking about glamorized retirement villages. In so many ways that can become just another “box” as far as government, business or young people think about us getting older. It will be fascinating to see where it all leads right? Thanks for your comment. ~Kathy
Though advances have been made in treatment and interactions with people as they age, a prejudice against older folks still remains. Ironically, as we age we begin to see how we might have contributed to that prejudice, yet by then it’s in a way too late. Knowledge, reading, openness, understanding, all are still needed as we talk to, engage and reach out to folks older than we are. I begins year to year.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Beth! Yes, thanks for pointing out the fact that we are all complicit in creating ageism on some level. The author points out that advertisers know that the majority of people ignore advertising that paints a negative or stereotypical viewpoint of any product that they feel is for old people. Even helpful things are ignored…he explains how so many people who definitely need hearing aids continue to refuse them because they have they carry the impression that hearing aids are only for OLD people. On the other hand, people will wear glasses even though they often mean the same for aging eyes–but they don’t carry the stigma. That’s why the author spends quite a bit on the book explaining how those who design and create new products that are helpful for aging people need to consider that the very best products are those that are helpful for a majority of people regardless of age. An example, door handles that are levers rather than knobs. Better for all ages really and a simple design change…just don’t market them for old people! And YES! All this reading about aging well is giving me so much positive insight into connecting with those older than me. Thanks for your comment. ~Kathy
Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged.com says
Interesting information. I guess I’m not surprised that men and women approach retirement with different mindsets (although I must admit – at least now – the five words that I’d choose to describe aging might be closer to the men’s – Retirement. Relax. Good. Hobbies. Travel). We older Americans are definitely a misunderstood, easily-dismissed, under-researched group, which is astonishing considering how large a share of the wealth in this country we are supposed to have.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Janis! Yes, I do believe that words like retirement, relax, good, & travel are words I use a lot too 🙂 I think the major difference (from the way I read the book) is that men have been more focused on work and providing for a family and they want to see a happy “end” to that in their aging. Women on the other hand, even if they do work, usually hold the majority of childcare and household duties (not to mention eldercare) than most men and KNOW that in many cases that will never go away. The author makes the point that if sons provide assistance to their aging parents they clean out the garage or the gutters–women on the other hand, clean their bodies. So when women see aging they know that certain tasks will continue to be theirs regardless of whether they are “retired” or not so they describe the future with different words. But as you said, our growing demographic is certainly the most misunderstood. The good news is that the research is growing by the day. Lots of institutions have their eye on our finances so that certainly helps. We will NOT be the same as the generations before us! ~Kathy
Tom Sightings says
Thanks for the wrap-up of this book … lots of interesting stuff. I certainly agree that women in general plan for retirement better than men do. Maybe it[‘s because women tend to live longer. Maybe it’s because women haven’t focused their entire lives on their careers. Or, maybe it’s because women are better planners! Anyway, we can all learn some valuable lessons from the book and the research.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Tom! You’re welcome. It is really a worthwhile book. And as far as women being better prepared for retirement the author goes into the many reasons that is sure to occur. But I feel that a major reason is that men have “traditionally” been focused on work and career for a majority of their lives and women have learned to balance everything–kids, school, social, health, purchases, taking care of others–and in many cases working too! That makes us more prepared to juggle a variety of interests and needs as we age. I do believe that the traditional role of men is changing so perhaps in the future it won’t be quite as obvious, but it was good to acknowledge that for the time being at least, there are differences! Thanks for your comment. ~Kathy
Hi, Kathy – Thank you for another excellent book review. So thought-provoking with lots of gems to mull over. Like Michele, I especially liked the quote “the future will be grey, female, and proud of it.” I found the gender differences for approaching retirement to be fascinating.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donna! Thanks for letting me know that there are others who read SMART Living who enjoy these kinds of topics as much as I do! So much more to the book but I’m hoping I teased those who would be interested in reading it enough to try to find a copy. And yes to the future! ~Kathy
So interesting Kathy! The Agelab at MIT does research I learned on older drivers when I took the AARP driver’s course. They have contracted by some car manufacturers about seat belt placement and neck mobility issues. One of the results has been the dash back up camera found on some models of new cars. I truly believe we have second and third and fourth acts to our lives if we choose. That is my path for my dotage!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! Yes the AgeLab at MIT is doing some great work and they, spearheaded by Coughlin, are doing their best to get business and government to pay attention to what’s coming. He said there are LOTS of unknowns about the future, but the coming population of older adults is not one. But until business and governments acknowledge that we are a huge demographic that want to be more than just buy health care or safety products, lots of opportunity is being overlooked. He does site several businesses, including car manufacturers that are starting to make progress–but it’s slow. It reminds me of a story about Tom Peters who said he was called in to advise Ford about how to design cars that women wanted to drive and own. Peters said he looked around the room and it was just a bunch of older (white) men in suits. He was blunt and told them that they would NEVER know until they started putting women in charge. I still don’t think they got that message. And YES! to second, third and forth acts in our lives! ~Kathy
Kathy, this is a fantastic book review. I look forward to reading it. I think many of us who blog for this demographic understand the positivity and opportunity this age brings. We aren’t going old and sad and sitting in our rockers waiting to die! I love the quote ““the future will be grey, female, and proud of it.” And we will only be grey if we choose to be! Thanks to informing me about the book. I look forward to reading it!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Michele! Thank you. I know it is a fairly comprehensive article (compared to some) but I REALLY liked this book and I hope that my enthusiasm shows! And yes, Coughlin is very clear that with women living longer and the growing population swell, the future will be pro-women! About time huh? Thanks for your comment. ~Kathy
Barbara Ferne says
Hi Kathy and friends: This is my first post to this blog which I have been following for close to 2 years First of all, many many thanks to you for providing wonderful information and insights into positive aging. As I see it, it is an honor and a privilege to get older ( I have had health issues and at one time was not sure how long my “ warranty” would last. This health problem forced me into
rethinking everything , and your blogs have been helpful in my health journey, which I am happy to say is going well.
Like many paths, it is not a straight line, but that is ok . i am 66 years old, and until this August, both of my parents were alive. Lucky me !!My dad was 93 with years of health issues , but when you asked him how he was , he would always say “ so far , so good” and my mother is 88 and I say “ going on 50”. She does not see herself as old, looks fabulous and yells at the TV every day. I don’t have to say why . My point is, it’s about your thoughts( thank you for introducing us to Louise Hay), attitude, and action ( exercise, purpose, social activites )Dthat can make this next phase
of your life at least as good, if not better than the previous ones. That’s my plan, and I’m sticking to it.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Barbara! Welcome to the discussion. Thank you so much for speaking up and letting me know you are out there in the blogosphere! I am happy to hear that your health is improving and so agree that “it is an honor and a privilege to get older.” I also agree that life (and aging!) is not a straight line so having a plan and making conscious choices is always SMART. It sounds like one of your parents passed on recently–and I’m sorry about that. But good for you for observing how they did it and how the choices they made helped. I sincerely hope to hear from you again. Until then…stay SMART! ~Kathy