Ideas

Ideas | Amy Crawford

Retirement is now one-third of adult life. Time to rethink the golden years

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By 2050, thanks to declining mortality and fertility rates, more than 80 million Americans will be 65 or older, nearly twice the number of senior citizens today. It’s a statistic that has implications for everything from health care spending to the availability of a skilled workforce. Indeed, the “silver tsunami” is now a well-worn trope among doom-saying policymakers who worry that more and more old people collecting public benefits could topple our economy.

Far from portending societal collapse, our rapidly accumulating golden years may actually represent a gold mine — even a new golden age, says Joseph F. Coughlin, founder and director of MIT’s AgeLab, in his new book “The Longevity Economy.” In fact, the market for consumer goods, housing and services tailored to American seniors is already worth as much as $8 trillion a year. But tapping into the resources of this fastest-growing segment of the population will require a new wave of innovation — and that has to begin with rethinking old age itself.

Coughlin spoke to Ideas about the new old age, “transcendent” design, and why retiring to Florida might actually be a terrible idea. Below is an edited transcript.

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Q: You describe old age as a “social construct.” What do you mean?

A: In the 19th-century, doctors had the idea that getting old meant your “vital force” was running low, and you had to rest to conserve what little was left. But we started living longer shortly after 1900, and suddenly there were more older people. Business, industry, and the government wanted to justify moving them out of the workforce to make space for younger workers, so they started to create things like a retirement age. Today, despite that we’re living longer and in more functional health than ever before, we have kept this 150-year-old story of old age going.

Q: What’s wrong with retirement? Don’t most people look forward to a time when they won’t have to work, when they can devote themselves to leisure and relaxation?

A: I think all of us say that. But the trouble with today’s definition of retirement is it takes you out, not only of the workforce, but out of society. We retire people away to golf courses, gated communities. We look at them no longer as contributors, but as a group of needy, greedy people. But think about this: Retirement is now one-third of your adult life. People get real tired of doing nothing but golf.

Q: Nobody is pushing older people out of society, though. It’s not some kind of dystopian science fiction scenario that drives them down to Florida.

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A: Well, no. It’s not forced, but it is such a compelling vision. It dates back to the advent of Social Security and pensions and the like — we now had people with time and money, and so marketers created a vision of leisure, travel, retirement communities. And today, people still want to go there, because there is no equally compelling alternative.

Q: What happens if the huge and growing population of older people continues to buy into that 20th-century vision of retirement?

A: Society will have made a decision, by default, to write off a good 25 percent of the lifespan of the fastest-growing part of the population. It’s a problem from a business standpoint. There are certain professions where younger people don’t seem to want those jobs — in aerospace, energy, transportation and medicine. The average age of a doctor today is 53. The average age of a nurse is 50. We need those 50-plus people to provide the working knowledge that keeps our organizations and systems functioning.

Meanwhile, the divorce rate is highest among people over age 50 — women are divorcing their husbands because they don’t know who that man is on their couch, but they wish he would go away. Retirement as we know it is not sustainable, beneficial or healthy for the individual or society.

Q: Beyond retirement, our lack of imagination when it comes to old age has also led to some terrible product ideas. What are some of your favorite epic fails?

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A: One is the Heinz Company, which came up with “Senior Foods” [in the 1950s]. Essentially, they defined their consumer as being not just frail, but apparently lacking in dignity. They gave them food that was easy to chew, but tasteless — they simply took baby food and said that at a certain age, you become infantile again. Luckily, that came and went.

Another example is personal emergency response systems — the classic, “Help, I’ve fallen and can’t get up,” service system. It’s adopted by less than 5 percent of the population who theoretically need one. Not only do people not want a device that says, essentially, “old man or old woman walking,” what we at the AgeLab have found is the people don’t even wear it in the privacy of their own home. We need to start thinking instead about transcendent design — things that are not just usable, accessible and safe, but that excite and delight.

Q: What would an exciting product for old people look like?

A: One of my colleagues at MIT, Dina Katabi, has developed Emerald, which uses advanced radar-like technology to detect movement and people’s vital signs in the house. It can tell if you’ve fallen, or report if your gait has changed. This could be useful for the 43 percent of women over age 70 who live by themselves.

But smart home technologies like Emerald will not just be good for your mother, they’ll also be good for your teenager. You’ll be able to monitor whether the kids are home, whether [family members are engaging in] enough physical activity. These technologies may be driven by the needs of the aging society, but they will benefit us all.

Another part of the longevity economy is going to involve systems to enable us to work longer without injury and fatigue. The Chairless Chair, for example, is a wearable “cobotic” exoskeleton that allows the user — of any age, by the way — to sit anywhere, at any time. It will help people work longer on assembly lines, both in terms of hours and years.

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Q: We’ve been talking about the 65-and-up crowd, but at the AgeLab you also have a special focus group for people over 85. What have you learned from these oldest old people?

A: We recently asked the group, have any of them ever tried Blue Apron or Uber and the like? The answer was, “Of course! Who do you think we are?” Even at the AgeLab, we had a vision of what we thought 85-plus was, and it turned out there are pockets of folks who surpass even an MIT undergraduate in their use of technology. Older people are just like younger people, only more so. They still have interest in relationships. They still have interest in sex. They want to be engaged. They’ve got opinions. They don’t want to retire and go away.

Amy Crawford is a writer living in Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @amymcrawf.