In the 1980s, Boston fumbled an opportunity that would haunt it for generations. If, at the dawn of that decade, you were asked to predict where America’s technological epicenter would soon develop, you might have pointed to the area defined by Route 128. There, a leading group of computer developers had set up shop, supported by a web of academic, business, government, and financial interests. The country’s high-tech future was being written and, as in revolutions past, it seemed Boston would be holding the quill.
Instead, however, the future headed west. Silicon Valley, not Boston, was the site of the personal computer revolution — and several subsequent ones as well.
Today, Greater Boston has that rarest of opportunities: a shot at a do-over. More than any other region, it is showing the early signs of a new sort of innovation cluster. Boston’s fledgling Longevity Hub, as we at the MIT AgeLab have begun calling it, has become a major source of creativity in response to population aging: perhaps the most significant-yet-inevitable trend coming to global economies. Inc. Magazine has called Boston — somewhat prematurely — the “Silicon Valley for the octogenarian set.” As populations in the United States and around the world grow older, individuals, regions, and nations alike will have every incentive to adopt new attitudes about what’s possible in later life. Greater Boston is uniquely poised to build the tools necessary for this transformation.
Most countries around the world are home to aging populations: the consequence of longevity gains, plummeting fertility rates, and, in many cases, a post-war baby boom generation now entering its seventies and eighties. Wealthy countries such as Japan and Italy, home to some of today’s oldest populations, are already facing the triple threat of diminished economic growth, deflation, and high taxes — all of which can result when a country’s nonworking older population rises relative to its labor force. Many countries, the United States included, are poised to follow in their demographic footsteps. The country reckoning with perhaps the starkest set of demographic challenges, however, is China, whose population is aging faster than that of any medium- or low-income country. China’s one-child policy and improvements in life expectancy have created a sharp demographic cutoff, which will soon necessitate enormous spending increases on such social programs as pensions and health care. The price tag may turn out to be so large that it could affect the country’s military ambitions.
With facts like these, it’s easy to see why the knee-jerk economic response to global aging is to treat it primarily as a liability. From this point of view, the only thing a country can do about its aging population is try to mitigate its impact: by expanding working-age immigration (thereby increasing the ratio of workers to nonworkers); investing in automation (making the workforce, especially in health care, more efficient); and raising the retirement age (forcing older people back to work — cruelly, in many cases).
BUT THE REAL opportunity — for both Boston and the world’s aging populations — comes not from fighting old age, but by embracing it. The truth is that older people don’t act solely as a drain on the economy. Rather, in their roles as both consumers and producers, they constitute a vital part of it. The more integrated they are with the rest of the economy, the more everyone involved stands to benefit.
In the United States, the economic impact of older adults is already remarkable. Americans aged 50 and up account for just 35 percent of the US population, but, according to the AARP, they controlled 83 percent of all household wealth as of 2018, and were responsible for 56 cents of every dollar of consumer spending — a figure expected to rise to 61 cents by 2050. Their unpaid activities, including elder care, child care, and volunteerism, add another $745 billion worth of production to the US economy. Their labor force participation, too, continues to rise, part of a long-term trend that started in the 1980s.
But older people’s potential economic activity only begins with what they’re up to now. Tools to address their future needs, wants, goals, aspirations, and overall quality of life are either lacking or haven’t been imagined.
In terms of pure consumerism, the demand of tomorrow’s older adults would be gargantuan. For a hint, look past what they’re spending now to what they’re not. Cerulli Associates estimates that the US baby boomer generation will bequeath some $48 trillion to its heirs and charities in the next 25 years. To be sure, this sum is far from equitably distributed. But even if you ask only the wealthiest boomers, barely more than half will tell you that leaving behind an inheritance is important to them. That means there is money waiting to be spent on better living in old age, except traditional sources of consumer-facing innovation have fallen down on the job of earning those dollars. Where they have failed, clever entrepreneurs, attuned to the future wants and needs of older people, will sense opportunity.
But older people are not purely consumers. The story of older employees, as well as older adults’ unpaid contributions to society, is one of catastrophic missed opportunity. Many industries are hemorrhaging intellectual capital as a result of waves of retirement, while in other industries, older workers have to fight both outright and implicit ageism for the right to contribute meaningful work. Traditional unemployment metrics, which don’t categorize retirees as unemployed, paper over the reality. In one nationwide survey, 40 percent of self-described retirees said they would rather have kept working if given the opportunity, and 30 percent said they would rejoin the workforce for the right job.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and yet these gaps persist: between older consumers and those who might service their demand; between older workers and those who would benefit from their labor. There’s a simple reason: the mythical narrative we’ve inherited about aging. In the mid-to-late 1800s, prevailing medical theories suggested rest was the only natural activity for older people. This recumbent attitude, which made its way into the many aging-related institutions that sprang up during this time, persists to this day. Products for older people are limited mainly to medical and leisure goods, while opportunities for them to join in economic production remain all too scarce.
Older adults know better. What aging is “supposed” to mean is necessarily different from their lived experience, if only because the diversity on display in later life is indescribably broad, encompassing every conceivable level of health and wealth, every type of personality, every background. Perhaps that’s part of why, in response to a 2009 Pew poll, only 35 percent of people aged 75 and up reported feeling “old” — our inherited definition of the term is too specific to describe such a teeming variety. Meanwhile, older people are out there, living, pursuing what’s meaningful to them, chasing their goals and aspirations, and striving, like everyone else, for a high quality of life — ideally one on par with, if not better than, their middle age.
To deliver such a quality of life, products, policies, and services for older adults must adapt to meet their true needs, not outdated, stereotypical ideas of what’s good for them.
THAT’S WHERE Greater Boston comes in.
Even if the opportunities presented by aging populations were limited just to automation and health care, Boston’s unique strengths in robotics, artificial intelligence, and the life sciences augur well for a world that’s about to become obsessed with automation and the extension of “healthy life expectancy”: that is, how long the average person can expect to remain in good health. Local drug companies like Moderna may justly claim an outsized share of the spotlight in this regard, but health care comprises far more than pharmaceuticals. Care.com, for instance, one of the leading technological lights in the vitally important eldercare sector, is headquartered in Waltham. For another remarkable local success story, see Amazon’s $1 billion acquisition of the Somerville online pharmacy PillPack, an idea that began in a nursing home.
Speaking purely in terms of entrepreneurship, meanwhile, the region is already home to one of the country’s leading startup ecosystems. Thanks in no small part to its renowned colleges and universities, the local supply of technological prowess is off the charts. And New England’s financial sector is proving itself capable of pulling double duty: funding local startups while offering the financial products and services people need to plan for a stable retirement.
But to imagine what old age might be like in the future, Boston’s current strengths are just the beginning. What’s needed now — and what could really set Boston apart — is new, a shared narrative around aging.
In fact, back in the early ’80s, a shared narrative may have been part of why Route 128 lost its technological crown to Silicon Valley. The Boston area’s then-hidebound corporate structures may have prevented the cross-pollination of ideas — a situation exacerbated by corporate noncompete clauses, legal at the time in Massachusetts but banned in California. (In 2018, Governor Baker signed a noncompete reform bill into law.) Out West, meanwhile, where ideas and personnel flowed relatively freely within and among companies, a new understanding of the computer market was brewing. Silicon Valley’s desktop-sized “microcomputers,” though initially less powerful than Boston’s refrigerator-sized offerings, were far more user-friendly and affordable, making them a good fit for individuals, not just the institutional customers served by the Boston firms. Soon, they had taken over the market — for individual and institutional buyers alike.
THE CHALLENGE for Greater Boston is to nurture this same sort of unspoken, shared understanding attuned to older people and aging societies.
In this regard, too, Greater Boston maintains an advantage, which may have begun as early as 1999. That year, the Beacon Hill Village, the first-ever “virtual retirement community,” began operating under a radical premise: Older people could help each other thrive while remaining in their own homes, not an age-segregated community. Today, the rapidly growing Village-to-Village Network, founded to evangelize the Beacon Hill concept, has taken root in 230 US locations, and the concept has spread abroad as well.
For Boston to transform into the Longevity Hub, this sort of iconoclastic thinking must become commonplace — no mean feat. It will require the simultaneous alignment of several moving parts: what we call the “spokes” of the Hub.
Consider: For companies to truly understand older consumers, they must hire older workers and eldercare-givers. But for informal family caregivers to be able to go to work, they will need a hand to ease their responsibilities at home. Meanwhile, for researchers to turn basic science breakthroughs into useful products for older adults and caregivers, there must be a startup ecosystem attuned to those consumers. And so on. No one spoke acting alone will be sufficient to change how we think about aging, but acting together, they can bring the Longevity Hub into being.
To that end, the MIT AgeLab and Globe Opinion are taking on a yearlong project devoted to setting up Boston’s Longevity Hub. Over the course of 2021, we will bring you monthly op-eds, online Op-Talks, and later in the year, hopefully, in-person events, all designed to help coax the Hub’s spokes into alignment. These spokes, meanwhile, will include: inventing transportation strategies for a nondriving population; breaking new ground in age-friendly housing, empowering the longevity workforce; expanding the finance sector’s role in funding both later life and longevity innovation; sparking research and development for an older society; augmenting the powers of caregivers; updating the startup pipeline for the longevity economy; rethinking health care; and imagining a new, shared, later-life culture.
Perhaps the most important spoke of all concerns life on the ground in New England — home, in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, to the country’s three oldest states by median age. The region itself can serve as a living laboratory: a way to make sure that the Longevity Hub’s offerings benefit the people who live here first and truly improve quality of life across the generations.
Boston has already developed connective tissue capable of convening the disparate forces involved in such an ambitious undertaking, including not just the MIT AgeLab and Globe Opinion but also elder-oriented startup incubators like AGENCY and Aging2.0 as well as the Governor’s Council on Aging, which Charlie Baker established in 2017 with the goal of making Massachusetts the most age-friendly state in the nation.
Writing a new narrative of later life is a bootstrap problem: It’s hard to create without believing in it, but it can be hard to believe until you’ve seen it in the world around you. By making groundbreaking creativity and inventiveness for older adults both seen and felt, Greater Boston and New England will be able to offer the world a new vision of old age. We need to change how we think about aging: not as a liability to be solved so much as a world-historical opportunity to be seized — and a real chance to live better as we live longer.
Joseph Coughlin is director of the AgeLab at the Center for Transportation & Logistics at MIT and author of “The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market.” Luke Yoquinto is a research associate at the MIT AgeLab and coauthor of “Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn.”