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The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World's Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market by Joseph F. Coughlin

Published in November of 2017.

What do we talk about when we talk about the future? Topics such as worries that robots will take all of the jobs are likely to come up.  Artificial intelligence, driverless cars, and augmented reality always make for good conversation.

A subject that is seldom mentioned in our discussions about the future is changes in the age structure. Specifically, we don’t seem to talk much about how the U.S. is getting old, and will get much older much faster than we realize.

In The Longevity Economy, Joseph Coughlin shows us that not only are we not talking about aging enough, that when we do talk about the elderly that we mostly get things wrong.

First, we miss just how big the older population - both in numbers and percentage wise - is going to be. By 2060 the number of Americans ages 65 and older will more than double, reaching an astounding 100 million. Where today about 15 percent of the U.S. population is 65+, by the middle of the century that proportion will climb to 1-in-4.

As Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab explains in The Longevity Economy, today's and tomorrow’s older cohorts bear almost no resemblance to how they have been traditionally represented in media or advertising.

Those in their sixties and seventies (and tomorrow likely those in their eighties or even nineties) behave, think, and act nothing like the stereotypical elderly.  They will often be working (by choice or economic necessity), while even in retirement they will be maintaining lives filled with activity, consumption, and contributions.

The main point that Coughlin is making is that the narrative that our society has built up around the final third of life is just wrong. Rather than years of decline, life after 65 (or 75 or even 85) can be full of possibility, exploration, and learning.

Most companies have either ignored the older American demographic, or if they have marketed to this group done so in ways that are both ineffective and insulting.  Products for older adults tend to assume that this group does not want sex appeal or style. There is no Warby Parker for hearing aids. Older Americans want more than big buttons on their devices. 

The part of The Longevity Economy that I enjoyed most was Coughlin’s description of age-restricted communities such as Florida’s The Villages.  He points out that age discrimination is the only type of discrimination allowed by federal law.  Personally, I could not imagine living in a 55+ community where kids are basically illegal, but some folks love that lifestyle.  Coughlin describes life in The Villages as analogous to living in a college residence hall, except with cheaper booze and more sex.

Why higher ed people should care about the grandparents, and increasingly the parents, of our traditional 18-22 year students is a good question.  Our systems of intensive study and credentialing early in life are increasingly poorly fitted to the modern life course.  The future will be one of continuous learning and credentialing.  Colleges and universities that can offer access to a lifetime of education may prove to be more resilient than those that stick to traditional models.

What other good books on the intersection of demographics, economics, and society would you recommend?

How is your institution preparing for a future that, at least in terms of age structure, will resemble life in Japan?

What are you reading?


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