Beyond canes and walkers

When World War II ended in 1945 and the troops came home from war, they did what a vast majority of young men love to do. No longer dropping bombs and firing bullets in foreign lands, returning soldiers concentrated their firepower on the home front. The Baby Boom generation was born.

Now, 70 years later, those boomers, the youngest of which turned 50 in 2014, are babies no more. From China to Argentina, from New York to Moscow, they are well on their way to joining what will be the largest cohort of seniors in history. For the most part, both the public and private sectors lack the plans, skills, insights and vision to satisfy the basic needs or fulfill the greatest desires of this giant senior sector.

The “experts” miss the mark

Many boomers are still working because they have to, and others because they want to, which fosters economic clout worth a staggering $3 trillion of spending power in the US alone.

While on-trend marketers, retailers and manufacturers are “senior-sensitive” and aware of this demographic’s potential, brand managers and product designers largely lack what it takes to crack the wrinkle ceiling. Creatures of a youth-obsessed culture, the pot of gold from the golden agers has been, to date, beyond the reach of mainstream marketers.

Having “been there and done that,” today’s seniors are looking for new experiences and heart-felt excitement. In fact, some two thirds are planning to spend more time on hobbies and creative interests. Entrepreneurs that key into this trend will fashion their products and services to a senior society ripe to make purchases and engage alternative lifestyles they have yet to imagine.

Why are advertisers unable to create the necessary emotional connection with older consumers to build new brands? Why can’t industry create new products and services that seniors will find indispensable?

It’s not from lack of trying. In 2007, a consortium of public, private and academic thinkers, under the name of The Live Well Collaborative, set out to find ways to corral the senior market. Founded by the University of Cincinnati and Procter & Gamble, it intended to “specialize in research and development of products and services for living well across the life span with an expertise in the 50 plus marketplace.”

However, the goal of changing the way corporations think about how they design products and services to meet the needs of today’s senior consumer was easier said than done. P&G and a dozen other corporate partners, such as Boeing Co. and Oreo cookie maker Mondelez International Inc. (formerly Kraft Foods Inc.), eventually completed more than 40 projects, drawing on the expertise of dozens of academics, seniors and students with backgrounds in design, architecture, engineering, business and nursing.

Eight years into the project and not one new gangbuster product having made its way to market to date, the project is a colossal failure. Even with its attempts to pick the low-hanging fruit of obvious health-related products, needs and services, the group could not get past old fashioned stereotypes of aging to focus (and deliver) on what seniors truly wanted.

In 2017, nearly half of the population will be 50 and older; they will control a full 70 percent of the nation’s disposable income. By 2050, there will be 161 million 50-plus consumers, 63 percent more than 2010.

Based on the evidence, a scant 5 percent of corporations truly understand the nuances of the senior market. Perhaps that is why barely 15 percent of advertising dollars are spent on this demographic, even though it accounts for almost half of consumer packaged-goods sales.

Fending for themselves

Seniors, like everyone else, will benefit from smart labor-saving devices provided by robotics and other digital developments. But they’re not inclined, or able, to hang around waiting for industry or tech support to provide them with the large-picture developments likely to most influence the quality of their lives in the near term. Seniors operate with a degree of urgency, quiet as it might be, that makes them unpredictable marketing subjects.

The low-hanging-fruit entrepreneurs are busy tweaking price points and amenities for conventional assisted-living situations, and many undoubtedly do well. But the senior community also is involved in pressing creative developments for their own transitional or final living situations.

Below are areas of high activity where seniors are making a difference and defining their own possibilities.

Aging in niche communities

Unwilling to end up as inmates in nursing homes, from the young-old to the old-old, seniors are overwhelmingly committed to aging in place, staying in their homes for as long as possible and escaping the grip of an institutional setting. They are choosing retirement homes carefully, ensuring the right amount of assistance will be conveniently available when finally required and, more importantly, making choices that will provide them the emotional, intellectual and social stimulus they need for an engaged life. This has resulted in the growth of so-called “niche communities.”

One popular variant is the university-based retirement community, of which there are about 70 examples. These communities are close to universities, sometimes on campus, and provide options to attend lectures and classes, visit the film society or gym, and take part in “extracurricular” activities like choir or the beekeeping club. To some, this might look like reliving the past, but for most participants, living in these communities provides a mental workout they never before had the time to have, as well as offering a like-minded community of neighbors.

Notable niche communities include The Elder-Spirit Community in Virginia, open to seniors looking for a spiritual setting in which to pursue wisdom, dignity and ritual. The NoHo Senior Artists Colony in California is a boon to its 125 residents, all over the age of 62, who want to continue pursuing interests in dance, art and screenwriting deep into their golden years. They enjoy being surrounded by like-minded neighbors who can help them keep it all fresh — and having a support system that makes this possible into old age.

Virtual retirement comes of age

Called virtual retirement villages by some, they’re among the most exciting and self-actualizing projects promoting artful aging and reinvention of the aging experience. Though the World Health Organization and individual nations are investigating the creation of age-friendly cities, we can expect those efforts to take a long time before fruition. But it appears we don’t have to wait for infrastructure and bureaucratic machinations to get resolved before we can reap the benefits of the concept.

The basic virtual retirement village is comprised of members who pay a yearly fee (currently an average of $450) to gain access to the resources and social connections that will help them happily age in place. Recruited volunteers and discounted service companies oil the wheels, while self-developed cultural events foster the joy of living.

Along with the senior population’s desire for more meaning in their lives is a passion for further and deeper education. According to a Chronicle for Higher Education study, the adult student market will be a fast-growing educational trend for the foreseeable future. This passion is being met by both community and four-year colleges. The nation’s economic tumult and subsequent declining enrollment of traditional-student age groups have made many institutions of higher education open to the idea of expanding their demographic and actively recruiting seniors to specially designed programs.

Members of the American Association of Community Colleges have a well-developed game plan for making Plus 50 initiatives work. The studies offered have the potential to direct th
e 80 percent of seniors who will be working in retirement to new careers, and help them deepen their intellectual and spiritual interests. Though community colleges are anxious for a new revenue stream, they can’t be counted on to rush programs into place without inspiration and pressure from the senior community.

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