Work has changed in America, and our notion of work is evolving along with society.
Thanks to advances in science, from antibiotics to vaccinations, life expectancy in the U.S. has increased. In 1900 it was 46 years for men and 48 for women; it’s now 77 years for men and 81 for women.
Today’s work environment is less dangerous and taxing, thanks to a century of new safety laws, machines and computers that have transformed offices and factories. The demands on our lives and our bodies are not what they once were.
People also have more opportunities due to advances in transportation, with breakthrough ideas like ride-hailing apps and rapid light rail. Such options within cities are enabling many, particularly seniors, to get out of their homes more often.
But our views on retirement — a concept introduced in 1935 with the passage of the Social Security Act — have not kept pace. There is still a negative bias in how we view people over the age of 65. That needs to change, because there is nothing but disruption on the horizon when it comes to aging.
It’s a “Booming” World
Baby boomers are demanding better, in all aspects of their lives, and businesses will have to find new ways to market to these new “seniors.” That’s why I turned to an expert on how the U.S. business community is missing the mark when it comes to helping boomers age into retirement.
I recently asked Joe Coughlin, author of “The Longevity Economy,” to speak at a company leadership meeting. Coughlin says the older adult market is misunderstood, and he cites several examples, both good and bad, of how companies try to serve them.
Here are some of my observations from the book and Coughlin’s visit with our team.
Product design needs to address the needs of seniors. One of the main takeaways I had from the book, and from my talk with Joe, is the importance of respectfully designing products that address the needs and desires of older adults. That means treating them not as a set of problems but as “full-fledged members of society with recognizable wants, needs, and ambitions,” as Joe puts it.
In many cases, products are designed by young engineers who don’t understand or account for the needs of seniors.
Coughlin cites BMW’s 2001 debut of “IDrive,” a joystick designed to simplify dashboard controls. Coughlin says many people hated it, especially seniors. That’s an issue because older people are a big part of BMW’s customer base. Although BMW fixed the problem, it’s a great example of older adults not being part of the design process.
65 is no longer the real retirement age for baby boomers and countless others. More and more boomers are remaining in their current jobs or choosing others, which is a good thing when you consider the brain drain. When we think of retirement, we traditionally think of age 65 (Medicare eligibility) with Social Security now kicking in at age 66. . But let’s be honest: For many, age is only a number; it’s not an indication of ability.
A few years ago, I wrote on LinkedIn about how my own father got bored in retirement and went back to work as a network engineer (Update: he stills loves doing it and feels it’s given him a real boost in his life).
It’s clear that my father and tens of millions of others are not going to fade away, but live life on their terms. More and more boomers are raising their grandchildren, going back to work, and starting their own businesses.
A bias in how seniors are portrayed in the media is not helping matters. Coughlin explored the misperceptions around older adults and how many of us “expect older people to live apart, quietly sequestered away in retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes, surfacing to shop and dine only when everyone else is at work.”
This negative perception reminded me of how my company sponsored research examining the negative stereotypes of seniors in the 100 highest-grossing movies of 2015. The research showed that seniors were ridiculed, as well as “underrepresented, mischaracterized and demeaned by ageist language.” Findings also showed that “out of 57 films that featured a leading or supporting senior character, 30 featured ageist comments.”
At Humana, we’ve done our own research which shows that aging with optimism improves a person’s health. We also firmly believe that older adults are solid contributors to the workforce because of the proven skills, capabilities, and experience they bring.
Every stage in a person’s life needs to have a clearly defined purpose, especially the last one. Coughlin writes that there are four “chunks” of life, each of which is composed of roughly 8,000 days. The first covers birth to college; the second, college to midlife; the third, midlife to retirement; and the last covers retirement and beyond.
An 8,000-day chunk is about 20 years. Yet while it’s easy for many of us to plan for the first three “chunks,” we need to realize that the last one could go on much longer than two decades. We as a society need to embrace retirement as useful longevity.
Today’s 65-year-old is very different from today’s 85-year-old. That’s why personalization and understanding the stages in 8,000 days is critical. With Baby Boomers now aging into their unique and dynamic version of retirement, just imagine what this new generation of seniors will be able to accomplish from ages 65 to 85, and beyond.
As a person’s health, financial and social needs increase with age, there is an opportunity not just to guide people through the fourth “chunk,” but to help them live life to its fullest potential.
The path forward
We need to look at older adults as a very active, very participatory segment of our society. They’re going to retire the term “retirement.” And that’s a good thing.
At Humana, we’re committed to addressing the needs of our 3.3 million Medicare Advantage members. Every one of our members is unique, and they certainly do not intend to fade into the background at age 65.
The Baby Boomers will change the concept of retirement, and the American business community will have to innovate in ways that meet their needs. Let’s harness the power of imagination to help seniors live their best lives.