How might we think about the experiences of older adults and bring their needs into the mix at workplaces, in product development, through education, in job creation? How might we weave age intelligence into the DNA of a workplace to make teams stronger and more resilient? How can we stop thinking about designing phones especially for older adults, and think about how we might design cool phones for people at every age?
We all age, from the very moment we’re born. The one thing we have in common, regardless of our background, where we live, our gender, the color of our skin, is that we all get old. So, why don’t we talk more about age? Afterall, it is one of the most universal human experiences on this planet. We don’t talk about aging enough, and it’s holding us back as both makers of universal products, creators of relatable brands, leaders of inclusive organizations, and humans in a highly-connected society.
In this episode, Fanny Krivoy and Mindy Eng talk to author and former corporate advisor for strategic policies and partnerships Bradley Schurman to uncover why rethinking our perspectives on aging makes both human-sense and business-sense, especially in what Bradley calls the Super Age.
BS. Well, the Super Ages is a designation demographic. Demographers tend to classify populations within countries as aging aged and super aged aging populations, or seven percent of the population over the age of sixty five. Aged is 14 percent and super aged is 20 percent over the age of sixty five. So I co-opted this term in many ways because for all too long, it was a term that was pejorative. It was a term that was negative. It’s signaled to the world that. These populations will start to have significant challenges with their social and economic standards because our ratio of workers to those out of work will simply be out of whack. But what was missed in designating a country as super-aged was that our life course has fundamentally altered and we live now longer and healthier than ever before in the history of humankind. So with that in mind, this is a positive period for us. This is a super age, a really great time to be alive, and it’s due to the confluence of a number of different trends. Two real megatrends have just smacked up right against each other. The first is that we’re living longer lives and a large number of us are granted this opportunity today. So just as a point of information, there were seventy-six million baby boomers born in the United States and 70 million of them are still alive today.
I challenge you. I challenge anybody to go out there and find a number of sixty-five-year-olds and tell me if they’re in decline. There is a chance that one or two of them might be, but there’s a greater chance that the majority are going to be healthy, connected, active, cognitively fit, physically fit, and still want to engage in society. Not interested necessarily in a full “traditional retirement”.
They’re breaking the mold, so to speak. And. Throughout our history, whenever there’s been a shift in life and this is a pretty dramatic one where we’ve over the course of roughly one hundred years doubled the life expectancy, we can anticipate that there will be a shift in life course too. To identify this group of people. This new emerging group of people is super agers or the middle plus. They’re a novel group of consumers. They’re a novel group of workers that are certainly past traditional middle age. But they’re definitely healthier, both physically and cognitively than previous generations. They’re more interested in staying in work, either paid or volunteer, or they’re digitally connected more than at any other time in history. They’re really awesome in every way. And there are prizes to be taken by businesses, whether you’re bringing them on as workers or as your consumers. In fact, we’ve just gone through a little bit of a messaging uptake on our site and we now say, you know, adults have grown up because this new consumer group is such an opportunity for us to get our hands on. And that’s what at the end of the day, we’re trying to do help businesses understand that reality.
PI. Yeah, that was really beautiful. Beautifully said, so adults have grown up. And so what are brands and products and companies doing about that right now? Are they doing much at all? What are you seeing out there?
BS. it’s consistently inconsistent. We, when we talk to businesses about their super age strategies, they need to focus on three main areas of human capital. That’s the recruitment and retention of workers, primarily a population that’s not only older but also generationally diverse, getting at least five generations into the workforce and then using them internally and using them in the verticals of innovation and design, and then marketing and communication and consistently across the board. This is the one piece of consistency I should say very few businesses get all three right. Perhaps the one business that started us off on understanding this consumer group better than anyone else is BMW and BMW. Around two thousand seven or two thousand eight came to this realization. One person, their HR director in Germany, came to this realization that his workforce was looking really old and he had two challenges here. Either he could figure out some magical way to recruit people in younger workers in, or he could figure out some magical way to help workers stay. And he looked at the demographic map. He looked at birth rates in particular like we do here at the Super Age, and he said, Hmm, we just don’t have enough young men and women coming into the workforce. We’re going to need to figure out how to extend working lives. So he did something revolutionary at the time. I mean, I think it’s still revolutionary today because so few businesses do it. He went up there on the factory floor and he asked the older workers, What do you need from us to make your job better? And I thought to myself at the time, I still think today, how special is it that an executive within a company would have the foresight to actually talk to their workers? And he did that, and they said, Well, you know, we could use barber chairs.
You know, there are stools that you can slide around in that would help take some of the pressure off our legs. It’d be nice to have some orthopedic shoes because we have to stand so long or maybe a soft padded floor, rather than the harsh concrete that we stand on today. We’d really love for magnifying glasses to be at each workstation because, you know, it’s hard to read those small numbers on the nuts and bolts. And you know, this probably sounds silly, but we’d love to get a stretching station. And the executive said, OK, I can make these, I can make these adjustments. And I think his initial investment was $50000 U.S. But the response was just universal. Every older worker loved it. And surprise surprise, every younger worker loved it, of course. So what he did was create a space through unintentional, I believe, intentionally inclusive design. And what the outcome was was that the product became better because the employees were happier. He was able to extend the lives of older workers, but he’s most likely going to dramatically extend the lives of his younger workers now, too, because those strains that are put on the body from automated from that kind of repetitive work won’t happen to the same degree that they do today.
Bringing older workers into the workforce has a butterfly effect, a ripple effect, because then it can bleed into other parts of your business. So BMW actually builds great cars for older people now and their cars the younger people love just the same way because you have age diversity at play, and it’s harmonious. But BMW isn’t perfect. They screw up in their marketing and communications all the time. And in fact, BMW made some critical errors, in my opinion, in the U.S. market. Both of Mercedes Benz and Porsche have followed suit in BMW, who’s groundbreaking work. So both companies are looking closely at age diversity and Porsche is really walking the talk. They spent over a billion dollars on their plant in Leipzig to create a business that’s really age friendly in every regard. That focus is on constant education and really good ergonomics again with the core goal of extending work lives. That’s intentional. What they’re doing there, I would say, though, you know, the one company that gets close to batting a thousand here is is Apple.
And that may come as some surprise to folks because Apple is seen as a very sleek, high-end technology company. But because Apple is so intentional about its design, not only the look of the product but also what’s included in the product and the way their stores are run. In particular, older consumers love what they’re doing. Older men in particular use Apple products more than any other consumer group. And let me tell you why Apple devices have done a really good job of integrating both privacy features, which everyone loves, but also health monitoring features which are really important to older consumers, especially again, especially this super age consumer, this middle-class group of people that are different than previous generations because they’re taking an active role in their life, they’re taking an active role in their health.
What Apple did is it took something that is inherently scary for older consumers. Packaged it in a very non-threatening way and said, We got you. We got you. And what’s revolutionary about this is that around, I would say, 30 to 40 years ago, another company tried this to some degree of success. It was called life alert. It’s still around today. And at the time, in the nineteen eighties, life alert gave you a beige-colored button. Yeah, and it was on stainless steel, faded, you know, necklace and you wore it around your neck.
And if you fell, you press the button and it would call emergency services to your home. The way, though, that life alerts marketed this device, which again, was revolutionary at the time, was typically a flailing old woman on the ground, typically in the bathroom. And she says, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up. Well, that scared people, that scared people. Apple empowers people, and those two things are so different in their approaches, but they’re taken into account. This Apple approach takes into account what this new consumer group looks like. They have aspirations that really are no different than the ones that younger people have. And you know, at the end of the day, human beings, we’re tribal people, we’re pack people, we’re animals and we like to stick together and we like to be part of a larger group, if not leading it. This group of novel consumers, the super age group, this middle class, are without a doubt intentional about staying in the pack, if not leading it,
PI. Can you give us other examples of either start-ups or communities or cities or countries for that matter that are tackling either the health, the connected active, the cognitive, the being fit part in isolation or together? Who’s doing things that are breaking new territory in all those areas?
BS. The good news is. Most places, most countries, and most economies are making an attempt today. I’m the better news is that some of them are getting it right. But the honest perspective is, is that no one’s doing it 100 percent. There are always some failures. And it’s important for everyone who’s listening and hopefully sharing this podcast, this conversation is that it’s OK to get things wrong. We are in a test-and-learn period right now because this is a novel period for humanity. This is the first time ever that we’ve had a population where at least one out of five people. Is over sixty-five, and it’ll be that reality in thirty-five nations by the end of this decade, so. I can’t be clear enough that it’s OK to fail in this period, but it’s not OK to pretend that we’re living in the status quo.
It’s an idea that was born out of the World Health Organization, but it really is like an inclusive design on steroids. It considers all populations, which is what the core of the inclusive design is, but it puts that lens of age on first, because aging populations, the oldest populations, in particular, have long been underserved. So what they’ve done is they’ve looked at ways in which they can connect city services better, the way they can build their buildings better, at least those that are in the public space the way that they can. Consider the built environment within the community to make it easier to get from Point A to Point B, including modifying the public transport service to be more considerate of physical decline or physical needs. And that’s all very positive. They’re hoping there’s an added benefit of extending working lives to some degree. And of course, younger people can all take advantage of these changes, too. They’ve gone so far as to partner with businesses in a number of areas as well for the delivery of goods and services to populations that may be at risk of isolation as well, which is very good because isolation is a. And loneliness are terrible diseases that really wreak havoc on individuals both in later life and in and youth today.
So this is not something that we’re just solving for the end. Nationwide, Japan, through their Postal Service, created a model called Watch Over that is certainly being attempted in Italy and France now, and watch over allows for them to use existing infrastructure. The Postal Service, in particular, has to deliver mail every day to go into and to visit people’s homes, to make sure that they’re getting the products and services they need, that they’re they are getting some social connectivity during the day, and that’s a really great way of leveraging something that’s already there but may not be utilized, perhaps to the same degree that it was before. You know, are people sending as many letters as they were just five years ago? No. But can you repurpose that infrastructure to do something more? Absolutely. And let’s be clear, this isn’t the first time that a Postal Service has gotten into a business that wasn’t their business before. Japan’s Postal Service has, I think, the largest bank in the country, as well as one of the largest insurance companies in the country, too.
I mentioned Germany, of course. I think Germany has done a stand-up job when it comes to older workers, although I think there are some Germans that would disagree with me heartily on this. But I do believe that there is a lot to look at here in the United States that is certainly within the startup space is wildly innovative to the point that I’ve spoken with some of these, many of them young men and women, you know, late millennials, early Gen Z that are getting into this. And I’m like, Why didn’t I think of that? And I’ve been in this for 25 years, why didn’t I think of that? And I think that one of those folks is Jake Rothstein, who started Upside Helm, which is a South Florida-based housing provider, and housing tech company. And they match older customers who are looking for roommates in homes that they rent. And it’s worth taking a look into because. When I asked Jake, you know, Jake, I don’t know, like, I don’t know if I’d want to live with roommates myself when I’m that age, she goes, Why? You’ve had a roommate your entire life. And I said, no, I haven’t I haven’t had a roommate in my entire life. He’s like, No, Brad, you have. And I thought about it and when we think of a roommate as just a stranger.
Maybe we haven’t had a roommate our entire life, but when we think of a roommate as a roommate, someone we actually share space with. Most of us have had roommates for most of our lives, whether it be a partner or a lover or a friend or wife or husband, or a spouse. We’ve lived with people, so living alone and later in life is actually the opposite of normal. Yeah, it’s abnormal. So I think that’s a really cool approach.
All of that. So anyhow, I talk about this sometimes to the cycle of moving from unintentional inclusive design into the intentional inclusive design, and then as it becomes natural, it moves back to unintentional because it’s something that you don’t even think about. I’m curious if you’ve seen that full circle happen anywhere yet or, for example, maybe Japan or also what the telltale signs of when that full circle happens.
I’m not sure there’s a tipping point for when the cycle changes. I think it’s natural for the cycle to go in and out. Intentional, unintentional, intentional, unintentional. Because as leadership changes and leadership often drives this within a company, this isn’t necessarily something that bubbles up. This is something that, at least in my experience up until today is really been driven by people who are in the C-suite for the most part or within some type of leadership role. You don’t often see a middle mid-level manager saying, Oh, we have to think about old people or we have to think about demographic change. It doesn’t. It doesn’t work that way. Very often it’s more likely you’ll get a VP or a C-suite exec that says, Hey, we should really take a look at this. Like the case in Germany at BMW, it was a leadership or sea level. I think he was leadership company-wide, but certainly sea level within that, that specific plant that said, Hey, we really need to you need to think about this intangibles hard. It’s a lot harder than unintentional to get working because you have to challenge bias. And most of our workforce is made up of people. What thirty-five to 50? That’s the bell curve where a significant number of people are so asking them to think differently about demographics. Older populations are hard because they don’t have the lived experience.
They have to be able to see things in that, that economic light. What does it mean for their bottom line? What does it mean for them? You have to lean into their selfishness above and beyond anything else, and then you have to kind of make them understand that it’s good business for them to bring older people into their teams. I do think there are a couple of things that are at play here, and it’s and it’s so troubling to me because they’re so diametrically opposed. You’ll hear certain managers say, Oh, they’re too qualified as if they’re a threat to them. And then you hear other managers say, Oh, well, you know, they just can’t keep up with the technology. So they’re underqualified. And, you know, in in a world of Goldilocks, like, it’s very hard to find that that right bowl of porridge, you know, you want to be able to to find somebody who’s in the perfect place at the perfect time to say, Yeah, I get that, I get the value that person brings to the table and I can see how to utilize them on my teams. But it’s hard to get there. It’s really hard to get there now in terms of how it works. I think when you’re intentional up front, you can start seeing the returns pretty quickly.
There is a reality around the conclusion that there have to be certain market forces, I think in the right place at the right time for most businesses to understand, the German industry didn’t say one day, Oh, let’s go after old people as they said, we have a clear and present threat at our doorstep and we need to adapt or die. And that’s what we’re approaching for many businesses today. So they may leave the gate intentionally, but it will. It will. It will become very natural, very quickly because they simply don’t have a choice. And let me explain for a moment why they don’t have a choice. We are in the midst of right now a great resignation. Everyone is talking about the great resignation only tells part of the story, These are historic highs and they happen for three quarters of 2020. Twenty-one, it’s really astonishing. But what people missed in this conversation was that during the pandemic period, of course, we’re still in that. But during the pandemic period, we’ve had an excess of three million extra retirements. So it’s not just that young people are leaving their jobs, older people have left their jobs, too. So this has created in essence, an artificial contraction in the workforce, in the labor market.
So what’s happening right now is that we see that help wanted signs are now ubiquitous across the country. If you know anyone within a business that has to hire people, they’re mostly struggling right now. And it’s recreated the map. And for businesses that are aware of demographics, hopefully, businesses that read this book, they’ll say to themselves, Oh, wow, this labor market looks a lot less like pre-pandemic and a lot more like post-World War Two. And for reference, the post-World War Two labor market was incredibly tight. So tight, in fact, that in nineteen fifty, nearly one out of two men over the age of sixty-five was in the formal labor market. That dropped to about 14, 20 to 20 percent or so by 1990, and it’s only increased at a very small tick since then. But we don’t have the boomers behind this. You know, millennials are the last big generation. Gen Z is smaller and Gen Alpha is incredibly small. Yeah. Six years of decline led up to the lowest birth rate ever in 19. I’m sorry in 2020. And last year we saw a bit of an improvement, but it was only one-tenth of one percent. We don’t have significant numbers of people behind this. So if companies in this country really want to say we’re going to be pro-business and we’re going to, we’re going to find people and the best and the brightest, well, they’re going to have to look up.
They have no choice but to look up. And yeah, you might have to hire the overqualified person. And isn’t that a shame? But when you do hire those overqualified people and maybe even the people that don’t necessarily have the skills yet, you’re going to bring richness to your organization. And yeah, our diverse teams are harder to manage. There’s no doubt about that. It’s harder to manage diverse teams of gender. It’s harder to manage diverse teams of race. It’s harder to manage diverse teams of economic status. It’s hard to do, but we know time and time again that there are positive benefits to this. Businesses do better with diversity, so that’s a long-winded way of getting to the question. Is there? Is there a perfect, intentional or unintentional? I think we’re still very intentional about race, and that’s something we’ve been dealing with the longest now in terms of our inclusion strategies. We still it still bubbles up from time to time as a sticking point. We are going to have to be intentional about age two, but something tells me age might be a little bit easier to get into because there is such a market need for these types of workers today.
Yeah, for sure. I was just thinking of that picture. Imagine having all these different people thinking about your product, your company, and the solutions like it. You can have an impact. Diversity breeds innovation, and it also protects the company from blind spots. Yeah. You know, if BMW again, they’ve thought about it, they had hired the right marketing team, the right, the right Madison Avenue firm, they would have avoided those pitfalls. Yes. And you know, it’s it’s difficult to assign causation to something, but there is a correlation. And after those commercials came out, there was a contraction in BMW sales in this country, so I can’t point a straight line to them. But it is a data point to suggest that they weren’t marketing correctly to consumers and especially as it lines up against other vehicles in the class that saw no contraction or some growth. You know, that suggests that that BMW screwed up. I mean, nobody likes to be told they’re old. Nobody likes to be told they’re out of fashion. It’s a negative term, despite what people say about isn’t getting old or great. Like, there are parts to getting older that are really phenomenal. But nobody, it’s really hard to find somebody who says being old is great because being old has historically signified the end or the last chapter or the start of the decline, or the inability to produce and become part of or stay part of the pack, part of who we are as people, as human beings, old is to be othered.
PI. Thank you for joining Fanny and I, in this conversation with Bradly Schurman, about ways brands and institutions can rethink opportunities both big and small in the Super Age. You can read more about the Super Age in Bradley’s book, “The Super Age: Decoding Our Demographic Destiny”.
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