Problem or programme: Narratives of old age and the coming Longevity Economy

At AgeCurve we are trying to build a startup culture that is aging-savvy from the ground up. This is not as easy as it sounds as aging is a phenomenon affecting the majority of human activities and domains, so quite an intimidating subject. Also it is not as easy to convince a devops for instance that aging is a subject worth studying. 🙂 Our blog is trying to offer an opportunity to share internally consumed aging-focused information snippets and knowledge fragments.
Today it is a quick book introduction, that is definitely a recommendation too.
Longevity Economy was published couple weeks ago, written by Joseph Coughlin, founder of MIT’s AgeLab. It already has been publicised in the mainstream media by the author itself, see this piece in Time for instance. I had a chance to become one of its early readers and supporters on Twitter.
The apropos of the book is the well-known, data-backed process of accelerated population aging in the chronological sense: how it is recognised as a problem and the opportunity to turn this into a (not just business) programme leading to complete re-invention of later life.
I think this is a long needed book that does an important job in 2 respects: identifying  the background and context of the dominant and anachronistic view of old age and suggesting ways to overcome this ruling narrative in the business context. The book is also a hymn for the potential of the baby boomers to change the game, the generation hitting retirement age in ever larger number in the last decade or so.

Coughlin does half of the job (the ‘diagnosis’ part) in Chapter 1 by reconstructing The ruling narrative of old age. This current institutionalised, mainstream view/image/depiction of old age assumes that the old is a needy, greedy consumer past the crucial producer, worker, society-maintainer years. Briefly, this view originates from the early start of modern medicine in the 19th century assuming a vitality that gets irreversibly lost with time’s passing making the old and even middle-aged unable to learn new things amongst other things. This was followed up by poverty-relief institutions (poorhouses, almshouses) redefining the old in the late 19th century, making society identify/recognise old people as an standalone problem. The early 20th century yielded management theories obsessed about single dimension efficiencies and recommending hiring only young people as a workforce. Social security and pension systems completed handling the problem of the old and finally, sometimes in the 50s retirement has been marketed as the golden years, making it an object of desire, the icing on the cake called life.

In the rest of the book (the ‘therapy’ part), Coughlin goes on to provide elements of the coming narrative of old age empowering the Longevity Economy by sharing lots of (sometimes personal) stories. Several different forward-looking businesses and other initiatives are introduced that actually listened to what older early adopters (lead users) wanted and managed to built products and services reinstating fun and flexility into later life and many times making older people producers along the lines. He is remarkably using several examples built, invented at MIT and particularly his MIT’s AgeLab like the famous. Without spoiling these stories, one such example is services focusing on finding partners in old age for any kind of activity, romantic relationship being only just one (and not necessary the most important) such partnership, the actual example being Stitch. One line of related data-backed argument (or as Coughlin puts it, quite sharply, to grab the attention: The Future is Female) is that businesses planning to design products for older cohorts are better take females as the default, typical users of those products.

Coughlin is using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs of need to pinpoint that most products so far designed for later life are focusing on the deficiency-needs at the bottom of the hierarchy, like physiological, safety needs (hearing aids, anyone?) and even self-esteem. But the unharnessed business opportunities emerge when a business is trying to focus on satisfying the higher-order needs related to self-actualisation, think meaning of your life, fulfilling your capabilities, getting new skills, pursuit of happiness. Here Coughlin admits wisely that
The full extent of the business opportunity at the apex of the hierarchy of needs remains hidden, because we don’t yet know exactly how or in which spheres tomorrow’s older adults will chase meaning. Whether your company supports life, liberty, the pursuit of happines – or offers up happiness itself, i the form of meaning – it’s hard to know what shapes demand will take in years to come.

Eventually, what is really at stake here, what the big opportunity is: to re-define and re-invent old-age through technology-enabled solutions that deliver not just more help and assistance but provide additional, embedded, meaning and fun at the same time.

This is what I call the ‘ultimate frontier of old age’, this is what gives a great twist to how we should consider later life. And this opportunity, as Coughlin notes below in a tweet answering and highlighting my tweet, should go hand in hand with our ‘endless search to live longer’. Or as we combined these 2 needs together in one of our open-ended AgeCurve tagline attempt: May your best years last years longer.
 Coughlin’s book is indeed a big step into the good direction.