Longevity researcher Susan Golden sums up the traditional stages of life as learn, earn and retire. But with people living well beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, and many taking career breaks to care for children or parents, those stages are outdated.
We have to acknowledge that life has more possible stages, and make adjustments in thinking about our careers and how to market our products and services, in what Ms. Golden calls the “longevity economy.”
At the end of the Second World War, life expectancy was 64 years, below the retirement age of 65 that had been the standard since the late-1800s. Life expectancy is now nearly 80 and rising. Retirement at 65 for many means they have a third of their lives ahead of them.
“Older adults have always been defined – culturally and as a market – by their age. It’s time to stop that and think instead about the stage older adults find themselves in as the most appropriate attribute,” Ms. Golden wrote in her book, Stage (Not Age).
Someone who is 75 might be spending life on the golf course, but could also still be working at their traditional job, attending university or starting a new business – as what American Express calls a “sidepreneur,” who dedicates about 20 hours a week to the effort. The first mind shift she said we need is from thinking about lifespan to “healthspan,” as people are not only living longer but, more importantly, having a longer time during which they are living well. Healthspan focuses on the time that a person is free from serious diseases.
Ms. Golden presents a five-quarter framework for life, mathematically egregious but designed to accommodate people who live beyond 100. The first quarter is birth to about age 25 to 30, followed by Q2 from about age 25 to 55 – the growing quarter, when life is usually devoted to work and career explorations. Next comes the renaissance quarter, a time of repurposing, renewal and re-evaluation: “Q3 could be called the re-everything. It is filled with continuous learning and exploration and is perhaps more of a portfolio lifestyle,” she said.
The legacy years, starting at about age 75, revolve around health – what it allows, and medical issues that occur. But it can also be filled with new opportunities to define your legacy. After age 100 is the extra quarter, bonus time that increasing healthspans allow some folks, and likely was not anticipated. Most people will probably need assistance in the last five years of life.
Your career and financial planning should be taking that into account. Inflation has narrowed thinking for younger people to immediate financial pressures and made it tougher for those in their later years without financial flexibility. But economic cycles will come and go. What Ms. Golden is pointing to is a long-term phenomenon that you must apply to your own life planning.
It also requires changes in marketing and strategy at work. She recommends businesses applying three segmentations to improve your marketing efforts: demographic, domain and stage. Demographic classifications have usually been heavily focused on age, which she stresses is the most misleading indicator for the longevity customer. The best indicator is health status and functional health. Interestingly, education is a great influencer on health status, so that can help guide your marketing strategy.
Some marketers are incorporating into their plans gerontological experts’ descriptions such as “new old” or “young old” for those 65-75; “old” or “middle old” for 75-84; and “old old” for over 85. Ms. Golden said those hint at but don’t quite capture the true stages she has been cataloguing.
Another schema, offering some understanding of healthspan, comes from the Gerontological Society of America: “Go-go” for active folks in excellent health with few limitations, “go-slow” for good health but some limitations, “slow-go” for good health but needing assistance, “slow-slow” for fair health with limitations on daily living and “no-go” for physical and mental conditions that require advanced care in an assisted living or similar facility.
Ms. Golden also recommends that your strategy pay attention to domains that hold particular longevity opportunities for your business. Most consumer-facing domains have some opportunities. Health and wellness, of course, stand out, along with education and housing. More opportunities will be uncovered as businesses and technologies are developed to cater to a multi-stage life course.
But, of course, she leans on the factor of stage as the best driver for your segmentation efforts: “Understanding your customers’ different stages will help you create products that fit your market and help you tailor your marketing strategies accordingly. Increasingly, you will adopt the attitude that you are aiming for a multi-generational customer base and that one product or service may serve many demographics,” Ms. Golden said.
We know people are living longer. We see deviations from learn-earn-retire all around us, but it still dominates our thinking so that variations are viewed as exceptions – “she retired early”; “he is working past retirement” – rather than part of a more variegated understanding of the reality around us.
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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.
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