“The future may be gray, but it’s incredibly bright,” predicts Bradley Schurman in The Super Age (Harper Business, Jan. 2022), which examines the changing demographics of the global population. By 2050, one in six people worldwide will be over 65 years old, and the author, founder, and CEO of consulting firm the Super Age sees plenty of opportunity to serve them. He spoke with PW about the ways in which businesses and lawmakers can adapt to this societal shift and support a rapidly growing demographic.
What was the inspiration for this book?
When I was in college, my grandparents entered a long-term care retirement community outside of Pittsburgh. As I drove back and forth from D.C., I noticed that the population at the rest stops became progressively older, whiter, and poorer. I started seeing more and more people my grandparents’ age working there, and working hard jobs—food service, janitorial. I got interested in population change and demographic aging and thought about what it meant for us as a society.
What does this demographic shift look like?
“Population aging” is the convergence of two megatrends: declining birth rates and increased longevity. Historically, we’ve had a lot of children at the bottom, many of whom didn’t survive—before the Second Industrial Revolution, barely half of children made it to the age of 18—and very few older people. Through improvements in medications, vaccinations, and food safety, and by moving children out of factories and into schools, many more children are surviving into adulthood and from there into old age. Population pyramids are now rectangular blocks. Extended longevity doesn’t add years to the end of life; it bulks up the middle.
How can businesses adjust?
We can’t treat this population as a monolith; they have incredible buying power, but within the picture there’s also a lot of poverty. With that said, two-thirds of all new cars are purchased by people over the age of 50, and affluent boomers are focused on experience—they want to live life to the fullest, and they’ll be an essential component in travel when that comes back post-Covid. They have disposable income to spend, and they want to be considered part of the pack, if not ahead of the pack. Any medical device that’s designed such that it feels or looks medical or supportive is typically pushed away; they like the gamification of connected devices around health, such as Peloton’s and Apple’s—there’s a real gift to being able to measure your own EKG, insulin, and so on. Businesses have to get away from the focus on only the 18–34 crowd, or they’re going to get passed over.
What can lawmakers do to prepare for this shift?
They’ll need to make some critical investments in infrastructure. Mobility is key, and boomers are now concentrated in rural communities and communities without good transportation networks. We need to consider how we build cities, and how we get around in them. We need a 5G network for automated cars to really work. We have train systems, but we don’t yet know how to transport people to the station platform. We need both an improved physical infrastructure and a regulatory environment that embraces new technologies. Homes need to be built differently so that people can age at home. We need to rethink the social welfare system and promote older workers as a real resource.