Earlier this year research from the University of Bath highlighted the level of discrimination that is present in retirement villages. At the heart of the study was the perception that retirees are a homogenous blob that can be treated identically purely because they're all over 60 years of age. The reality is that residents can span several decades and therefore have very different needs.
For instance, some of those spoken to by the researchers said that they chose to live in a retirement village to help them to prolong midlife for as long as they could. They very much wanted to remain fit, healthy, active, and independent for as long as possible.
Other people, however, chose to live in a retirement community out of concern for their safety due to increasing frailty and generally deteriorating health. The villages, therefore, were sought to try and help support them through these challenges.
These very contrasting needs were often in conflict with one another, with those residents striving for a more active life often less than accepting and supportive of frailer residents who needed more assisted living.
Indeed, more active residents often complained that their older, frailer peers dragged them down and made them feel older themselves as they limited their own activity levels. Many, therefore, asked for a more selective recruitment process than is often the case in a sector in which the ability to pay is the main selection criterion.
This homogenous approach created divisions in retirement communities as those who were less active felt worse when set against their more active peers, with some active members concerned that the lack of activity of fellow residents might rub off on them.
Such findings underline what Susan Golden, the Director of dciX at the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, describes as the need to have a much more nuanced understanding of aging if we are to do so successfully as a society. In her recent book STAGE (Not Age) she highlights 18 different stages of life (rather than the traditional three) that allow us to have a much more granular understanding of age and aging.
After all, it would seem naive to assume 20-year-olds have the same needs and challenges as 50-year-olds, and yet we often do precisely that for 60-year-olds and 90-year-olds.
"Older people will soon outnumber younger people in the majority of countries around the globe," Golden explains. "This demographic shift brings with it a massive business opportunity, yet outdated notions and assumptions about older adult customers are costing companies economically and culturally."
Central to this is throwing out the traditional three-stage model of learn, earn, and retire and moving towards a new mental model that more accurately reflects the reality of aging in modern society.
"Understanding the customer demographics in more detail is a good start and should give you an appreciation of the amazing diversity in a group whose members are often lumped together as one thing," Golden continues.
From there, she advocates striving to understand the multitude of different domain opportunities. For too long, a kind of staid and beige approach has been taken that suggests older people have few real demands. Golden reminds us, however, that the reality is that older people have very unique demands in terms of health, education, work, travel, fashion, and numerous other domains, with each domain likely to have multiple subdomains.
For instance, as we live for longer the desire for learning throughout our life is all too evident, especially given the rapid pace of change in the labor market. It's a shift that has prompted many to argue we should move away from saying lifelong learning and move towards long life learning instead.
Opportunities to learn not only provide older people with valuable skills to help them work for longer, but also help build social connections and tackle social problems such as loneliness and isolation.
I've written previously about the need to rethink our attitudes towards aging from a professional perspective. Given the tremendous skills shortages across the economy, there is scant logic in discarding what will become the largest demographic segment just because they're past what we regard as the traditional retirement age.
For older workers to find a place in the workplace, however, will probably require us to rethink our offering to them. For instance, greater flexibility might be required to attract people with caring responsibilities. Reverse mentoring could help to establish intergenerational connections that benefit both parties. Organizations might want to emphasize the social value they provide to help attract people who might be increasingly driven by purpose as much as finances.
"Among the many dividends of the new longevity are the social, economic, and health benefits," Golden concludes. "But the policy and cultural attitudes will need to change as well if the longevity market is to thrive."