The need for a more nuanced understanding of age

research by the University of Bath earlier this year highlighted the high level of discrimination in retirement villages. The study revealed that the majority of retirees believe they are one big group that can be treated equally simply because they are all older than 60. Residents can live for many decades, so they have different needs.

Some of the people interviewed by researchers stated that they wanted to live in retirement villages to extend their lives. They wanted to be as independent, fit, healthy, active and independent as possible.

Others, however, choose to live in retirement communities out of concern about their safety as they age and become more frail. These villages were created to support these people through their challenges.

These very different needs often conflicted with each other, with residents seeking more independence often sacrificing their ability to accept and support frailer residents who need more assisted living.

Many residents who were more active complained that their frailer, older peers made them feel older and dragged them down. This led to them feeling less active. Many people asked for a more selective recruitment process, as opposed to the usual practice in the sector where the ability of the applicant to pay is the primary criterion.

One size doesn’t fit all

This homogenous approach led to divisions in retirement communities. Those who felt less active were compared against their more active peers. Some active residents worried that their lack of activity might be affecting them.

These findings highlight what Susan Golden, Director of dciX at Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, calls the need for a more nuanced understanding about aging if society is to succeed. She recently published STAGE, which highlights 18 stages of life that are distinct from the traditional three. This allows us to understand aging better.

It would be naive to think 20-year olds have the same challenges and needs as 50-yearolds. Yet, we do this often for 60-yearolds and 90 year-olds.

A huge opportunity

Golden says that “Older people” will soon outnumber the younger in most countries. This demographic shift presents a huge business opportunity. However, outdated assumptions and notions about older adults are costing companies culturally and economically.

This involves letting go of the three-stage model of learn and earn and retiring and moving toward a new mental model that better reflects modern society’s reality of aging.

Golden says, “Understanding customer demographics in greater detail is a good starting point and should give you an appreciation for the amazing diversity within a group that members are often lumped together in one thing.”

She encourages people to try to understand all the different opportunities in each domain. Too often, older people are assumed to have little real needs. Golden reminds us that older people have unique needs in terms of their health, education and work. Each domain will likely have multiple subdomains.

Learning and working

With the fast pace of changes in the labor market, it is evident that we are more likely to want to learn throughout our lives. Many have argued that we should stop saying “lifelong learning” and instead move to long-term learning.

Opportunities to learn are not only beneficial for older persons to be able to work longer but also build social connections and address social problems like loneliness and isolation.

I have written before about the need for a professional-oriented rethink of our attitudes toward aging. There is no logic in ignoring the large demographic group that will be the most skilled, given the economic shortages.

To make it easier for older workers to find work, we will need to change the way we offer them. To attract caregivers, for example, it might require more flexibility. The reverse mentoring model could be a way to build intergenerational relationships that are mutually beneficial. To attract people who may be more driven by purpose than finances, organizations might highlight the social value that they offer to help them attract potential employees.

Golden concludes, “Among the many benefits of the new longevity is the social, economic and health benefits.” If the longevity market is going to flourish, however, it will require a change in policy and cultural attitudes.

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