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When business gets smart on age…

By Jilly Forster

27 October 2015
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As society increasingly ignores the old and abandons the young, it falls to business to lead the way with smart ageing – Jilly Forster

When we are failing the old and the young, our society has come to a pretty pass. Where we are failing, however, is in an understanding of and empathy with what it means to be both 17 and 71.

Today, our challenge is not so much to understand old age, or youth, as separate entities, but to understand age itself as a whole.

With far less knowledge and no data whatsoever, ancient societies seemed to both understand and accept different life stages. The 20th century recognised it. The 21st century has forgotten it. In all our technology-fuelled wisdom, we refuse to acknowledge the traits, issues, problems and opportunities of the young or the old. It is as if we were born middle-aged, with no before or after.

Within all this, it is how we perceive ageing that really needs our attention. Fear of looking at old age isn’t just silly, it’s dangerous, resulting in a society backing into its future, not walking into it. While individuals and society work together to deny and defy age, people in their 60s are increasingly unprepared for the new lives they are entering into. This has to change – and businesses are best placed to help with this.

A compelling factor here is that, by current projections, UK employers will need to fill 13.8 million job vacancies over the next decade, according to the National Voice for Lifelong Learning. During this period, only 7 million young people will leave school and college. In short, there is room for both young workers and old.

Through sheer necessity, this will be a great opportunity for businesses to help us ditch the model in which people are too old after 50 – meaning that all other characteristics, idiosyncrasies and personal history are erased.

Besides employment, businesses can help change attitudes towards old age in many other ways. From flexible working to mature apprenticeships, business has a key role to play in defining a new vision for later life. It needs to complement public services, civil society and all of us as individuals in taking advantage of the opportunities and to successfully navigate the challenges of later life. The public good is no longer the add-on it might once have been. Today, the public good is an essential, profitable ingredient of new business models.

The value of the older market is not to be ignored (though the advertising industry is particularly good at doing so). The over 50s make up 35% of the population and have the highest disposable income of any age group. They spend a lot on going out, on hi-end tech, and are as likely as the young to experiment with new products and services.

This older market is forecast to grow by 81% from 2005-2030, whereas the 18-59 market is forecast to only grow by 7%. Older people are very valuable to businesses as a consumer market that is currently massively under-served.

It would seem to make sense to build regular consultation with older people into a business model. This would help to respond to older customers’ social and consumer needs and develop new products and services that support older people’s social participation. How about an ‘age friendly’ audit of the business to identify how well they are meeting older customers’ needs?

Reframing retirement will increasingly be down to businesses – from both an employment and consumer perspective. Success in both could help resolve a host of connected societal issues impacting the over 50s, including the need: to ensure healthier, more active lives and a greater sense of wellbeing; to make available more inclusive life-long learning opportunities both inside and outside work; to alleviate loneliness; and to plan in a more timely way for costly care provision in later life.

If old age is to get the re-brand it desperately needs, behaviour change must start with organisations large and small. In providing employment opportunities, offering relevant products and services, acting as a catalyst to social inclusion and participation, embracing ageing and all that comes with it, it will be businesses that move us from anti-ageing to smart ageing.