Each of us will grow old—if we’re lucky. The same can be said for nations: Luck, in the form of prosperity, gives rise to older populations as surely as a good growing season leads to an ample harvest. Today, most countries around the world are about to haul in the biggest longevity crop of all time: the fruit of all the affluence, education and technological progress that burgeoned in the second half of the 20th century.

The effect will be enormous. The aging of populations represents the most profound change that is guaranteed to come to high-income countries everywhere and most low- and middle-income ones as well.

Because population aging will manifest in such dramatic-yet-predictable ways, when companies make long-term plans for the future, there should be nothing higher on their priorities list than preparing for an older world.

With few exceptions, however, companies—and nonprofits and governments—are not getting ready. The reason why is a mystery. In fact, from my perspective as the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab, a research organization devoted to studying the intersection of aging and business, it’s the mystery.

Happily, I’m here to report, there is an answer. It’s so simple that it almost defies belief: Old age is made up.

That doesn’t mean I think arthritis is imaginary or that we can will ourselves to live forever. Rather, the meaning of “old”—whether you’re talking about the life stage, the “senior” population, or even your conception of self—is what academics would call “socially constructed” and everyone else might call a mass delusion or a story that no one realizes is fictional. Certain bits of our current idea of old age are grounded in biology. But most of it was invented by human beings for short-term, human purposes over the past century and a half. Today, we’re stuck with a notion of oldness that is so utterly at odds with reality that it has become dangerous. It constrains what we can do as we age, which is deeply troubling, considering that the future of our older world will naturally hinge on the actions of the older people in it. It also distracts companies from serving the true needs of aging consumers, an already staggeringly powerful group that is growing larger, wealthier and more demanding with every passing day.

The Setup

Thanks to both increased longevity and the baby boom, we now live in a world chock-full of older people, with, as of 2015, 617 million people aged 65-plus, a population roughly double that of the United States, the world’s third-largest country. That number will increase to 1 billion by 2030 and continue to grow through the first half of the 21st century, reaching an estimated 1.6 billion by 2050. During that time, low fertility will do its work: The world’s youth population will remain flat, and its working-age population will grow only modestly. As a result, by 2050, the worldwide proportion of those 65 and older will have doubled from today’s 8.5% to 16.7%—nearly the age breakdown of 2015 Florida.

First, the emerging population of older adults isn’t just big. It’s so enormous, it’s as though a new continent were rising out of the sea, filled with more than a billion air-breathing consumers just begging for products that fulfill their demands. In fact, as outlandish as that image is, it’s not even adequate to illustrate how important global aging will be. Societies won’t just be older; they will function differently.

Not just in the obvious ways, either. Eldercare responsibilities, health-care spending and pension liabilities will naturally ramp up. However, we’ll also see changes as wide-ranging as new labor markets; amplified demand for products that seemingly have nothing to do with age, such as smart-home technologies; new forces affecting family composition and rituals; and far more. There will be new political agendas and fracture points. Jury pools may even skew older and interpret laws differently.

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