The baby boomers, in short, will act as a sorting mechanism in the longevity economy, ruthlessly separating the companies that solve their real demands from those acting on a tired, false idea of oldness. The ultimate effect will be profound: a new, emergent vision of later life—reflected in and normalized by the myth-making apparatus of the private sector—which hews closely not to an antiquated vision of old age but how people actually want to live. In some ways slowly, and in some ways with astonishing speed, a new, better story of life in old age will replace our current narrative of aging.

The chance to write the beginnings of this new narrative falls squarely on businesses, and presents them with one of the most profound opportunities the private sector has ever faced.

Old age, as it stands, is ridiculously unequal. Although populations in most countries are growing older following a dearth of births, the gains in extreme longevity I mentioned earlier are enjoyed mainly by wealthy societies and often high-education and high-income populations within those societies. All told, we are staring at a possible future in which the gift of extra years of life is diverted straight to the wealthiest people in the world, while those less fortunate get sick and die earlier—sometimes far earlier.

Historically, wealth has always made it easier to live longer. Yet the fact that things are somehow getting worse, not better, for certain low-income populations is beyond dismaying.

There are many things that can and must be done to reverse this course. Changing the fundamental rules of old age is among the most important. By building a vision of late life that is more than just a miserable version of middle age, companies won’t just be minting money, helping older people and their caregivers, and making aging societies more viable. They’ll also be creating a cultural environment that values the contributions of older adults, which may make it easier for those who need employment to find it. They’ll be building better tech products that, as they inevitably become commoditized, stand to improve life across the income scale. Most important of all, they’ll be giving young and middle-aged people a reason to hope for their future—no insignificant step, given the outsize toll that preventable and self-destructive behaviors are taking on public health.

It all starts today, with companies finding the vision needed to invest in the burgeoning older market. It starts with businesses recognizing older consumers, listening closely to their demands, and building them better tools with which to interact with the world around them. It starts with bold leaders willing to erect a new narrative of possibility in old age.         

Joseph F. Coughlin is founder and director of the MIT AgeLab. This article is an excerpt from his book “The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market.”

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