Most important, consumer demands will change right at the moment that spending by older adults (and on older adults) skyrockets. It’s no exaggeration to say that the world’s most advanced economies will soon revolve around the needs, wants and whims of grandparents.

The Breakdown

The leading edge of the baby boom generation is well into its retirement years, something companies were first told would happen decades ago.

And yet, the Economist Intelligence Unit has determined that just 31% of companies take global aging into account in their marketing and sales plans, while the Boston Consulting Group has determined that less than 15% of companies have established any sort of business strategy focused on older adults. But the most devastating business mistake of all is the one that’s impossible to measure: the failure to innovate. How many would-be, life-improving products have never come into existence, either because businesses refused to consider older consumers as worthy of innovation or because they rushed too readily to fulfill demands that fit some stereotypical idea of age without stopping to assess whether those demands matched reality?

What no one seems to be willing to acknowledge is that there may be a reason for why businesses are acting the way they are. Think about it this way: If businesses did in fact knowingly work against their own best interests by refusing to give older adults the attention they deserve, that would constitute a spectacularly large, systemic failure—the kind that could only happen if everyone in business were either an absolute moron or ageist bigot or both.

I don’t think that explanation quite describes what’s going on. Rather, the apparent failure of the business community to act in its own best interest hints at something deeper.

The Source of the Problem

None of the businesses involved recognize that their struggles are not their fault. Rather, the problem is our very idea of old age, which is socially constructed, historically contingent and deeply flawed. Any disinterested reading of the facts would suggest otherwise: Older populations are a good thing, the natural result when societies keep their members healthy, out of danger, educated and in command of their reproductive rights. And yet, there is an overwhelming tendency to view old age and the aging of populations as a slowly unfolding crisis. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the aging of one group or another—nations, workforces, the entire world—referred to as a “ticking time bomb.”

Dig into this sort of age-fearing literature, and you’ll quickly discover that the growing older population is up there with planet-killing asteroids and nuclear war as one of the great threats to the human race. You’ll soon learn that Social Security (or the equivalent pension scheme outside the United States) will fail, medical care will become too expensive for societies to manage, taxes will double or triple before today’s kids reach middle age, and the baby boomers will spend their later years surviving on cat food because they haven’t saved enough for retirement.

If you’re like most people, when you picture “the old,” a remarkably specific impression comes to mind. With some variation by country, we tend to think of this group as a singular, homogenous population that depends on the largesse of others to survive because it can’t provide for itself. We expect older people to live apart, quietly sequestered away in retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes, surfacing to shop and dine only when everyone else is at work. We consider their natural role to be that of the consumer of goods, services and ideas, never the producer. Most important, we assume that they like it that way. Because we’re taught to think of retirement as the reward for a long working life, we suppose—often despite personal experience—that to be not working and separate from other age groups is to be living the dream. In this all-too-common reading of age, older people are somehow simultaneously needy, because they’re considered constitutionally unable to provide for themselves, and greedy, because they are at their most conspicuous when they’re out in the world, having fun, and—the default assumption suggests—spending other people’s money.