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Silver Industries and the New Aging Enterprise

Generations Winter 2004-05
By Harry R. Moody

It is more than twenty-five years now since Carroll Estes published her influential book The Aging Enterprise (1979), in which she described, and also criticized, the evolution of an aging human-service sector supported by government funding. Her book and her critique came at a historical moment when the human-service approach to an older population had reached its peak. The beginning of growth came in 1965, a remarkable year that saw passage of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act, all monuments to the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. By the time Estes wrote her book, there had arisen a large “Aging Enterprise” that included hospitals (Medicare), nursing homes (Medicaid), and community-based services coordinated by Area Agencies on Aging (Older Americans Act). It was easy to imagine, as Estes and others did, that this human-services model, reflecting public-private partnership, would be the wave of the future.

In fact, 1980 was the high water mark of the old-age liberal agenda. In that year, Ronald Reagan was elected president. Within a few years we would see cutbacks in Social Security (1983), cost-containment measures in Medicare, and the repeal of the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act (1988). The years of the Clinton presidency would mark no further expansion of the Aging Enterprise but rather the failure of ambitious healthcare reform (Skocpol, 1997). In retrospect, the great period of expansion of the Aging Enterprise occurred in the sixties and seventies. Despite passage of the controversial Medicare Modernization Act (2003), hope for a revived strategy of ever-expanding government-subsidized human services now seems like a dream of the past, hardly a portent for the future.

I focus on this brief history of public policy in order to ask a question: Where will the innovation, and the jobs, come from to constitute the Aging Enterprise of tomorrow? If nonprofit groups and human-service professions cannot realistically look to expanded funding from the public sector, then where should we look? The answer, I believe, will be in the “Silver Industries” that are likely to grow in response to the dramatic population aging that will come when, in Robert Butler’s words, “the baby boomers reach Golden Pond.”

The statistics about aging boomers are well known to all readers of this journal and will not be rehearsed here. What is far less familiar is the fact that key elements in the private sector are already poised to capitalize on this profound demographic movement of population aging in the United States. For example, North Castle Partners, in which the gerontologist Ken Dychtwald serves as a key advisor, is a major venture-capital fund controlling a billion and a half dollars of investment funds concentrated exclusively on emerging companies in the field of healthy living and aging. (For details visit their website at http://www.northcastlepartners.com/index.php.) Private investors have already awakened to population aging, even if some advertisers and media buyers haven’t yet gotten the word.

There are lessons here that nonprofits in the traditional Aging Network need to ponder. For example, during the past twenty-five years, Area Agencies on Aging have done wonderful work. Yet “triple A’s” have remained largely unknown to the general public. If you say “aaa” to the proverbial person on the street, the person will think of automobiles, not aging. Despite their dedicated labors, Area Agencies have not succeeded in imprinting their brand in the public mind. By contrast, consider Elderhostel, Inc., founded in 1975 and now the largest education-travel organization in the world. Every year nearly 200,000 older people participate in Elderhostel, which is poised for even greater growth as aging boomers are attracted by Elderhostel’s new “Road Scholar” sub-brand.

Note, too, that Elderhostel, despite its nonprofit status, has operated as a business, constantly innovating and using skillful marketing to reach its customers. Yet Elderhostel is only the most prominent example of an “age brand” within one of the Silver Industries that will constitute the new Aging Enterprise of tomorrow. Elderhostel operates in the travel and hospitality sector, but there are other sectors also likely to expand in coming decades: healthcare, retirement housing, and financial services.

These Silver Industry sectors will manifest growth driven by a powerful demographic current: Every seven seconds, a baby boomer turns 55—that means 10,000 new customers each day. This enormous “age wave” will continue to drive the growth of Silver Industries in years to come, and this growth will represent the leading edge of jobs in the field of aging (Green, 2003).

One may ask, then, What are leading professional organizations in aging doing about this phenomenon? What are programs of gerontology in higher education doing in response to this predictable wave of the future? The sad answer: almost nothing. For example, it is hard to point to any gerontology program in the United States that has serious ties with a business school. Healthcare, including long-term care, has of course long commanded attention in the field of aging, even leading critics to speak of the “biomedicalization” of gerontology (Estes and Binney, 1989). But healthcare is only one sector among the Silver Industries of tomorrow. What about financial services, including insurance, banking, and investments?

Consider the agenda of national aging organizations—the American Society on Aging, the National Council on the Aging, and the Gerontological Society of America—the field of bleak. Business is not on the agenda. One of the few exceptions to this gloomy picture is the American Institute for Financial Gerontology (AIFG), an organization that has drawn on the talent of leading academic gerontologists, as well as experts from the private sector (Cutler, 2002) and is tied to the American Society on Aging, which has also exerted leadership in its Business Forum on Aging interest group. Another rare exception to the gloomy picture is the recent creation of the Erickson School of Aging Studies at the University of Maryland of Baltimore County. The Erickson School, unlike any other gerontology program in the country, aims to focus on housing and will emphasize ties with business and industry. Retirement housing and financial services are sectors sure to grow in the future, so AIFG and the Erickson School are welcome contributors to the educational infrastructure we will need in years to come.

Why are we, in the traditional aging-service field, missing what is right in front of our faces? Recall that in the 1968 film The Graduate there is a wonderful scene where Dustin Hoffman’s character is talking to an older man who gives him advice about the future. What is his advice? In a word, the older man whispers, “Plastics.” Plastics, he believes, will be the growth sector of the future. In similar fashion, we could easily predict that the U.S. economy will be driven increasingly by population aging, as venture-capital investors already understand. To our Dustin Hoffman–like students and graduates today, we can whisper in their ear that “aging” is the new “plastics.”

That’s the good news. But the bad news is that the traditional Aging Enterprise is in no position to take advantage of impending growth. A colossal failure of imagination prevents us from seeing our products and services from the standpoint of our customers, and some of that failure can be traced to a social-service mentality: “doing good” for people rather than providing them with services they define in their own terms. From a social-service framework we persist in talking about “needs” while the marketplace moves in another direction. There are important lessons to be learned from the marketplace, and the lessons have nothing to do with profits; after all, Elderhostel is only one example a nonprofit business guided by marketing orientation.

The path to the new Aging Enterprise of the future will come from orienting ourselves to the mind of the customer (or patient or client), as the competitive marketplace forces businesses to do. This reorientation means recognizing a plurality of meanings that “aging” itself can have in the minds of customers (Gilleard and Higgs, 2001). Some of this plurality is conveyed in what I have come to call “age brands,” and the concept of branding must demand our attention. We’re all familiar with the power of branding in the broader consumer market (Aaker, 1995). Names like Volvo, Kodak, and Starbucks command immediate recognition because they are powerful brands. There are nonprofit brands, too, such as the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity.

What we need now is recognition of the power of branding in an aging society. There are already many successful age brands such as Elderhostel, AARP, Sun City, Meals on Wheels. We need to better understand how these brands have become successful and what they mean to consumers. A brand, after all, tells a story, conveys an archetype, expresses a lifestyle as part of the new “experience economy” in which intangible aspirations are increasingly more important than commodities (Pine, 1999). If I am correct about the direction of growth among Silver Industries in years to come, then we can expect that age brands will be powerful icons of thriving organizations, whether profit or nonprofit. Those organizations that fail to brand themselves in the minds of customers, clients, and donors will fall by the wayside.

The problem is that if age brands are left entirely to emerging companies in Silver Industry sectors, then we’re in danger of getting products that respond to stereotypes and the lowest common denominator: businesses based on denial of aging rather than latent strengths of later life. Entrepreneurs, acting on their own, easily miss out on the accumulated knowledge and expertise that professionals in the field of aging have acquired over the past generation. As David Wolfe has shown in Ageless Marketing, too many companies approaching the “Mature Market” make huge mistakes and fail to provide the right products and services (Wolfe and Snyder, 2003; see also the article by Wolfe in this issue). Marketers too easily fall into a language distorted by the insidious power of ageism.

The rise of “anti-aging medicine” is just one case in point. I have put quotation marks around this entire domain because, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as anti-aging medicine, since there are no interventions (apart from caloric reduction) that have been shown to increase maximum lifespan and slow the biological process of aging, at least in nonhuman organisms. But whatever science may say, as Helen Dennis has noted in her article earlier in this issue, anti-aging medicine is thriving. To cite only one (dismaying) statistic: there are more M.D.s who are members of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine than there are members of the American Geriatrics Society. To be sure, there is a legitimate and very important debate about what regenerative medicine or “prolongevity” might mean in the future (Post and Binstock, 2004). But the emergence of anti-aging medicine is already an important lesson about the power of the marketplace in an aging society. Anti-aging products are brands based on ageism and age-denial.

A genuine partnership between traditional human-service providers in the old Aging Enterprise working with new professions could help correct this problem. Some successful collaboration is already happening. Consider the dramatic growth of the profession of elderlaw as a specialization for attorneys. Consider, too, the emergence of the new occupation of private geriatric care managers, largely drawn from the ranks of nurses and social workers. Elderlaw attorneys and geriatric care manages represent the adaptation of the old human-service model to the new environment of Silver Industries. These practitioners are responding to market-driven needs while drawing on the accumulated intellectual capital of the traditional Aging Enterprise.

On a larger scale, consider the success of companies in the retirement housing field, beginning in the 1960s with Del Webb and Sun City (Freedman, 2002) but now including many others in the senior living industry (Pearce, 1998). Leaders in the retirement housing industry recognize that they will have a big problem adapting their old approach to a new population of aging boomers. Some have already developed successful models that link retirement living with lifelong learning. But much more imagination is needed is to develop models that will appeal to the next generation of older people.

It would be tragic if the new Aging Enterprise, and the rise of Silver Industries, were to remain disconnected from gerontology and from the traditional human-service professions that have done so much to help older Americans in the past. A new partnership between business, the professions, and higher education is called for, like the Agricultural Extension model that contributed to the productivity of American farms over the past century. Let us acknowledge at the outset that not everyone will be happy to join hands with private industry. Serious problems of policy and ethics remain to be addressed in negotiating such partnerships. But, realistically, in an era of conservative politics and mounting budget deficits, we cannot count on government funding to ride to our rescue. Times have changed. The year is 2005, not 1965, and we will need new partnerships for a new era.

What we need most today is a serious dialogue between traditional aging-service providers and those people who are rarely ever seen at our conferences and professional meetings: business groups who represent the Silver Industries of tomorrow. We are accustomed to mingling professionals from hospitals and nursing homes at our meetings. But how often do we see people from travel agencies, from home building or real estate, from banks and brokerage houses? The answer is, almost never. If only in self-interest, traditional aging-service providers need to cultivate these connections and build new partnerships with the Silver Industries that need guidance and imagination. We need to ask hard questions but also to look for new opportunities. It was the cartoon character Pogo who said, with classic irony, that today we are faced with “insurmountable opportunities.” We should approach our dialogue with new hope for what is possible.

Harry R. Moody, Ph.D., is director of academic affairs, AARP, Washington, D.C.

Aaker, D. 1995. Building Strong Brands. New York: Free Press.

Cutler, N. 2002. Advising Mature Clients: The New Science of Wealth Span Planning. New York: John Wiley.

Estes, C. 1979. The Aging Enterprise: A Critical Examination of Social Policies and Services for the Aged. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Estes, C., and Binney, E. A. 1989. “Biomedicalization of Aging: Dangers and Dilemmas.” Gerontologist. 29 ( 5 ): 587 – 96.

Freedman, M. 2002. Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America. New York: Public Affairs.

Gilleard, C., and Higgs, P. 2001. Cultures of Ageing: Self, Citizen and the Body. New York: Prentice Hall.

Green, B. 2003. Marketing to Leading Edge Baby Boomers. Ithaca, N.Y.: Paramount Books.

Pearce, B. 1998. Senior Living Communities. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pine, J. 1999. The Experience Economy. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Post, S., and Binstock, R. 2004. The Fountain of Youth: Cultural, Scientific and Ethical Perspectives on a Biomedical Goal. New York: Oxford University Press.

Skocpol, T. 1997. Boomerang: Health Care Reform and the Turn Against Government. New York: Norton.
Wolfe, D., and Snyder, R. 2003. Ageless Marketing: Strategies for Reaching the Hearts and Minds of the New Customer Majority. Chicago: Dearborn Trade.

From Generations Winter 2004 issue, 28(4):62-63.
© 2004 American Society on Aging

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