Most Americans aren’t optimistic about getting older, and think the source of the problem is aging itself. So do most policy wonks, framing population aging as a set of choices about how to care for an avalanche of “frail and needy elderly.” MIT’s Joseph F. Coughlin and I don’t share that myopia. His latest book, The Longevity Economy, is packed with big ideas about the “dramatic-yet-predictable” effects of the new longevity, which we think presents a remarkable opportunity to build a better old age. We also know that what stands between us and this brighter future is the culture itself. But he’s putting his faith in corporations to “do the right thing” while I envision a very different engine of change.
Coughlin founded the MIT AgeLab, which “applies consumer-centered systems . . . to catalyze innovation across business markets,” so it’s not surprising that his approach to the longevity boom is market-driven. “It’s as though a whole 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,” he writes. Soon, he predicts, “the world’s most advanced economies will evolve around the needs, wants, and whims of grandparents.” The products and technologies that emerge to meet those needs won’t just be highly profitable. By improving the quality of life of older Americans in countless yet-to-be-imagined ways, the book predicts, they will enlarge and enrich the way we experience old age itself. It’s a bold proposition, and it’s also misguided.
What stands between us and this better old age?
Why are companies failing to “wake up, smell the Ensure”—which, Coughlin points out, is pretty much Soylent marketed to olders—and start courting older consumers with all the fervor they currently lavish on millennials?” Because of “our very idea of old age [emphasis mine], which is socially constructed, historically contingent and deeply flawed.” “Socially constructed,” as I often say, is sociology-speak for “we make it up,” and we’re in synch when Coughlin declares “Old age is made up” [emphasis his].
Not made up like a fun game, made up like a shared delusion. Call it a “collective case of blindness” as Coughlin does. Call it “implicit bias—prejudice so deeply ingrained that you might not even know you harbor it—against older people is the norm across age groups,” as he also describes it. Call it “ageism,” as I do, and why Coughlin fails to is beyond me; the word barely appears in The Longevity Economy. But although our approaches differ, we agree on the heart of the problem: an ageist culture that confines olders to the margins of society and sanctions only the blandest of “age appropriate” behaviors: relaxing, volunteering, grandparenting, and falling apart.
Who’s going to drive the necessary social change?
Not olders themselves, Coughlin writes, “because their ability to picture new, better ways to live is utterly constrained by our current, pernicious narrative.” The drivers, he says, will be the corporate visionaries who understand that olders aspire to the same stuff as everyone else does—work, romance, purpose, imagine that!—and create the products that enable those aspirations. “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 . . . they’ll also be creating a cultural environment that values the contributions of older adults.” The result will create a virtuous circle: by enriching and enlarging our vision of late life, better products will bring it about.
I love Coughlin’s vision of “a new narrative of possibility in old age,” but I don’t think it’s going to emerge from the business community. Corporations can speed social change, and they can definitely commodify it, turning sisterhood into grrl power into the Spice Girls, for example. But they exist to profit, not provoke, and it’s easy to monetize fear and insecurity. Who says wrinkles are ugly? The multi-billion-dollar anti-aging skincare industry. Who says perimenopause and “low T” and mild cognitive impairment are medical conditions? The trillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry. Why would corporations be instrumental in overturning prejudices from which they profit on this scale?
So I stumble over Coughlin’s belief that “More than any other factor, this new story [of old age] will be built on the testimony of longevity-economy products.” Really? A seismic cultural shift driven by consumer behavior? The longevity economy will bequeath us lists of service providers and garages full of tools and toys. But olders want to downsize, and products will have to be both indispensable and affordable in order to reach a mass market. More importantly, products alone cannot transform the world in which we use them. For-profit ventures aren’t in the better-life-for-everyone business because the masses lack the disposable income to power wholesale culture change. If the goal is to go beyond meeting older people’s basic needs—to support growth and voice and visibility for all, lifelong—how do we develop the rituals, roles, and institutions that will be essential to achieving that goal? Why would we trust the private sector to start operating in the interests of the entire cohort, not just those in the 9.9%? (See this piece in The Atlantic about the “new American aristocracy.”)
A consumer revolution requires a social revolution.
We know that as time grows shorter, purpose becomes an ever-higher priority. As Coughlin observes, “Culture helps determine what older people find meaningful. And that raises a question: can . . . new, socially permissible routes to meaning open up?” Of course they can: look at the effect of the women’s movement on women’s lives around the world! Whether global or local, whether revolutionary or reactionary, social movements challenge our notion of what’s “normal,” equitable, and possible, and in the process transform society. The technology- and consumption-driven revolution described in The Longevity Economy cannot take place without a mass movement to raise awareness of ageism and to end it.
Changing the culture is hard, and it involves struggle. That struggle doesn’t start in a shopping cart, whether online or at Walmart. It starts between our ears, with the uncomfortable task of confronting our own, largely unconscious, age bias. It’s internalized ageism that keeps olders away from senior centers “because of all the old people there—I’m not like them.” (That and the fact that an ageist society doesn’t fund adequate, attractive, age-integrated gathering places.) Paired with ableism, ageism keeps olders from using walkers or wheelchairs because of the stigma, even when it means never leaving home. The same toxic combo scares off potential subscribers to the Village-to-Village aging-in-place movement, as Coughlin observes, because of “a serious perception barrier preventing people—even those evidently quite happy to join a service explicitly for older adults—from seeing themselves in a club designed to provide care for its oldest and frailest.”
Those “perception barriers” are based on fear and shame, the grotesque notion that to age is to fail. We’re going to stay mired in age shame until we take off our collective blinders and acknowledge, out loud and together, what we know to be true: that age enriches us. We’re not going to put these fears in perspective—to acknowledge, for example, that aging well and living with disability can and do coexist—without a shift in cultural values. That won’t happen without mass political action that provokes society-wide upheaval, because the dominant culture will push back hard, as it does against anything that threatens the status quo. A shift in consumer behavior isn’t going to do it. We need people in the streets, not waiting for the free market to rescue us or carry the ball.
From the personal to the political. (And back. And back again…)
Change begins with consciousness-raising, the tool that catalyzed the women’s movement. (Here’s a link to Who Me, Ageist? A Guide to Starting A Consciousness-Raising Group.) Women came together in the 1970s, compared stories, and realized that the obstacles they were facing—not getting heard, or hired, or respected—weren’t personal misfortunes but widely shared political problems that required collective action. Social change occurs only as we take that awareness out into the world and directly and explicitly confront the ageism that diminishes and segregates older Americans in every arena.
“The new, bespoke narrative of old age will emerge organically from our jobs as consumers. It will fit like a tailored suit,” Coughlin writes. Corporations are indeed going to do well by those of us who can afford tailors. There will be robots to hoist and help us, lovely communities to shield us from isolation, implants to enhance our senses (thank you, brand new cornea)—but only for those of us who can afford them. We can’t achieve equity without addressing the ways in which age intersects with race, class and gender. The movement needs to be much broader in order to bring about the richer and better old age that we all hope to lives long enough to enjoy.
Who gets this better old age?
Coughlin does acknowledge, almost in passing, that “we’re staring at a possible future in which the gift of extra years of life is diverted straight to the wealthiest people in the world,” Possible? In a historic and shameful reversal, lifespans in the U.S. are in decline, largely among poor white women. A 2017 report by the United Nations found growing numbers of Americans living in extreme poverty. The engine of that disparity is unfettered capitalism. The modern welfare state was born in response to that disparity, lifting millions out of poverty in the wake of the Great Depression. That safety net has since been shrunk, and all the cuts that late-stage capitalism requires in order to stay viable, including the current tax bill, promise to shred it further.
Capitalism is at best indifferent to the welfare of vulnerable populations, and more typically hostile to it. Pitting “disposable workers” against each other keeps salaries low, and the less economically productive people at both ends of the age spectrum are especially at risk. Gender disadvantages. Companies continue to pay women less than men and promote them less often, because it helps the bottom line and because they can still get away with it. Racism and homophobia also enter in. Older workers of color are most at risk for unemployment, with older African American men twice as likely to be unemployed as older white men, and LBGT olders fare even worse. Corporations are no more going to fix ageism than they’re going to fix racism or sexism.
Closing the inequality gap and moving towards age equity means “changing the fundamental rules of old age,” Coughlin writes. I couldn’t agree more, and technology and innovation will indeed help older Americans stay healthy and connected. But at best his proposal is a subset of the solution. At worst it’s a band-aid on the gaping wound of deep economic inequality and a dangerous distraction from the radical action necessary to catalyze real social change. A better life for older people means valuing human beings lifelong, independent of their ability to consume or produce. That’s a better world for everyone, only a grassroots social movement will bring it about, and it is underway.