Young Seniors: Our Fastest-Growing Age Group
In 1950, the US population was 151 million. Roughly 13 million, about 9%, were preschoolers (0 to 4), and 8 million, or 5%, were young seniors (65 to 74). If you were born in 1950, you could expect to live to 68.6 years, slightly less for males, slightly more for females. If you were already 65 in 1950, you could expect to live 13.9 more years.
In 2015, the US population was 321 million. Roughly 16 million, or about 5%, were preschoolers (0 to 4), and 28 million, 9%, were young seniors (65 to 74). If you were born in 2015, you could expect to live to 78.8 years. If you were already 65 in 2015, you could expect to live 19.4 more years. So the share of preschoolers in the population changed places with the share of young seniors, but while the number of preschoolers is only 23% more than in 1950, there are 3.5 times as many young seniors.
Source: US Census Bureau.
The percentage of children under one year versus the total population gives us a rough measure of the gross birth rate of the population (assuming we get few immigrants under one year of age). The baby boom shows up as in birth rates of 2.09% in 1950, 2.29% in 1960, 1.71% in 1970, and a steady decline after that to 1.24% in 2015. Today’s 28 million young seniors and the 41 million almost seniors (55 to 64) are considered to be baby boomers. This article focuses on the first wave, the young seniors ages 65 to 74 in 2015, born between 1941 and 1950.
Note that the large group of baby boomers born in 1951–1960 join this group as of the 2020 census. If current survival trends continue or, more likely, go up, in 2020 this group will be more than 1.5 times the size it was in 2010.
Source: US Census Bureau.
This age group is healthier and wealthier than in years past. Some 17% are self-employed, roughly double the rate of the next highest group, those ages 55 to 64—who are also baby boomers by the Bureau of Labor Statistics definition.
Implications for Private Firms of the Large Growth in Numbers of Young Seniors
So where’s the Gerber (famous maker of baby food) for seniors? In the past, older people were apt to be poor or sick or both, and seniors were often in the care of institutions or their families. Housing has adapted in two directions. In one trend, the space to care for an elderly relative in a single-family dwelling, owned or rented, has declined. Most modern construction does not build such spaces. In another trend, a whole variety of semi-institutional housing has been built to house this population. Some of it offers entry to grave accommodations, with a range of caregiving. Others offer services for the younger, healthier, and richer portion of this group. All of it involves housing seniors separately from the younger population, and many offerings require a minimum age to be a resident.
Entrepreneur-oriented magazines publish many ideas and job opportunities to cater to seniors, but most assume older folk are less able than younger folk. The same is true of civic outreaches that talk about making towns or cities “senior-friendly”—the focus is on physical or mental disabilities. Some of this focus is good for all of us, like ramps for wheelchairs that are a great boon for wheeled luggage and bicycles. But to our mind, this emphasis misses a huge chunk of the economic and social opportunities.
Another frequent mistake is to assume someone who needs a little help with, for example, vision, hearing, or physical dexterity, is less able in all ways. The need for large, high-contrast type in reading material does not mean one reads at a preschool primer level. There is a growing market for high-contrast large type books, and the ability to adjust type size, shape, and contrast in eBooks has been a major step forward in that regard. A person who has trouble hearing human speech may still produce outstanding music (remember, Beethoven was himself deaf when he wrote most of his most well-remembered works). People who walk or ride a bike slowly may still travel long distances.
What might a more careful focus on young seniors suggest beyond the physical issues? We will discuss a few examples, but we suggest firms that want to operate in this market do the market research they already do for the highly popular 18 to 34 age group.
Road Scholar, best known for adding scholarly content to guided sightseeing, now provides trips with three levels of physical activity and has added several trips designed for grandparents traveling with grandkids. Other travel firms offer such innovations as spinner-wheeled luggage (4 wheels instead of 2), which are much easier to move around.
For decades we have seen retirement homes that offer group housing with various levels of healthcare, sometimes in a continuum in a single facility. More recently, we are seeing innovations such as equipment designed to allow people to stay in their homes longer (walk-in tubs, automated stair chairs, and more automation generally). We are also seeing a return to homes or single-home lots built for multi-generational use, such as the triple-deckers built in Massachusetts early in the 20th century and the “over-the-garage” mother-in-law apartments built in the mid-20th century.
Our educational and arts institutions have also worked in this market. An obvious educational approach is courses on retirement, such as retirement finance and health care. Apple has found, as has the personal computer user group movement in general, that among those most interested in their teaching activities are young seniors. My own sister-in-law, almost 70 years old, is an avid student in her Apple photography class. The New Horizon Band movement includes amateur concert bands and orchestras all over the country that require one be 50 or older to join. With support for the local groups, the organization also holds or helps local groups hold music camps throughout the US. As you might expect, the group has learned that much of their market is not tied to a K-12 school year, so they can schedule events with more freedom. Austin Classical Guitar gets a large percentage of its volunteers for ushers from young seniors. It also is developing adult classes to complement its growing effort at the K-12 level.
Computers and Smartphones
Computer skills can be independent of one’s ability to read a low-contrast screen or operate a standard keyboard or mouse. One colleague became a hero for UC Berkeley’s football team when he found keyboards big enough for the oversized fingers of the linemen, who until then seemed to struggle with research and writing that required a keyboard. Like ramps for sidewalks, steps to lower the requirements for physical dexterity may benefit many people other than seniors or those needing help with physical dexterity. For example, one of the internet marketing firms in Austin found, to no one’s surprise, that very few people like to type on the tiny and sensitive keyboards on smartphones and small tablets, even though younger folks are reasonably good at it. When they redesigned their mobile apps to require fewer keystrokes (or none), their sales jumped significantly.
Other Areas of Innovation
I am waiting, as suggested by a speaker at a recent conference, for someone to realize that tiny, low-contrast print on bottles read in darkened showers make it easy to mistake soap for shampoo or conditioner. A switch to larger, higher-contrast type—or different containers in standardized shapes—would be good for all of us.
A firm in Germany, facing a major labor shortage if its oldest workers retired, adapted its plant and its processes to allow young seniors to keep working. Some steps were physical, such as higher contrast screens with larger type. Some were social, with provisions for more rest breaks and part-time employment. And some were organizational, as the firm used the most senior workers as trainers for their most junior employees.
Comparative Fertility Rates
Source: United Nations. Fertility rate represents represents average children per woman of childbearing age.
Policy Implications of the Growth in the Number of Young Seniors
Once again, our major suggestion is that policymakers apply at least the same amount of thought and study to serving young seniors as they do to serving other age groups, such as preschoolers, teenagers, young adults, and families with children.
We have many policies, both public and private, that favor adults with kids—and almost none that favor adults with seniors. Some policies regarding dependents assume the dependent is under 18; only a few allow for adult dependents. And while policies regarding dependents allow a fully capable and employed 18-year-old as a dependent, we have no such treatment for non-disabled and employed seniors who might need a little help but are not so disabled as to qualify as adult dependents.
We also assume people under 18 and over 65 must be supported by the adults between those ages. Not only does this assumption ignore all the child labor throughout centuries, it also ignores the growing tendency of young seniors to be working—either retiring later, taking up new careers, or starting new firms or self-employment activities. We need policies and practices that allow and take advantage of these years of “extended adulthood.”
We can mimic all the categories above in thinking about senior-focused policies. In travel, we already have the Senior Pass (anyone 62 or older) to our national parks. We have senior rates for many government activities, including public transit. In cultural activities, we already have publicly owned senior centers, and many of our public cultural institutions provide offerings to seniors. In housing, policies such as zoning and building codes could and should allow for senior-friendly housing, both in groups and individually.
Many involved in teaching, whether classically academic subjects or more esoteric ones like art, photography, or musical instruments, are encountering a growing body of young seniors as students. Many routines developed for students of traditional school age or even for young adults in college are proving inappropriate or ineffective for dealing with senior students. Those who develop routines specifically for seniors are finding a growing market for their services.
We think the most important opportunities are for both seniors and others who want or need intergenerational spaces and activities. A community center that caters to all ages is more cost-effective and more likely to provide broader social benefits than having one for kids, one for adults, and one for seniors. We recognize that sometimes sorting by age is appropriate, but probably not nearly as often as happens now.
The same is true of various forms of housing, transportation, entertainment, etc. Walkability that is good for seniors and preschoolers is good for all of us. Walkability that is only good for physically fit humans of adult size is not enough. (The joke is that walk lights across 4-lane arterials are appropriate for Olympic sprinters; the rest of us finish our walk after the light has changed. Similarly, the standard stairway or ramp—too steep and without landings to rest on the way—assumes almost athletic conditioning.)
AARP suggests three ways that roads be made more senior-friendly, and each of them would be good for all of us: bigger, brighter, higher-contrast signs; more and wider left turn lanes; and rumble strips in the shoulders (and perhaps in the lane markers) to warn drivers they are leaving the driving lane.
So we urge public and private-sector leaders to (a) pay attention to the growing number and percentage of young seniors, (b) avoid false or partially false assumptions about them, and (c) look for policies, practices, and products that, although targeted to this group, can have intergenerational benefits.