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The untapped potential of 50+ consumers: Dr. Joseph F Coughlin, Director of the MIT AgeLab

March 10, 2021

The untapped potential of 50+ consumers: Dr. Joseph F Coughlin, Director of the MIT AgeLab

Dr. Joseph Coughlin

Director of MIT’s AgeLab and teacher at both MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Sloane School’s Advanced Management program

Dr. Joseph F. Coughlin shares insights about what older consumers want, how they want it, and how to appeal to this demographic.

Willy speaks with Dr. Joseph Coughlin, Director of MIT’s AgeLab and teacher at both MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Sloane School’s Advanced Management program. His recent book The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World's Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market is one of CEO Reads Business Bestsellers. 

To begin, Joseph outlines the two largest factors that reflect longevity: education and income. More than 52 percent of children born in the industrialized world are now forecast to live over 100 years. Frankly, our institutions in the industrialized world still operate largely on an outdated narrative regarding old age. Dr. Coughlin believes increasing life spans should be considered a positive global opportunity rather than a problem. 

Not only is the population of industrialized world aging, but recent statistics show it to be shrinking, too. China has issued a workforce shortage and is expected by mid-century to have more citizens over the age of 60 than the entire American population. In northeast Asia, the fastest growing portion of the population is aged 70 and older. The United States is far from exempt from this phenomenon. It is the immigrant population keeping the U.S. competitive in terms of population and fulfilling care-giving positions. Caregiver positions are multiplying in numbers and are becoming increasingly difficult to fill in most countries. The United States is forecast to have a younger brown population that will be caring for a greying white population. 

Dr. Coughlin also explains the dependency ratio, which by definition is the ratio between the “unproductive population” vs. the “productive population”. In this model, the unproductive is considered to be anyone between the ages of 0-14 and 65+. Joseph believes it is essential for this ratio to be reconsidered, and Willy shares factual evidence to support the notion that productivity does not cease at age 65. Corporations are ignoring the fact that aging itself has changed drastically since their parents or grandparents. Today, people are living longer, are more educated, tech savvy and affluent. Above all else, the new generation gap is about expectations and will be more ambitious and demanding than ever before. 

How can businesses approach designing products and services to meet the demand of the older population? Dr. Coughlin’s advice for businesses in R&D is to watch what people are doing rather than fall victim to stories of old age. Products marketed specifically for older people are not appealing to anyone. They then discuss AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System), a literal suit worn by designers to give them true insight into the physical difficulties faced by older consumers. This system was utilized in Dr. Coughlin’s work designing a car for seniors at Mercedes Benz as well as his work with CVS regarding the layout of their stores. Joseph stresses the importance of marketing to solve the problem at hand, not the product to sell. 

Willy asks why specifically the AgeLab is focused largely on autonomous vehicles. Transportation is more than just a journey from point A to point B. Really, it is the glue that holds together all pieces of life, is one of the largest purchases the average person makes and after retirement, it is the second largest expense. AgeLab looks at the autonomous vehicle as a way to ensure people are mobile and safe for a lifetime. Joseph offers a look into where innovation currently stands in the quest to full autonomy. 

Dr. Coughlin outlines recent technology innovations aiming to help the elderly with aging, which are partially a result of the care-force shortage. However, he reiterates, high tech can never fully replace high touch. It is the hope that with these new technologies, the elderly can remain at home longer, rather than relocating to a care facility. They discuss how the pandemic has accelerated the introduction of technology into homes of the elderly and what that means for the future. 

To end off the episode, Willy questions Dr. Coughlin on the timeline of in person classes at MIT. Finally, Joseph identifies the “screaming opportunity” he sees but has yet to see fully addressed.

A bit about each speaker:

Willy Walker
Willy Walker

Willy Walker is chairman and chief executive officer of Walker & Dunlop. Under Mr. Walker’s leadership, Walker & Dunlop has grown from a small, family-owned business to become one of the largest commercial real estate finance companies in the United States. Walker & Dunlop is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and in its first ten years as a public company has seen its shares appreciate over 800%.

Dr. Joseph Coughlin
Dr. Joseph Coughlin

Joseph F. Coughlin, PhD is Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab. He teaches in MIT's Department of Urban Studies & Planning and the Sloan School's Advanced Management Program. Coughlin conducts research on the impact of global demographic change and technology trends on consumer behavior and business strategy. He advises a wide variety of global firms in financial services, healthcare, leisure and travel, luxury goods, real estate, retail, technology, and transportation. Coughlin has served on advisory boards for firms such as Bell Canada, British Telecom, Daimler, Fidelity Investments and Sanofi-Aventis. He was appointed by President George W. Bush to the White House Advisory Committee on Aging and by Governor Charlie Baker to the Governor’s Council on Aging in Massachusetts where he co-chaired the Innovation & Technology Subcommittee. A Behavioral Sciences Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America and a Fellow of Switzerland’s World Demographics & Ageing Forum, Coughlin is a Senior Contributor to Forbes and writes regularly for MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal. He was named by Fast Company Magazine as one the ‘100 Most Creative in Business’ and by the Wall Street Journal as inventing the future of retirement. Recently, Coughlin was recognized as one of 15 World Minds by the Zurich-based World Minds, a select community of global leaders in science, arts and business. His recent book, The Longevity Economy: Inside the World's Fastest Growing, Most Misunderstood Market (Public Affairs, 2017), is one of CEO READ’s Business Bestsellers.

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