Hot Stuff


Getting old ain't what it used to be. And nothing illustrates the point better than a passage from the book Age Power (J.P. Tarcher), written by psychologist and gerontologist Ken Dychtwald:

"When I first met my literary agent, he told me he remembered attending his grandfather's funeral," says Dychtwald. "Although he was just a young boy, he distinctly recalled people commenting that his grandfather, who'd died at age 62, had lived a long life and died an 'old man.' As fate would have it, [the agent's] father died at the exact same age, 62. At the father's funeral, everyone lamented that he'd lived such a short life and died so young."

Why the change in attitude? Take a look:

  • We're living longer. In 1950, life expectancy was 68 years; today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, once people reach senior age, 65, they still have about 17 more years to live.
  • The ranks of seniors are swelling. In 1997, 12.7 percent of the population was age 65 and older; that figure is expected to jump to 20 percent by 2030.
  • Seniors' incomes comes from several different sources. While the majority (91 percent) of this group cited Social Security as their top source of income, a sizable chunk (63 percent) also live on money from assets as well as private and public pensions (41 percent). A significant number (21 percent) of seniors also count on salaries from working.

The median net worth of the U.S. senior population in 1993 was $86,300, with only 16 percent below $10,000 and 17 percent above $250,000. "A decade or two ago, you thought of [65-year-olds] as elderly and poverty-stricken. You didn't view them as a consumer segment but as a group that needed social support and care," explains Dychtwald, who has studied seniors for 25 years.

In the recent past, this age group, shaped by the trauma of the Great Depression, tended to be very frugal. By contrast, today's 65-plus folks are more comfortable spending, more optimistic about the future, and still feeling young. "This creates a fabulous marketing opportunity," says Dychtwald.

And forget the old stigma that all older people do is knit and lawn-bowl. "There are about 10 million seniors today who are rejecting stereotypes of aging and are getting off their duffs," Dychtwald points out. "Whether it's going back to college, volunteering or learning to surf the Internet, they're breaking the mold and creating a whole new standard for aging."

Dychtwald is optimistic about the business opportunities in the senior market. He notes the following categories:

  • Health care: A given, because despite these seniors' vitality, physical ailments simply become more prevalent as people age. Consequently, there's a need for such products and services as pharmaceuticals, vitamins, herbs, health clubs and spas to help people deal with chronic pains and maintain their good health.

"Add to that the fact that many older adults would like to slow down the aging process to remain vital and independent as long as possible, and I think you're going see a huge growth in anti-aging products," says Dychtwald.

  • Leisure: Some 85 percent of the senior population is retired, with 15 to 20 years of free time on their hands and the disposable income to make the most of those years.

This, says Dychtwald, will spur a boom in areas like adult education, Internet usage, software purchases, adventure travel, senior dating services, and other programs and services that give pleasure and meaning to this group's free time.

And don't forget that 80 percent of those over age 60 are grandparents--group that spends an average of $505 apiece on their grandchildren annually. Grandparents also travel more with their grandkids, and because of the changing American family structure, many provide secondary financial support for their grandchildren.

In addition to being grandparents, younger members of the mature population may also have the responsibility of caring for aging parents, which means they may consider services such as adult daycare.

Like boomers, Gen Xers or any other generation, seniors can't be neatly packaged together and marketed to as one monolithic group. Entrepreneurs will be more successful if they identify and concentrate on smaller segments (such as seniors who travel or those in need of in-home medical services), determine this group's wants and needs, and then fill them.

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This article was originally published in the December 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Hot Stuff.

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