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An Unabashedly Honest Conversation on the Realities of Aging

Carolyn Jacobs October 14, 2019
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A cross-section of professionals and older consumers came together for an evening of myth busting at Stria’s “Myths and Misconceptions: The Truth About 50+ Consumers” Event

“Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” quipped Hollywood’s legendary salty diva Bette Davis—and she wasn’t completely wrong. We face daunting physical, emotional, social and financial challenges as we grow older. But do we all encounter the same challenges in exactly the same way? And what about our work, relationships, and the entertainment, travel, sports, music and other forms of recreation that bring us joy (and on which we older consumers have trillions of dollars to spend)?

In spite of the fact that people over 50 make up a third of the population and are the fastest rising group in the job market, we see ourselves reflected in society as just two words: Old People. Isn’t it time for a revolutionary new dialogue when it comes to aging?

Sparking that dialogue was the goal for the leaders of Stria News, Silvernest and Next for Me in hosting the “Myths & Misconceptions: The Truth About 50+ Consumers” event on October 7. They brought together a range of professionals from the worlds of media, business, marketing and nonprofits along with regular consumers for unabashedly honest conversation and some myth busting. Myths such as:

Older people are grumpy.
Older people hate technology and don’t use it.
Older people don’t spend money.
Older people don’t have sex and they don’t want to.
Older people have less to contribute.

The guests laughed and brainstormed and got busy busting.

Perspective From a 50+ Media Maven

First up was the evening’s guest speaker Diane Harris, Newsweek Editor At Large and veteran Editor in Chief at “Money Magazine.” “My life is so much more than my age!” declared Harris, who also served as Editorial Director for the launch of the 50+ focused media brand “Considerable.”

Yet many early “Considerable” articles bore headlines that emphasized age, like “What You Need to Know About Drinking After 50,” “What You Need to Know About Sex After 50,” “What You Need to Know About <Fill-in-the-Blank> After 50.” (Not surprisingly, “The Best Dogs for People Over 50” was hugely popular due to the appeal of dogs.)

The shift that helped “Considerable” connect with older readers was beginning to publish articles that addressed common experiences without explicitly mentioning age. Harris said the most popular of these reframed stories was “How to Say Goodbye to Your Stuff Without Breaking Your Heart.”

Harris is now working on a book about personal finance and is determined to break down the media’s two extreme stereotypes of older people: “the cranky but cute codgers” and “the age defying overachievers” (or as Stria publisher Susan Donley puts it, the “skydiving grannies”).

The Myth Busting Begins

Event guests weighed in with their own perspectives on the myths they see in their work and lives. Jody Holtzman, CEO of Longevity Venture Advisors, reinforced Harris’s point by adding that the 74 million baby boomers alive today make up more than the total population of the U.K., Italy or France, but “no one would suggest a one-size-fits-all marketing campaign for any of those countries.” As with every other type of diversity, appreciating our differences will lead to success. He said, “Some of us are rock-and-rollers, some of us still play basketball, some of us still have sex. We have to move beyond a focus on needs, to a focus on aspiration—our dreams.”

“Gap Year for Grown-Ups” podcaster Debbie Weil said she is working to do just that by sharing stories of what’s next for people building their “second act.”

Silvernest CEO Wendi Burkhardt busted the myths that tech start up founders are all 26-year-old white men and that older people don’t use technology. “Au contraire!” she laughed. Burkhardt is a 50+ female who is succeeding with her online home-sharing platform, which offers older user digital matching technology that pairs homeowners with ideal room-renters.

Marci Alboher countered the myth that older people don’t want to learn anything new by explaining how we can become “change agents.” She is on the leadership team of Encore.org, a nonprofit with programs and fellowships that offer opportunities for older and younger people to work together to bring about social change. The well-documented success of multi-generational programs like these was evidenced by New York Encore Fellowship Program Director Greg Burnett, who described the enthusiasm with which seasoned executives share their expertise with nonprofits dedicated to the greater good.

50+ Consumers Are Diverse, Vibrant

The event guests, speakers and sponsors exemplified the fact that the alternatives to clichéd misconceptions about older people are as diverse as the people themselves. Each myth discussed at the event holds a kernel of truth—but not all older people experience and respond to them in the same way.

Stereotypes about older people sometimes spawn humor, like the Saturday Night Live sketch about “people of a certain age” using the Amazon Echo. I’m pushing 60 and can’t deny laughing until I cried watching it because, frankly, I don’t get the Echo either. But that’s just me: one of millions of older people—each of us bearing a unique sense of humor, taste and style.

The biggest, most absurd and damaging myth—which came up again and again at the event—is that any one thing is true of all older people. Media and people working in the longevity market need to abandon that misperception and embrace the vibrancy of this diverse group of people. As Diane Harris put it, “Look at the whole of us. Not just the problems and not just the rah-rah part of it—but who we are holistically. That’s a message that works not just for the 50+ consumer but for everyone.” The conversation has begun!

Photo credits: Stria News, Gap Year for Grown-Ups (Debbie Weil)

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Carolyn Jacobs

Carolyn Jacobs is a writer and video content creator for Bio.com, AMC, PBS, Discovery, Scholastic and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She co-founded Read It All Up® a children's media company currently developing a dramatic series.

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