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Gerontologists Becoming a Hotter Hire as Consumers Age

Kevyn Burger March 19, 2018

Companies outside the traditional field of aging are starting to recognize the value of gerontologists in an aging society.

You’ve heard about CEOs, CFOs and COOs. But what about a CGO–as in, chief gerontology officer?

It may become a job of the future. As corporate America creates or adapts goods and services aimed at the lucrative market of older consumers, more businesses are beginning to tap into the expertise of gerontologists. Their specialized knowledge can help colleagues avoid stereotypes and misunderstandings about older adults, an increasingly valuable asset as the consumer public gets older.

“The potential for brands is huge,” said Rebecca Kolls, who advises Fortune 500 companies on marketing to customers over 50, as senior consumer strategist with CEB/Gartner Inc.

Traditionally, employment for gerontologists has been limited to aging-related fields, including retirement housing, long-term care and senior services. But that is starting to change. Companies in investment and insurance, for example, have brought gerontologists on board.

Tech startup grandPad illustrates how a device maker is using the insights of gerontology to improve products for older customers. “I’m doing research with a group of our users between 80 and 99 to test every feature,” said Kerry Burnight, chief gerontologist for grandPad, which makes tablets designed for older users.

“We listen to them so we can make a product that works for them, instead of asking them to adapt to the technology,” said Burnight, a former professor of geriatric medicine and co-founder of the nation’s first Elder Abuse Forensic Center, who now serves on grandPad’s leadership team.

Insights from gerontologists can give companies in various fields a competitive edge, said Kolls. “An unprecedented wave of aging consumers is here. Businesses need to retool their products and services. They should ask themselves what they’re doing to empower this generation and the families around them.”

Gerontology, the study of the biological, behavioral and social changes associated with aging, is a relatively new academic discipline. It is often confused with geriatrics, a medical specialty devoted to preventing and treating disease in older patients. (Amazon recently made news by recruiting a geriatrician to work on its initiative in health care.)

Clearly, companies are getting the message: Expertise on aging consumers has real value for business. Gerontologists, for example, understand that older individuals do not like to be pigeonholed as senior citizens or buy products that seem obviously aimed at the elderly.

Too often “marketers in their 30s think that because they took care of their grandma, they understand older people,” said Maria Henke, Senior Associate Dean of the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “They should rely on research, not stereotypes and anecdotal information.”

Gerontologists, she added, “have the deep insight and training to drill down and analyze market segments.”

Financial services is a sector where gerontologists are proving their value; banks, wealth management firms and investment companies all target the senior market.

The Hartford Financial Services Group relies on an in-house team of five corporate gerontologists to develop products and services for the aging demographic.

At Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Cynthia Hutchins became Director of Financial Gerontology in 2013 after she augmented her long career as a financial advisor with a master’s degree in gerontology.

Hutchins applies her understanding of life stages and gerontological trends to lead an initiative that has trained some 3,000 financial advisers on topics of particular relevance to aging clients.

“Retirees have different needs today than in the ‘80s and ‘90s; they have a longer retirement to plan for,” Hutchins said. “We’re tailoring meaningful resources that our financial advisers use to help their clients move to and through retirement.”

Burnight of grandPad believes that her gerontology background creates value not only for the tech company that employs her but also for society.

Some of Burnight’s academic research centered around loneliness in the elderly, which she considers a risk factor for their longevity and well-being. She sees the virtual connections fostered by grandPad as an innovative answer to the problem.

“I’m encouraging my colleagues in gerontology to partner with ethical companies. The reach and scalability of what businesses can do is profound. I see direct benefits to older people,” she said. “And I have to say, business is a lot of fun.”

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Kevyn Burger

Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer. She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier.

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