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What Aging Means Today

Dr. Ken Dychtwald says that the key to growing older is reinventing yourself


Few people have spent as much time and energy studying baby boomers and America’s aging population as Dr. Ken Dychtwald, who runs the marketing consultancy AgeWave. Dychtwald recently spoke with Will Palley, a Trends Strategist for JWT Intelligence.com, about the new life stage of “middlescence,” how boomers are reinventing themselves, and the ways men and women approach aging today. Here are the highlights, edited for length:

What does it mean to be “old” today, and how is this changing?

Most people who are 65 or 70 or even 75 do not think of themselves as old. Generally, people think old age begins around 80. The gateway to old age has been moved back, because we’re living longer, people are staying healthy longer, people are remaining active longer. We’ve got guys like Mick Jagger in his 70s, who are still pretty fantastic and youthful. You’ve got Barbara Walters in her 80s.

So the gestalt of how we think of what is old and who is old is being restructured. As a result of that, if old age moves back, what about all that territory between 50 and 80? What is that?

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In the beginning of the 20th century, there was a sociologist named Stanley Hall, who declared there was a new stage of life emerging, and he called it adolescence. I would argue the same thing is happening now, and that between around 45 and 65, a new stage of life is emerging that I’ll affectionately call “middlescence.” I think late adulthood is becoming a genuine stage of life, between 65 and 80. And old age then kicks in at 80-plus.

Could you explain the linear vs. cyclic life plan?

Historically, people have lived a linear life plan. You knew you might live 60 or 65 or 70 years. So you learned until, let’s say, 20 years. Then you worked and raised your family for approximately 40 years, and then you rested. In that model, we were inclined to think of old people as people who were done, who were out to pasture.

In a cyclic life plan, people are continually reinventing themselves and trying new things. Cyclic is replacing linear. That, in a way, erases a lot of the expectations for what you’re supposed to do when and particularly the idea that once you reach 60, you’ve climbed to the top of your mountain and now the rest of your life you’ll be descending.

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And so, this idea of reinvention. For today’s elders, it was considered abnormal. I mean, if you were a dentist, and didn’t want to be a dentist anymore, people thought something was wrong with you. If you were in a marriage and didn’t feel it was thrilling you, people would say, “Well, you married for better or worse.” Most boomers have changed careers multiple times, 50 percent have changed spouses. They’ve relocated their careers, their lives, their friends again and again. And so why would they stop doing that when they have more free time and when they are a bit older?

Talk about the marketing shift you see.

The marketing epicenter has been largely geared to trend setters, and the idea was that trend setters were most likely going to be young people. So, much of our marketplace is skewed toward the young. Now, I’m convinced that the marketplace is going to be shaped by the “influentials.” People look around and they see that their boss has got the nicer office, or someone a little older can afford to sit in first class on the plane. I can afford to buy an iPad, no problem. I’m in a stage in my life where I can enjoy the fruits of my efforts. The marketplace epicenter is migrating toward the 40s, 50s and 60s, where the influentials reside, and everybody wants to copy them.

How is our understanding of life stage changing?

I think we’re gaining a greater appreciation and knowledge about the life stages that come after the 50th birthday. You might be a 64-year-old going back to college or a newlywed at 70. There are different life stages you’re likely to be in, which have never really been the focus of the marketplace and therefore have been in the shadows. One example is empty nesting. All of a sudden you go from having no free time to lots of free time.

What else? Grandparenthood. Today, grandparents are doing mountain treks with their grandkids. They’re buying 25 percent of all the toys. They are a hipper, cooler, younger, more affluent cohort than we’ve ever seen populating that stage of life.

(MORE: 5 Myths About Grandparents It's Time to Trash

Another stage is mature singlehood. There are over 20 million [Americans] over the age of 50 who are single. Obviously there’s the retirement life stage, which the financial services companies have taken notice of. But have the travel and leisure companies fully embraced retirement as a gold mine? Not really. Have colleges and educational systems realized that today’s retirees want to learn? Not really.

As definitions of age change, how do you think relationship dynamics are changing?

Aging is becoming more ageless. More and more people are bonding together and sharing interests based on mindset, lifestyle, religious beliefs or enjoyment of fitness, even a particular kind of dancing. Rather than people ghettoing and clustering into age groups, you see people increasingly comfortable in transgenerational settings.

For me, one of the historic moments on this transgenerational dynamic was about a decade ago, when Carlos Santana came out with his Supernatural album. He did something quite clever, which was that he partnered up on every song with a Gen Xer. For example, the song he did with Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20.

More and more, we see examples of people rooming with, being friends with, working in partnership with, sitting down and enjoying lunch with, sharing emails with or sitting in on book clubs with people of all ages.

What do you think is driving this shift?

During the 20th century, we isolated the generations, and each generation seemed to draw a boundary around itself and identified heavily with its own kind. That was, of course, further motivated and suggested by advertising and marketing. Most advertising became focused on ages, mostly young, and basically picked apart the generations. So it was a combination of public mores, attitudes, images, music. The generations sort of pulled apart.

What’s happening now is something that’s better, healthier. We don’t think of different generations as so different. We evaluate each other more in terms of, What are your interests? Who are you as a person? What do we have to share, what do we have to exchange?

I’ve noticed that Millennials and Gen Xers are far more open-minded, more comfortable with diversity, far more likely to connect with people across lines. And I think age is just another one of those things.

In people over a certain age, we’ve seen two trends. More people seem to be accepting the signs of aging, like embracing grey hair. And then cosmetic procedures are so widespread. What do you think this means for the aesthetic of aging and how people feel about the process?

There are several dimensions of aging. For example, there is the fact that as one lives longer, one gains greater experience. If you were to ask people, “How would you like to have more experience and wisdom and perspective?” people say, “Count me in.”

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However, people don’t like the dimension of aging where people become socially marginalized. And then the other side of aging is physical aging, and nobody likes that.  Even that one breaks into two categories. One is health, and the other is vanity. If we were an enlightened people, we’d be interested in remaining healthy through all our days, and let our bodies physically age on the outside however they might. But we are not that enlightened.

Previous generations of older people were inclined to move to the sidelines and go quietly. Boomers are going to absolutely refuse. You say to a boomer, “Now you ought to just be quiet and go to the sidelines, let the next generation have their day” — that’s not going to happen.

Could you give a specific example of this?

Bill Gates. When he got tired of being a computer executive, he became a philanthropist. So he could have gone off and played golf for the rest of his life. But rather than moving to the sidelines, he’s a role model. Look at Oprah Winfrey. I don’t see her relaxing at all. If you were to say to Oprah, “Your time is over, stop,” she won’t. If you look at Steven Spielberg, he’s still making movies. Look at Diana Nyad, who’s been attempting to swim to Cuba in the last few months. She’s in her 60s. You go to any of these Ironman triathlon events, and there’s more and more 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds doing great.

The last point has to do with where the money is going to be made. Generally, people want to look either young or ageless. So whether that’s going to the gym, or wearing clothing that features their look appropriately as they mature, Botox injections. If you look at the numbers of people who are doing plastic and cosmetic and injectible therapies, it’s unbelievable. And the people dying their hair, women and men. Years ago, the entire skin care world had to do with acne; now, it’s all age-defying products. So, in those neuroses, there’s trillions of dollars of opportunity.

Our research found clear differences in the way the sexes approach aging. Can you speak to why this is?

Women and men are not running the same race, because women have a longer distance to go, and they have more time than men. There are a couple of drivers here. One of them is that, psychologically women are more likely to have identities that are fluid. They’ve defined themselves in various ways: “I’m a woman, I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I’m a lawyer, I’m a caregiver.” Men are much more rigid, more firmly defined in the sense of, “I am a vice president of marketing,” or “I’m a schoolteacher.” And so as that piece of their identity begins to have an end, they get lost. They don’t know who they should be and how to maintain their masculinity and their virility and their identity. But also, they don’t even know how to make the shift, because they’ve made so few shifts of self-definition.

However, society still generally thinks that as men grow older, they become more distinctive looking, more wise looking. As women grow older, they tend to look — society believes — more frumpy. I do think that women are more rigorously evaluated for their attractiveness as human beings, based on how they look, than men. And that can become a tough battle, because of the forces of physical aging. If you look at the percentages of women who do plastic surgery versus the men who do Botox, who get facials, dye their hair, the numbers really skew very much toward women. And that would argue they’re fighting that battle with a lot more determination than men feel they need to.

But it seems that men are paying more attention to looking youthful these days?

They are. … Take health spas, for example. Around the 1990s they appeared on the scene and they became sort of wellness spas. Initially, the people were almost all women. Now it’s almost 50/50. Men are also going to the dance classes, the aerobic sessions, the yoga classes and going to get massage treatments. Men are becoming more inclined to look after these kinds of vanity elements and wellness elements than they used to be.

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