Ken Dychtwald has been trying for over 4 decades to prepare America (and the world) for the huge disruptive force that is the graying of the Baby Boomers.

By Pam McDonald

Remember a commercial showing a restaurant filled with guys in suits talking animatedly over lunch, when one man leans in and says, “Well, my broker is E. F. Hutton . . .” and the entire room falls silent, straining to hear what this guy says next?

Well, that’s kind of the reception Ken Dychtwald gets when he addresses owners, operators, lenders and investors in the senior housing and care space, as he did at the National Investment Center (NIC) Fall Conference a couple of months ago.

A gerontologist, psychologist, speaker, author and founder of the California-based consulting firm, Age Wave, Ken has been trying for over 4 decades to prepare America (and the world) for the huge disruptive force that is the graying of the Baby Boomers.

He says the Age Wave will impact nearly every aspect of society, including, of course, business. “Your industry is going to have the wind in its sails,” he notes, but he also warns that future behavior is not as easy to predict as demography. The central question for business, he says, is “Who are the Boomers going to be when they get older? Because if you get that wrong, you’re out.”

Winners and Losers in Senior Living

He continues that there are major ways senior living can fail to win with Boomers. He says, “First of all, if you say, ‘We are expert on older adults, there’s just going to be twice as many of them,’ you’ll fail.

“Or, [if you say] . . . ‘I’m tuned into Boomers. I understand the Boomer mindset, we’re just going to picture them with wrinkles,’ you’ll fail.”

He also believes that “if you’re building your communities and your marketing and intelligence is based on the 20th Century notion that people really want to stop work, separate from society, not do much of anything other than relax and socialize, and be called seniors, you’re going to fail.”

Branding for Seniors Won’t Work with Boomers

Ken says, “I know a lot of your companies have got the word ‘senior’ in your brand. Every study that’s ever been done in the last ten years of Boomers says that they don’t ever want to be seniors. They might like to be ‘elders,’ they might like to be ‘older adults,’ they might like to be ‘long-lived people.’

“You will win,” he says, “if you can imagine this generation, understand what’s in their hearts and souls and minds and bodies, and then project them into a stage of life that itself is morphing as they migrate into it.”

Ken describes four areas where Boomers and aging will transform each other, including the following:

1. Longevity Inequality

2. The Death of Retirement

3. Family/Financial Security

4. A New Purpose for Maturity

Longevity Inequality

He notes, “There’s been a lot of talk lately about income inequality; the idea that some people have it, other people don’t. You just watch what happens . . . when people come to terms with longevity inequality . . . A lifetime of wellness is about to become the prize for a generation that’s going to be having aches and pains and all sorts of physical challenges.”

He’s sure, “We’ll see breakthroughs . . . that will allow people to sustain their youth or to grow old young or to not age.” But he points out they may be enormously expensive. As today’s young people live to age 150 or more, he notes that Boomers will be on the leading edge of these innovations and says, “Some will get access and others will not.”

An End to Retirement As We Know It

Ken points out that we currently have about 70 million retirees who bought into the notion that retirement has people moving off the stage, quitting work at age 65 and relaxing more. But, he points out, “Last year, the average retiree watched 49 hours of television a week” and that looks pretty boring to Boomers.

He says that 77% of Boomers want to work in retirement, but not full time. And, more than half want to try something different than they’ve ever done before. But many won’t be able to afford to retire.

He notes, “About one-third of the Boomers are doing pretty well financially. About a third are in the middle. They’ll be able to make it through their later years with some cutbacks and careful planning or communal living or a ‘sharing society’ or groups of people living in a home together. But about a third of the Boomers have got less than about a thousand dollars net savings. They’re going to struggle in their retirement. They won’t be able to afford to retire.”

Linear vs. Cyclic Life Plans

Ken says, “Historically we’ve lived what I’ll call a linear life plan. Life was short; biological clocks were ticking away . . . Perhaps the biggest mistake people make when they contemplate gerontology is they think that increasing longevity gives a longevity bonus . . . that people are going to stick that at the end of their lives. So that people are going to live their lives in the exact same way folks always have. They’ll just be old longer.”

But he points out that when John Glenn announced he was going to go up in space again, he said: “Just because I’ll be 77 doesn’t mean I still don’t have dreams.” Ken notes, “Our communities are designed to be places where people are nostalgic for who they used to be. In the future, people will have new dreams at 60, and 80 and 100. This becomes the model of a long-lived society.”

Little Family or Financial Security

Ken states that Boomers will have very little family and financial security, and are also the generation people love to hate. He points to a recent Philadelphia Magazine cover with the headline: “Dear Baby Boomers, JUST DIE ALREADY.”

He concludes that it is unlikely that public policy will be generous toward Boomers and says, “They will have to fend for themselves. They’ll have to find communities and homes and neighborhoods that they can afford.”

Ushering In A New Purpose for Maturity

Despite any generational friction, Ken believes Boomers will help redefine purpose in later life. He says, “Boomers . . . want to be somebody; they want their lives to have meaning. And, in their later years, when they have time affluence, they will have an enormous appetite to give back.”

He concludes, “I think the idea that living a long life should simply be an extension of youth or that you should simply fulfill on the dreams of your childhood is going to be replaced by the idea that maybe I can give back. Maybe I could be somebody I’ve always dreamed of being. People are going to search for ways to be connected, relevant, involved, [and] living with purpose.”

Watch Ken’s entire NIC Talk below:

NIC Talks speaker: Ken Dychtwald, PhD, Founder and CEO of Age Wave