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Book review: ‘Stage (Not Age)’ by Susan Wilner Golden

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Published: 16 September 2022

The over 60s now represent one of fastest growing and most dynamic markets in the world. In this book, the author reflects on how longevity is changing the ‘learn, earn, retire’ life model, with implications for business and investment

‘Stage (Not Age) – How to Understand and Serve People over 60’ by Susan Wilner Golden

In brief

  • The world’s population is ageing fast and many people are enjoying healthier later years.
  • Retirement as we have known it may cease to exist as people in their sixties go through a process of re-invention and renaissance.
  • This has big implications for businesses, as the opportunities are enormous, and for impact investors.
  • We should seek diversity of age in the workforce and invest in those who encourage it.

Susan Wilner Golden is that rare breed – an academic who understands business. Originally, a partner at Schroder Ventures, specialisng in life sciences and healthcare investments, she now directs Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, which “engages experienced professionals who are focusing on the next chapter of their lives on building innovations for both social and economic impact”. 

In ‘Stage (Not Age)’ she successfully weaves these two core competencies together as she explores the global ageing phenomenon – 1.6 billion people worldwide are currently over 50, and by 2050 that number is set to double. 

As Golden observes, once people who reached 100 were newsworthy. “Just one hundred years ago, the average American could expect to live fifty-four years. By the end of World War II, it was sixty-four… in 1981, life expectancy had reached seventy-four. Today it’s nearly eighty, and … public health and medical advances will enable children born since 2000 to expect to live to a hundred”.  

This has massive implications. The classic view of modern life was one of three stages: learn, earn, retire. This model is no longer fit for purpose. “It doesn’t make sense anymore. You don’t retire at sixty-five if you have 35 percent of your life left,” she writes. 

Golden argues it’s all about ‘stage not age’. If you are in good health, you may wish to carry on working well into your seventies or eighties, perhaps even into your nineties, like the late Elizabeth II. Many people are able and want to work later in life and, frankly, they’ll need the money. 

Multistage life

Policy makers have taken this on board in many European countries. The think-tank The New 3rd Age, part of the Danish pension company PFA has “embraced the concept of a multistage life and a rewiring of the old three-stage model of careers (education, work, retirement).” It focusses on health, the transition from work-life to retirement, and housing.  

We need to adopt this globally, and the first step is recognising “words matter”. In early 2020, the author launched a ‘Naming Project’ at Stanford, because “in other languages and cultures, the word for older implies earned wisdom and is revered. In our culture and language, older implies ending and declining”.  

Crucially for Golden “not only do these biases do an injustice to older adults, but frankly, these prejudices also cause companies and investors to miss massive opportunities’.  

The author argues life now has five stages rather than three, which she calls “quarters” admitting her maths is a little deficient. ‘The Starting Quarter’ (starting school, college, and work), ‘The Growing Quarter’ (building careers, family, and community), ‘The Renaissance Quarter’ where we repurpose and rejuvenate, ‘The Legacy Quarter,’ where health needs become dominant, and ‘The Bonus Quarter,’ the extra years some healthy individuals will get.  

This categorisation can be confusing – are four and five really that different? Interestingly, Golden seems to admit this when in a table in the appendix she reverts to four quarters and renames them. Growth, Career/family, Re-invention and Closing.  

But we get her drift. 

The business of longevity

A large part of Golden’s message is the opportunities this presents to business – a “longevity economy worth $22 trillion worldwide”. She cites Nike who came to realise their customers were getting older and launched its CruzrOne trainers, at $150 a pair.

“Venture capital and entrepreneurship has long skewed young. Young investors target young innovators with young companies that have ideas for products that serve, for the most part, young people. But the money and talent in the venture capital ecosystem has a huge opportunity in the surging longevity economy.” 

The implications for impact investors are multiple. Just as we increasingly demand companies prove diversity in terms of gender and race, should we also not require so in terms of age? As with gender, Covid has considerably assisted here with the rise of work from home and a greater acceptance of part-time working. Flexibility assists diversity 

In September 2019, Mercer released its white paper ‘Are You Age-Ready?’ arguing “older workers add a level of EQ (emotional intelligence) to a workplace”. Increasingly, large companies are offering paid ‘returnship’ programs, offering internships to people with more experience, such as ‘Re-Ignite’ at Johnson & Johnson and re-entry programs at J.P. Morgan and Facebook. 

There are also impact investing opportunities. Alan Patricof, one of Apax Partners’ founders recently raised $32 million to create Prime-time Partners, a venture capital fund that will invest in start-ups catering to older adults. Patricof is eighty-seven. 

“In the years ahead, impact investors will likely be engaging in these opportunities,” the author writes.

How many over 60s do you employ? 

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