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The numbers tell the story: In 2020, nearly one in six people was 65 or older, according to the 2020 Census. A century ago, the total was less than one in 20.

Not only has the Baby Boomer generation swelled the ranks of older Americans, but it represents a potent market force that is driving the need to create new industries in everything from digital devices and apparel, to travel, entertainment, cars, and dating sites.

The conversation is even taking hold among the Baby Boom’s successor cohort, Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980.

“Age 50+ consumers are a growing economic force that will transform multiple industries,” says Maria Henke, senior associate dean of the USC Leonard Davis School. “It’s unlike any prior demographic shift in recent history, and yet most companies continue to design for and advertise to the young.”

USC is a leading voice in the conversation. On September 8, the Leonard Davis School will partner with the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the USC Marshall School of Business to host the “Aging is Now/Aging is the Future Entrepreneurship Symposium.”

The day-long gathering will open with welcoming remarks from USC Leonard Davis Dean Pinchas Cohen and will bring together researchers, entrepreneurs and other leaders in the emerging longevity economy for panel discussions, knowledge-sharing and networking regarding business opportunities in products, services, and systems to meet rising needs. The event is one of the first of its kind in the country.

“There are a lot of conferences that are interested in the challenges with aging, and a lot of conferences interested in the research around aging,” says Abby Fifer Mandell, a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at the Marshall School. “But aging is not just about disease, disability, and end-of-life issues; this is a vibrant marketplace. What we want to bring to the space is a conversation that really has an eye towards opportunities for entrepreneurial success and innovation in companies that benefit older adults.”

“The possibilities are endless,” adds Henke. Baby Boomers are the richest generation on record, according to Census data, holding about half of the wealth in the United States.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped to accelerate the use of technology among older Americans, who have voiced their desires for innovations in that arena. Among a wide range of needs, older people are looking for health and wellness apps that help them manage medical appointments, purchase medications, and monitor fitness, as well as apps to help manage their portfolios and banking and for technology that will help them age at home.

To that end, the Leonard Davis School developed a master’s degree in applied technology in 2021. Graduates will be in demand in the evolving field, and they’ll play a critical role aiding entrepreneurs, Henke says. There are reasons to broaden the scope of gerontology, she notes. Adults 60 and older form the largest consumer demographic in the world, she adds.

“Graduates are going to do a lot of the work that gerontologists do, but with, with a much more intense focus on technology,” Henke says. “I see them being very valuable to technology companies. Right now, I notice that technology companies consult geriatricians with a focus on the medical needs of older people, but not necessarily on the holistic needs of older people, which a gerontologist is trained to do.”

Health care, not just technology, remains a potent force in the longevity economy. Caregiving alone is a $260 billion industry, serving not only aging Americans but the people who work in the space. Many opportunities remain untapped.

“There’s a dearth of companies and products that are interested in older adults,” Mandell says. “It’s this idea that life is optimized for 28-year-olds, and the rest of us have to try to stay young. That’s how the market is oriented, as opposed to the reality that, hopefully, we’ll live well past 28. It really pays to think about the marketplace as being mostly populated by older adults, and that’s true worldwide.

“We have imagined that aging is about fall prevention or disease. No, aging is what 100% of humans do from the moment we are conceived. But in Western society, we have this perception that between the ages of 40 and dying, there’s nothing, that there’s just a gap.”

In Mandell’s entrepreneurship courses, students are taught to “apply the lens of a user-centered design approach to respond to some of the stickiest and trickiest challenges facing our society.” In the last five years, Mandell and her students have spoken with thousands of older adults around the world, gathering perspectives on their habits, routines, values, behaviors and challenges.

She’s now assembling a report on those insights, which she says will demonstrate market opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors. The 100-page report is due to be released in December 2023 with “market-ready solutions.” “The way that we portray older adults in the media tends to be very narrow, and very limited,” she says.

The markets are myriad: LGBTQ, older adults of color, those with mobility challenges, and those who are live at a distance from loved ones are often overlooked, Mandell adds.

Attending the symposium will be Katy Fike, who was an investment banker in New York City on 9/11. She worked in the World Financial Center, adjacent to the World Trade Center. The tragedy gave her new perspectives.

“My life kind of changed,” she says. “As a young 20-something who had been pulling a whole lot of all-nighters for projects that were ‘so important,’ it suddenly didn’t feel that important to me anymore.”

Fike, who had older parents and an “affinity for older people,” decided to get her master’s and doctorate in gerontology at USC.  She earned an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia and Fike decided that she wanted to create “a more ideal elderhood.”

“My engineer head said, ‘we need to create leverage and scale, and we need to change how we’re doing things. I felt it was a huge opportunity for technology-enabled services to make a huge impact in an industry that was at the time super low-tech.”

Fike is a partner at Bay Area-based Generator Ventures, which invests in companies seeking to reduce medical costs to older Americans. Her company has invested in IntelyCare, a “workforce management platform” that aids in nursing staffing. The technology is designed to “end the nurse staffing crisis and ensure that patients receive optimal care.”

Danny Kaplan, who earned his MBA and master’s in gerontology at USC, also works at Generator Ventures. He entered the field as the son of an older father; Kaplan’s dad was 58 when he was born. He died last year at 91.

“Older adults have certainly been ignored by the market,” he says. “We don’t see them as functioning, productive members of our world. The desires and wants and needs of Boomers woke a lot of people up to the fact that there is an opportunity to serve this segment of the market.”

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