A New Way To Think About The Lifespan

For as long as any of us can remember, our chronological age has been front and center in our lives. It started with birthday parties when we were very young and, probably thanks to the greeting card industry, birthday celebrations continue as long as we live – and sometimes beyond. Just last month, some family members and I celebrated that my father would have been 110 on his birthday this year.

The list of age-dependent restrictions and exclusions is long and powerful: school eligibility, driver licenses, alcohol purchase, tobacco purchase, incarceration protocols, athletic participation, credit card worthiness, car rental eligibility, and so on. And at the upper end we have social security and Medicare, certain types of housing, approved medical tests, etc.

After witnessing some startling incongruities in how people in my own life were managing the demands of living at different points in their lives, I became intrigued by the idea of looking at people as being in a certain phase or stage of life. I find it quite striking that I have one friend running marathons and playing tennis in his late 80s and another who is housebound by rheumatoid arthritis at 68. My (then) best friend and the matron of honor at my wedding was 66 when she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers, while an 87-year old friend is today the founder and leader of a global positive aging movement and is preparing for a cross-country move with her partner as I write this.

Our society has always needed some way to measure eligibility or worthiness or necessity, and so far chronological age has worked for us. But does it still? Now that people are routinely living into their 90s and 100s, we might consider framing the passages of our lives in a different way. So, when the opportunity to review a new book on alternative ways of looking at our lifespan was offered to me, I grabbed it. The book is the just-released Stage (Not Age) by Susan Golden.

I was hoping for a paradigm-shattering work that offered evidence and examples of how we live life in stages, not according to preconceived notions of how a 40-something or an 80-something should act. In the first third of the book, Ms. Golden offers some excellent ideas on how to do just that. However, the lion’s share of Stage (Not Age) is actually more about how businesses should market to people in different stages of life. It reminded me a lot of Ken Dychtwald’s 2020 book, What Retirees Want.

Even though I was put off by the ultimate direction of Stage (Not Age), it is very well researched and written and deserves credit in its own right. The first part of the book is devoted to separating lifespan (an age concept) from healthspan (a stage concept). Ms. Golden does a good job of presenting the statistics on longevity and the factors that serve to increase longevity and those that hinder it. She maps out 18 stages of life and groups them into four categories: 1) Growth stages, 2) Career and family stages, 3) Reinvention stages, and 4) Closing stages. As one would expect with a book that is predominantly on aging, her main focus is on the latter two stages. She urges her audience to begin to think differently about all of these stages. She also does a good job of stressing the harm that ageist attitudes and language do to people in all walks and stages of life.

In order for her readers to better understand the different stages and how they play out with people of different backgrounds and advantages, Ms. Golden offers a number of examples. She carefully points out how people of the exact same age can be at very different stages of the healthspan.

After she acquaints us with the stages, she helps us see the ways in which people in these different stages have unique needs and are receptive to very different products and services. Fully two-thirds of the book is then devoted to a better understanding of how to target a business to the right people at the right point in their lives. Again, she employs excellent examples and case studies to help her readers understand exactly how to do the stage targeting she recommends. She pinpoints mainstream companies like Merrill LynchNikeNKE +0.2%, and Warby Parker to illustrate how they used the lens of ‘stage’ to get their marketing just right for the products and services they promoted. She also tags new innovative companies like UpsideHoM and Papa to illustrate creative, out-of-the-box ways companies are offering attractive services to people in later stages of life that involve challenges like aging in place and avoiding loneliness and isolation.

In the end, my assessment of this book is that it would be an excellent text for a marketing class or a great read for someone looking for just the right business to start. Ms. Golden has done an extremely thorough job of considering all the variables in the marketing equation. However, the first section, titled “Understanding Longevity,” could easily stand as a separate work entirely. It is the book I wanted to read and I found great value in reading just that part. The rest is marketing 101 on steroids!

All in all, Stage (Not Age) is a worthy entry to the growing lexicon of literature on aging and older adults.

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