Interview: Lori Bitter on The Business of Aging – Part 2

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Lori Bitter joined us for an interview recently and opened our eyes to the unique phases of the 50-65+ audiences. It may not be what you think. She brings a researcher’s instincts to understanding this unpredictable market.

Through her firm “The Business of Ageing’, she provides strategic consulting, research and development for companies seeking to engage with mature consumers. She serves as publisher of GRAND – the digital magazine for grandparents. Her book, “The Grandparent Economy” is now available at Paramount Market Publishing or on Amazon.com.

She was president of J. Walter Thompson’s Boomer division, JWT BOOM, the nation’s leading mature market advertising and marketing company and led that firm’s annual Boomer marketing event for five years. Prior to that she led client service for Age Wave Impact. She is the contributor to five books on aging consumers, and is a leader in research on topics relevant to the senior and boomer population.

In this second part of our interview Lori discusses intergenerational mentoring, the aftershocks of the great recession, living solely on social security, and what marketers can learn about speaking to this demographic.


Lori Bitter of The Business of Aging

Intergenerational Experiences

Next For Me: What about mentoring? Does that fill some of these gaps of understanding?

Lori Bitter: I’m involved with an organization called Bridges Together and they have programming for intergenerational experiences. One of the things that I’ve learned from looking at all of their materials and understanding what they do is the power of having an experience with an older adult and how that changes your perception.

One of the exercises they did was have young children draw pictures of what “old” looks like. They drew wheelchairs and people with canes hunched over. They took that classroom and created an intergenerational program for these kids so that they were spending time with older adult mentors. The pictures they drew after we’re vibrant and happy and they didn’t reflect disability. It was a very different aura around aging than these kids had experienced.

If we take that and apply it to 30 year olds or 18 year olds or even 40 year olds and older adults in the workplace it can make a difference. Why are we always keying in on “They’re not good with technology and they’re slower”? That can be true of a younger worker just like it can be true of an older worker.

I think we can create a positive intergenerational mentoring experience, whether it’s a reverse mentor to an older adult or a mentor to a younger person. We’re going to change those perceptions and that helps get all of that garbage out of the way and lets people see a person on the other side of the table as opposed to “isms”, or disability or what’s wrong. It helps them focus on what’s right.


Foregoing Retirement Savings for Adult Children and Caregiving

NFM: How about your book, The Grandparent Economy?

LB: I wrote this book a couple of years ago and we had just done some research on grandparents and I had bought a small interest in Grand Magazine. I wanted to know what was going on with baby boomer grandparents and how they were different from previous generations of grandparents.

My hypothesis was that we were the ultimate helicopter parents. Were we going to helicopter over our grand babies, just like we did our children when they were in school? What was the grand-parenting outlook going to look like? I did the original research right before the recession hit, so we went back and we did another piece of research to see what else, if anything had changed.

Particularly we wanted to know if boomers were stepping up to fill in the gaps that were left when their adult children became unemployed or when their adult children lost their homes. There was just a lot of really tragic stuff that went on very quickly when the recession hit people. There was that first round of people finding out how bad their financial situation was. And then there were the home losses and then there were job losses again. It came in these big waves and I wanted to sort all that out and look at it.

The majority of baby boomers who were grandparents at the time stepped up in really unprecedented ways to help their adult children. And it didn’t matter what the socioeconomic status was of the grandparent.

We talked to some very affluent grandparents who stepped in and were paying private school tuition. They were taking over car insurance. They were making sure college was going to be taken care of. They were doing all sorts of things. Things they had never really thought about doing.

The Grandparent Economy

One of the most interesting things that happened during this time were the family cell phone plans. Adult children were getting on their parent’s cell phone plans and then putting their children on those cell phone plans. And when we went back and asked people six, seven years later, are you still paying for those plans? they said, “Oh, well it’s a much better financial deal for all of us if we just all stay on the plan.”

What that did to their retirement plans was the downside. They took over millions of dollars of payments on student loan debt to the detriment of their retirement savings.

We saw many, many middle-class, older adults say, “Look, I had to change my healthcare benefits on my plan so I could help my kids pay for their benefits and the benefits that they lost.” There were kids who were going into Cobra who couldn’t make their monthly healthcare payments, and instead of them doing without healthcare, the parents were stepping up and making the Cobra payments.

In really financially strapped homes we heard from grandparents who were not filling their prescriptions so that their grandchildren could have after school activities or pay for the lunch program. It didn’t matter what the economic status was, it was hurting grandparents at every economic level.

We also saw a huge number of young adults and their children moving back in with parents and parents moving in with their young adult families. Everybody was trying to figure out where to live, how to live and how to negotiate this time period. It created a lot of intergenerational households. Some of those remain intact.

Intergenerational living is at a 40 year high right now. Here we are 10 years after the recession, and a lot of people had to alter their financial planning. This is a very large number of people that are going to be confronted with this reality.

Depending on which survey or which study or which article you read, a vast number of people are going to live on social security alone. That’s pretty scary when they’ve saved less than $10,000 and over 40 percent are insecure about it. For the first time in the history of retirement in our country we have a lot of singles retiring, whether by divorce or whether they remained single by choice. A lot of those are women. We know women traditionally haven’t earned at the same levels as men. They haven’t been able to save at the same levels. We could have an epidemic of older retired women who are at risk. So that’s something for the federal government to really address.

What I’m hearing is that we don’t have a czar for aging and retirement in our government. You could argue whether we need more government in this process I guess, but it certainly seems like someone should be on top of this somewhere with all the data that we have.

Someone should be at least pointing out where the tsunamis are about to hit the shores, right?

I think we are in for some really tough times. It’s also worth looking at places like nonprofits and foundations with grant money. Years ago you were able to get grants for looking at aging issues. Now, increasingly, everything’s focused on children while the need across the board is so great.

There are still some foundations that focus only on intergenerational activity. It’s just getting harder and harder to find research dollars and to find organizations who are solely focused on what’s going on with the older adult, and where those needs are going to be.

It struck me as so bizarre when the Trump administration was talking about ending Meals on Wheels, which is a just a rounding error in the federal budget. It is so meaningful in the lives of so many older adults, not just from a nourishment perspective. There are a number of pilot programs going on to have Meals on Wheels people trained to help in social isolation. To be that check-in person with the older adult who may be isolated from their community. Programs like that have the ability to solve a number of issues of aging, not the food nutrition issues.


The Business of Aging

NFM: Who are your clients that seek your expertise?

LB: My clients come from all over the aging space. One of my favorite clients matches roommates for older adults and is part of the co-housing movement. Silver Nest looks at older adults who decided to age in place and stay in their own home. They have rooms in their home and they’d like to have somebody there. They want to make sure it’s somebody who’s like them or is their own age. There’s a secure environment where they can meet people in their community who are the same age, who have the same interests and then be matched.

They’ve got things in place like background checks and lease documents that have been approved for that state. It’s not just the roommate matching, it’s all the other services that go along with renting. It helps everyone financially, especially in urban areas where rent has become so high Cities have public transportation, they can get to this services more easily than in rural communities. When they get priced out of the housing market it can be a real lifesaver.

It’s very common to find startups in particular who are focused on boomers who are more affluent or can spend money on services outside of the insurance model. It’s not often that you see startups that are focused on the middle income or lower middle income boomer. I think Silver Nest is really addressing a huge issue.

We have clients who are working on mobility, which as we live longer and longer our body parts give in. Helping find new ways to address mobility issues is a big one.

I have a client that’s addressing financial planning and they’ve started with the Gen X generation.

They are encouraging them to get into conversations with their parents about their finances early.

Remember all the health vaults that came along where we were going to put our secure healthcare information? This is sort of the idea of securing your financial information in a vault so that when your adult child needs it they can.

Then, the child knows who your lawyer is and who your financial planner is and where your banking information is. It’s a collaboration between the adult child and their parent who knows they’re going to need their adult child to step in at some point. You’re also all having really productive conversations about how you want things to be as you age.

Between the World War 2 generation and the baby boomers, nobody wanted to talk about these topics. It was like we were afraid to have end-of-life conversations and talk about wills and power of attorney and all of those things.

This generation of caregivers is a lot more pragmatic, while they aren’t emotionless and they love their parents, they have a much more pragmatic approach about having those kinds of conversations and opening those conversations early. I think that’s going to be a really good thing as we age to have that very practical approach to the caregiving experience.


Marketing to Boomers

NFM: What have you noticed about marketing to boomers?

I harken back to an old one, the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” approach. Anytime you use fear it’s really demotivating. It paralyzes people. Fear is not a good emotion. It might work for the first five percent who go, “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God” and press purchase, maybe. For the rest of people, they’re all standing back saying “I didn’t even know that was a problem.” And then there’s some of the stuff around adult diapers and incontinence and they’re trying to make it hip and younger with Lisa Rinna doing the ads. There’s a fine line between making it okay and making it weird.

The focus is on the dissonances for baby boomers. I think as a generation we’re acutely aware that stuff’s starting to fall apart and we’re pretty savvy about our ability to solve problems and find solutions to it. And I just wonder “Do you think we don’t know that we have these issues?” The pharmaceutical stuff is really ridiculous.

There’s some really good stuff going on right now. Better pharmaceutical ads. Not like when all the Cialis and those ads came out. We went from the ridiculous to the sublime. A lot of bad messaging not really understanding this boomer.


The Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit

NFM: Tell us about the Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit that you are co-producing.

LB: Mary Furlong has had these events every year for the last 15 years. In the last few years I’ve been co-producing with her.

This particular summit is focused on investment in the “Longevity economy.” All those dissonances of aging, as Mary says, create market opportunities. So we see a lot of startup companies and biotech, and education focused on the dissonances of aging. Whether it’s mobility, whether it’s medical devices, whether it’s new online platforms.

We are looking for companies who are in that space. And then on the other side we are looking for investors, whether they’re angel investors, whether they’re a venture capitalists, whether they’re growth stage investors or organizations that invest in small companies or acquire small companies.

We try to bring together the companies who are looking for money and the investors. We get them together to understand more in depth who this consumer is and why this consumer is important, but also to get them talking to each other. It’s a huge networking opportunity for small and startup organizations to learn go-to-market strategies from companies who’ve been there.

In the past couple of years we’ve had some pretty amazing exits from startups, like caring.com. It’s a chance to learn from those CEOs and their teams. How to build a company, how to put your team together, how to go to market and what the hottest marketing strategies are today for companies in this space.

So it’s learning, it’s networking and it’s bringing bringing the money together with the people who either need partners or more financing or a distribution channel. It’s happening June 20th and 21st. It’s a two day event this year and it’s at the Claremont in Berkeley.

NFM: Thank you. We really appreciate your time. We’ve been eager to talk to you.

LB: We’re finding our way here. Thank you again and we’ll talk soon.


Read part 1 of the interview: Link

Lori is a coordinator and speaker for the Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit which takes place June 20th and 21st in Berkeley, California. The Summit is gathering of venture capitalists, angel investors, entrepreneurs, and corporate executives focused on the longevity economy.

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