In this edition of the Wellness Q&A Series Beth McGroarty, VP, Research & Forecasting, Global Wellness Institute asks
How has the Coronavirus most impacted the 50+? (The most active, empowered group of “older people” in history?)
What developments under COVID will most change the lives of older generations post-virus? Why are you positive about the future?
Q&A with David Stewart of the AGEIST, a media company and agency dedicated to championing the vitality and influence of the modern 50+ demographic.
David Stewart is the founder and face of the AGEIST and a passionate champion and leading authority on the new 50+ lifestyle and the mindset and aspirations that drive this powerful demographic.
VP, Research & Forecasting, GWI, Beth McGroarty: You are THE expert on the new 50+ demographic, a global tribe that is reinventing aging in every way imaginable. How has the Coronavirus most powerfully impacted that demographic?
There are so many fascinating ways that the pandemic has—and will—impact the 50+ demo. The big one is that people are living longer, they’re living better, and they’re stronger than ever before. They’re at the peak of their powers. And suddenly, we are being told we are in the highest-risk vulnerability group with COVID-19. How does being told one is in a high-risk group intersect with feeling one is at one’s peak?
I was talking to a client about this, and he said his dad is a badass motorcycle rider, but he’s now feeling vulnerable, wearing a mask and gloves, using hand sanitizer, and staying inside. Many older people who are fit, sporty and healthy were suddenly told they had an immune system that was 60 years old and to be careful. What does that mean? Do I now think of myself as a person with special needs? People are slowly balancing these things out, and it will be a process, different for everyone.
As the months of the pandemic have gone on, while we know the virus is not exactly an equal opportunity employer, and that very young people seem to do better with it, we are seeing that a 22-year-old can very much die from it while a 100-year-old woman can survive. I’m outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, and the majority of people in ICU beds are in their 40s and 50s, not in their 60s, 70s and 80s. They’re 40, and they’re dying. No one seems to fully understand what that means yet.
The idea that your age flatly equals a vulnerable immune system is getting shaken up. Sixty percent of Americans are overweight, 40 percent are obese, and add in all the people with high blood pressure or diabetes or who smoke or vape. Suddenly, you have 70 percent of the population at risk, and you cannot simply equate it with “an age thing.” So, age was somewhat of a red herring the media grabbed on to.
A key aspect of the “new 50+” is that one of their top priorities is health and wellness; they’re a highly educated and self-empowered health consumer. Their life philosophy gains even more power as we watch the pandemic unfold.
But there definitely has been a hit to the 50+’s feelings of invulnerability. We shall see how this plays out, as we know more about this virus and just how age-specific it is. There are clearly other not yet understood factors: vitamin D levels, NAD levels, genetics—there is so much mystery with this virus as to how it affects individuals.
GWI: There have been other “age stories” playing out with Coronavirus. Millennials and Gen Z are represented as lacking an “empathy muscle,” exhibiting behaviors that will kill us all. Individualistic baby boomers refusing to change. Gen X as the resilient generation. What do you make of these narratives?
Stewart: We don’t like to use the word “boomer”—it’s a media term and somewhat meaningless. But yes, there has been reporting on certain groups of belligerent boomers: the you’re not going to take my right to do whatever away, or this thing is fictitious, or I’ve had the flu before, and I’ll be fine. It reminds me of the Jimmy Buffett drink-yourself-to-death crowd. This is a small group of people who were depicted as being representative of an entire generation. It is similar to the stories of college spring breakers behaving badly, signaling all younger people are irresponsible.
The media loves—and creates—these divisive age-specific stories; they’re so easy. These narratives create age segmentations and discriminations that are troubling. The fact is people in all age groups have behaved badly. Stupidity is not age-dependent.
GWI: What developments are rising under COVID-19 that have important implications for older people?
Stewart: One is clearly telemedicine, which, I think, is with us forever and will have such a positive impact on everyone, particularly older people. It immediately went from a novel concept to mainstream, and it’s going to be very interesting going forward. My mom is 89, and it’s a huge plus for her during the pandemic because a doctor’s office can be a very risky place. Telemedicine will be important in her future because it can be difficult for her to get around. This will take a huge burden off people having to transport their parents and grandparents to doctors.
A second industry that will be impacted is senior housing, which, in some instances, has been a tragic hotspot of the disease. It is important not to generalize, though, as all the organizations we work with have done a tremendous job of staying virus-free. There are good facilities, and there are less good facilities. I think we are going to see more emphasis on the very positive value of community versus people isolating at home. During the pandemic, we’ve seen amazing outreach to older people all around the world, helping them with groceries and staying engaged with other people. Look at what Ireland instituted: Part of their postal workers’ job now is that they need to check in on older people daily. The virus has had a way of unmasking a number of shortcomings that are now being addressed, and, hopefully, post-COVID these solutions will continue.
The other massive shift is the sudden rise of remote working—which people and companies are now becoming habituated to—and could have a powerful impact post-virus in general: from where people choose to live to slashing the environmental destruction caused by all the cars and commuting to what the home of the future will look like.
Remote working could have a curious, positive impact on the 50+. We spoke to a tech company in New Zealand in the fall that does all their hiring by text and email, never seeing what the interviewee looks like. This eliminated all the discriminations: what age you were, what gender, what race. The biggest impediment for older people is that we look different. Our physicality is different. Our brains work somewhat differently: We’re a little slower at certain things and exceptionally good at others, including being able to make sense of a broad field of information in a way that younger people simply can’t, but these are rather small distinctions. Remote working and digital work take away so many of the issues that can plague older workers: It doesn’t matter if you have gray hair or what you are wearing.
GWI: We now live almost entirely digital lives, from our fitness classes to the way we get food. Do you think the world will stick with these new digital habits and platforms post-virus?
Stewart: People will get habituated to the new “digital everything” over this long stay-at-home era, and it will become part of their mindset. A few months ago, I never would have dreamed of doing online yoga—when this is over, it will remain a strong, simple and viable option for me. Conversely, the value of real-life physical interaction will be much stronger. Zoom calls transmit a tiny fraction of the information we get in actual face-to-face interaction.
When the pandemic started, I would have thought that music streaming services and podcasts would have spiked. But they were initially down because people wanted video. We need to see humans. We are intensely social animals who are wired to reflect and react to each other.
It’s fascinating to see how Zoom is being hacked into and the unbelievable things people are doing with it. Our regular Thursday Happy Hour Show with me and Chip Conley has been attracting over 1,000 people from over 20 countries. We just did a big, two-hour experience (not an event) on Zoom collaborating with Chōsen Experiences, which uses a lot of science and focuses on guiding people into the “flow state.” It was fully interactive with the goal of creating new human connections. One would never have thought to do this kind of wellness-connection program digitally before, and it was a great success and one that we are building upon.
With everything digital now, we are telling our clients to also focus on the physical if they want to stand out. Send somebody something; give them something they can hold in their hand or smell or taste. The tactile is getting lost in the digital, and these values—touch or the olfactory—are exponentially more important now.
GWI: The epidemiological models—how this plays out and for how long—are sobering. What gives you real hope?
Stewart: The scientific models—the impact of social distancing, the infection curves—are very useful, but they don’t show the entire picture. We need to remember that the best minds across the planet are not only focused on a vaccine, but they’re also focused (across so many industries) on some angle that can improve things in other ways. You can’t model for (or underestimate) the many innovations and breakthroughs that are happening that will change people’s lives and the trajectory of this disease.
Just one example: A doctor friend here in Utah worked with Stanford to quickly create an entirely new kind of mask: It covers your face so you’re completely protected, has breathing filters in the back with antiviral filters on top, and someone can wear it for a 16-hour shift with no bruising. In just a couple of weeks, it went from an idea to production to getting it into the hands of frontline medical personnel.
We’re going to see hundreds of thousands—millions—of innovations like this happening all over the world, whether it’s new ways to protect people or even new forms of entertainment. The virus has stopped most film and TV production (and it looks like that will take many months to really restart), but entirely new forms of entertainment will be invented. There are really smart, clever people in all industries that are highly motivated to solve the serious problems we face from COVID-19—from hotels to healthcare. Look what is being done with UV light as a cleansing agent.
People have powers of resilience they didn’t know they had, and we will adjust to the “next normal.” Ok, I have to wash my hands, wear a mask, carry hand sanitizer, and work at home. Done. We can do that, and we will innovate to improve these circumstances as we go.
When you add up all the big and small innovations that will happen, they will have a huge effect. So, I don’t feel dystopian about our future at all