Ken Dychtwald, PhD, has emerged as North America’s foremost visionary and original thinker regarding the social, economic, healthcare, marketing, financial, and workforce implications of the “age wave”—a term he coined in the 1980s. Ken is a psychologist, gerontologist, documentary filmmaker, acclaimed public speaker, and bestselling author of 19 books, including his three latest, What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age, Radical Curiosity: One Man’s Search for Cosmic Magic and a Purposeful Life and Sages of Aging: A Guide for Changemakers.
He has served as a fellow of the World Economic Forum and was a featured speaker at two White House Conferences on Aging. Ken was named the single most influential marketer to Baby Boomers over the last quarter century by American Demographics. His article in the Harvard Business Review, “It’s Time to Retire Retirement,” was awarded the prestigious McKinsey Award, tying for first place with the legendary Peter Drucker. He was honored by Investment Advisor as one of the 35 most influential thought leaders in the financial services industry over the past 35 years, and he and his wife Maddy received the Esalen Prize for their outstanding contributions to advancing the human potential of aging men and women worldwide.
Since 1986, Ken has been the Founder and CEO of Age Wave, an acclaimed think tank and consultancy focused on the social and business implications and opportunities of global aging and rising longevity. During his career, Ken has addressed more than two million people worldwide in his speeches to corporate, association, social service, and government groups. His strikingly accurate predictions, landmark research, and innovative ideas are regularly featured in leading print and electronic media worldwide and, incredibly, have garnered nearly 20 billion media impressions.
In this wide-ranging interview, Ken Dychtwald shares what inspired him to launch Age Wave, what market opportunities are hiding in plain sight, and much more.
What motivated you to start Age Wave and what were your initial goals?
Life threw me an interesting curve ball back in 1974, when I was 24, finishing my first book, BodyMind, and completing my doctorate on the psychology of the body. I was invited to co-found the first Holistic Health Council. We subsequently launched a pioneering research initiative called the SAGE Project, which was later funded by the National Institutes of Health. We set out to see if some of the progressive new approaches to mental and physical health—such as biofeedback, meditation, yoga, and nutrition—could reverse elements of aging decline. The project was so successful that it became the model for similar programs all over the world and served to ignite the nascent holistic health and healthy aging fields.
Then, in 1982, another piece of the puzzle fell into place. I became an advisor to what was then called the Office of Technology Assessment, a non-partisan U.S. Congressional think tank. The several-year focus of our team of demographers, gerontologists, sociologists, urban planners, and physicians was to study how changing demography was about to transform the world. Throughout 99% of human history, the average life expectancy was under 18 years. Over the past few centuries, medical, economic, social, and demographic forces have been shifting and grinding against each other. Dramatic breakthroughs in medicine, public health, and lifestyle management have caused two unprecedented trends: declining fertility and increasing longevity. The average life expectancy has vaulted from 47 in 1900 to around 78 today (albeit with some temporary backsliding during COVID-19) and a new, unprecedented longevity is emerging. Together with increasing numbers of older adults due to the aging of the massive Baby Boomer generation and declining fertility in all the modernized nations of the world, more and more of our global population is made of older adults, and the age wave is upon us. In fact, two thirds of all the people who have ever lived past age 65 in the entire history of the world are alive today!
It struck me during my time with the Office of Technology Assessment that we were unprepared for this in every way imaginable, from the auditory range in our phones to the focus of training in medical schools. I wanted to see if I could play a meaningful role in helping to prepare our world for global population aging. So, my wife Maddy and I founded Age Wave in 1986 to help midwife this age wave and also capitalize on the growing number of businesses that were becoming interested in these demographic changes. Our goal was to become the world’s leading think tank and consultancy focused on this phenomenon. The business got off to a roaring start and has continued to evolve and morph ever since, nourished by an extraordinary team of researchers, consultants, strategists, and communicators. I’m so proud of the fact that our client list has included over half the Fortune 500, and every project we do breaks new ground, from conceptualizing Centrum Silver and Tylenol Arthritis to helping to reshape the healthcare, food and beverage, travel, and financial services industries.
What about medicine and healthcare? Are we on track to be creating healthy longevity for all?
Today there are more than a billion people in the world over the age of 60 and these numbers will double in the coming decades. These individuals want to stay healthy, look good, and above all else, feel comfortable in their own skin. Unlike the relatively stoic generation prior to the Baby Boomers, this age wave wants to have their healthspan match their lifespan. Unfortunately, we have not built our healthcare systems to get that job done.
However, I’m convinced that we are now at the tipping point thanks to a variety of extraordinary impending breakthroughs. Health-related advancements such as Crispr, age-reversing pharmaceuticals, Focused Ultrasound, and AI-driven personalized health guidance systems will transform health, healthcare, medicine, and aging itself in the years to come.
For decades, Age Wave has been steadfastly focused on doing good while doing well. What do you believe has made the company so successful?
We firmly believe that this “age wave” is a powerful and unprecedented demographic engine that will drive the marketplace for the rest of our lives. Seizing this massive growth opportunity is going to require a respectful and fresh appreciation for today’s and tomorrow’s older adults—what they’ll want to feel, eat, drive, wear, and buy, and how they’ll want to enjoy their longer lives and find purpose in their newfound time affluence.
We’ve been fortunate to have grown dramatically while positively impacting the way companies and the public think about and value the mature market. Our mission has always been clear:
- Alert the world to the power of the coming demographic wave and the vast opportunities and challenges it holds.
- Liberate the business marketplace from its ageist perspectives and youth-obsessed orientation.
- Motivate both our healthcare system and consumers to do a far better job of matching healthspan to lifespan.
- Turbocharge global scientific research to beat Alzheimer’s before it becomes the sinkhole of the 21st century.
- Envision a new purpose for older adults in their third age.
How are marketers and investors blinded by ageism and what is it causing us to not see?
We live in a world obsessed with youth. Ironically, this obsession began when the Baby Boomer generation—now between the ages of 58 and 76—was young. It remains true today, and most product and service developers and marketers direct most of their time, attention, and resources to Millennials and Gen Z. But those cohorts are predominantly broke, time-constrained, and only marginally loyal to products and services.
Instead, tomorrow’s biggest untapped opportunity is hiding in plain sight. In the U.S. alone, the 50+ population’s economic fortitude is stronger than ever—and growing every day. Seventy-nine percent of the total net worth is controlled by people aged 50+. They represent the purchase of 51% of all groceries; 52% of adult apparel; 52% of all personal care and beauty products; 56% of travel; 61% of housewares; two-thirds of all books; 68% of all OTC drugs; 71% of all the money in banks; 74% of all vitamins and supplements; and 77% of all prescription drugs.
What role does innovation play in the work you do?
While I share the modern love affair with all things tech, I also think that many of the most extraordinary innovations to come will have to do with humanity. I’ve always been captivated by II, “Imagination Intelligence.” What are we going to look like in the future? How are we going to feel when we’re 90, or 100, or 150? Will retirement even exist? Can we begin to imagine all the products and services that are going to be needed by this longevity revolution? At Age Wave, we feel it’s our job to help companies and governments see what’s coming and envision the new solutions required to meet the needs of this unprecedented longevity. For example, in the years ahead, watch for growth in products, services, and industries such as the following:
- Kidneys, livers, lungs, hearts, skin, blood, and bones that have been therapeutically cloned and/or 3Dprinted for tune-ups or replacements
- Nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals engineered with macro- and micronutrients designed to combat or even reverse aging
- Men’s and women’s rejuvenation retreat centers and boot camps
- Health optimizing homes complete with next-generation air purification systems and biometric labs in toilets
- High-tech exercise equipment and software designed to precisely train users to build stronger, healthier, and more youthful bodies
- Smart acoustic systems in telephones, radios, and TVs that customize signals to accommodate the auditory range of each user’s ears
- Lifelong learning and reinvention programs at colleges, universities, churches, community centers, and online
- Mature employment and retirement transition coordinators/guides
- Adventure travel services that send older adults to off-the beaten-trail locations
- Experience agents, next-level travel agents who can be commissioned to orchestrate any type of request, whether it’s a party, learning program, psychotherapy, sabbatical, travel adventure, spiritual retreat, or introduction to new friends or housemates
- Mature matching services to help tens of millions of mature women and men find new relationships and/or jobs and/or volunteer opportunities
- Intergenerational communes
- Longevity insurance that, rather than paying an individual’s family in case of early death, provides financial support for people who live very long lives
- Paycheck-for-life annuities to provide a steady and secure stream of financial support for people during their post-working years
- Legacy videography services for people who want to express and memorialize their treasured memories and life lessons
As you can see, there’s so much on the horizon, and I’m looking forward to it. I also occasionally look back and realize I have been so lucky. Along with my terrific team at Age Wave, we’ve had the unique experience of working alongside many of the world’s great leaders, forward-thinking companies, and leading non-profit organizations to help envision a future filled with lifelong purpose, promise, and possibilities.