At Quirks Brooklyn yesterday, Lori Bitter of AARP and Alison Bryant and Lisa Cooper of RTi Research discussed their research into life shifts among U.S. adults aged 45 years old and up. “Why study life shifts? Too often researchers fall back on age or generation to talk about consumers. We understand people are living longer, but what shifts are people going through across their lengthened lifespan?”

AARP used Collaborata: “It’s a Kickstarter for research, and we want to be known as a leader in the adult space and how we need to engage them in these life shifts. So we underwrote the initial project of Hacking Longevity and others, such as P&G, came in, giving us new opportunities to do a massive study, to join forces and create a conversation based on shared insights. This really couldn’t have been possible without Collaborata, so check them out!”

The multi-phased research project explored “how three generations of adults are navigating through and seeking solutions for five life shifts that literally have turned their worlds upside down.” The research team identified the following life shifts among people 45 and up: caregivers, aging singles, new grandparents, career encoring, and changing life situations. (Note that the groups can overlap.)

Caregivers – 12% of 45+ year olds – With 58% of Gen Xers now providing care for their parents, the team found negative consequences for those not having paid daily help: “having paid help is a keystone to fulfillment but most do not have such help.” As a result, caregivers often face social isolation, not getting time with their peers and having very little time for self-care. “We used to talk about Baby Boomers being the ‘sandwich generation’ but they had older kids when they were caregivers than Gen X does now. Since Gen X delayed childbirth for careers and higher education, they have younger children and are really sandwiched.” Caregivers are spending $8,000 of their own money each year and have very rarely planned for this situation.

Aging singles – 7% of 45+ year olds – The team studied the shift to being single (in contrast to those who have been single all their life). “These stories really just tore our heart out.” The qualitative research showed financial concerns create dissatisfaction and stress. Divorce and widowhood, while both being “emotionally catastrophic” are very different:

  • Women who have been divorced have fewer financial resources and less access to financial planning. “We learnt upsetting things about how they are treated by financial planners”; such planners often charged women more. As a result of this research, AARP is developing products to better serve them. The financial impact is much bigger on divorced people: 67% struggle financially vs. 45% of widows (who were coupled longer, are older, and may have had life insurance). In divorce, men also struggle, trying to maintain two households financially, often taking money out of retirement plans to do it. As one father said, “My family doesn’t want my opinions or time anymore, just my wallet.”
  • Women who have been widowed have far more health issues in the year following the death of their spouse. AARP wants to identify ways to reach new widows and provide them resources during this critical year.

New grandparents – 6% of 45+ year olds – Unlike the other segments, “this is a happy, happy group.” They often “baby chase” and move to where the grandchildren are. Some 28% of new grandparents report providing financial support to their grandchildren. As one put it, “grandparenting is the cherry on the top of life’s Sundae.” Most are Baby Boomer grandparents, who are unlike prior generations, which took more of a financial hands-off relationship (the Greatest Generation and Silent Generation were frugal and savings oriented and didn’t support the family when the family left the nest). Baby Boomers have hovered over their childrens’ lives in unprecedented ways and now hover over their grandchildrens’ lives: over 70% buy things for their grandchildren. Gen X grandparents are younger and struggle in different ways, being sandwiched; for instance, the average 8 year old in America has a living great grandparent. “Grandparents step up in a range of ways, and that’s not counting unpaid caregiving of grandchildren. For instance, we’ve seen a massive surge in the past five years for ‘skip-gen travel’, taking the grandkids without the parents.”

Career encoring – 15% of 45+ year olds – About 75% of those career encoring (switching careers) had planned to retire, while 25% didn’t plan to retire. The 75% are happy for the encore, but in contrast the 25% were shut out of their jobs (for health reasons, being fired or laid off): “they didn’t want to leave their job and have struggled and are less positive about everything in general.” This group is more likely to report having experienced ageism in the workplace. For this group, there is no retirement and all the systems, plans, and retirement structures don’t serve their needs. As a result, there has been a rise in the gig economy for older adults, who are a big source of drivers for Lyft and Uber; most Airbnb hosts are older.

Changing life situation – 24% – While many move to save money, 30% of these adults who have moved or are planning to move say they feel financial strain: “the move just changed the location of the problem.” Many move for lower housing costs. “AARP has a strong publishing arm, with books on downsizing that are popular, and we have an innovation lab trying to solve some of these problems, like ‘Airbnbing’ a room in your house for storage – how do you leverage that space?” The co-housing movement is getting bigger, with startups to roommate match, not even same generation, as older people often like younger people living with them.

Check out the AARP site for other aspects of the Hacking Longevity research.

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.