Young At Heart

Kihabara shopping district, Tokyo, 2012: in a street once dominated by electronics dealers and toy stores, a new business is opening its doors. Signs in extra-bold lettering are advertising "authentic" whalebone walking canes, along with the newest high-tech wheelchairs. Three doors down, at one of the few surviving electronic-gadget stores, Sony's new snap-on cholesterol sensors are all the rage. But few of the stores are doing well. Instead, the once lively neighborhood is being taken over by undertakers, doctors' practices and "silver age" hotels whose bright neon signs advertise tiny cubicles and nursing robots. Last year, the average Japanese turned 46 years old. The over-80s have reached 9 million. With fewer children born every year, Tokyo will soon start thinning out as Japan's population continues its long decline.

This is how most people view the silvering of our planet: it's a future in which the aging population of rich nations produces a bleak panorama of crises, from collapsing pension plans to recessions, poverty and upheaval. Two thirds of all the senior citizens who have ever lived are alive today, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and the world's population grows older every day. In Germany, the number of people born between 1990 and 1995 was only about half as large as the number born between 1970 and 1975. That means more old people, and many fewer youths to support them. A recent U.N. report calls this "the greatest societal challenge of the 21st century."

But there's another way to look at the coming Silver World: as one of history's greatest opportunities for innovation and invention. And nowhere are those opportunities greater than in the world's most rapidly aging societies, in Europe and Asia. Industries that traditionally cater to youth--toy companies in Japan, amusement parks in Europe--are reinventing themselves for senior citizens. From housing to autos, robotics to consumer electronics and cosmetics, the global market is increasingly driven by aging baby boomers. In the cosmetics industry, products advertised for "mature skin" such as Shiseido's Benefiance or Lancome's Absolue already account for about half of those companies' skin-care sales, and are rising fast. Is it so inconceivable that come 2012, we'll look back and marvel at all the economic potential unleashed by the aging of the planet?

Consider: not only is the 50-plus crowd the fastest-growing market, on average they're also the richest seniors the world has ever seen, thanks to much-improved public and private pension savings schemes. The over-50 crowd controls half of all discretionary spending in rich countries. Luxury cars and expensive SUVs are doing well because the average car buyer is older than 10 or 20 years ago, and the vast majority are richer. Companies that don't get with it are getting creamed. Levi Strauss, for example, complains that the youth market is shrinking faster than the company's jeans: shifting demographics caused it to shut down three European factories in 1999. Why not market jeans for seniors?

As both the oldest and fastest-aging industrial society in the world, Japan may be a good harbinger of what's to come. In 2012, three of 10 Japanese will be over 60, a shade of gray that nations like the United States won't reach until 2070. Many new innovations are already inspired by fear that the nation will run out of young people to care for the elderly. Companies like Honda and toy maker Bandai are developing service robots that carry bags and serve drinks. In late 1999 Bandai came out with Primopuel--a high-tech doll that nods, talks and sings--figuring it would appeal to lonely young women. Instead the doll took off among lonely seniors. In December, a new hotel will open in the northern city of Yamagata with no steps or stairs, for seniors who want to give their families a month's break from care giving. Building contractors are developing prototype stair-free housing with built-in health monitors for the senior market.

The unwritten taboo against aligning one's corporate image with old people is breaking down. In Italy (the world's second most rapidly aging society), upscale designers like Prada, Gucci and Armani began about five years ago to offer special lines for the "mature" customer, with looser fits, higher waist- and necklines, and colors that accent pallid skin. In France, L'Oreal recently hired Catherine Deneuve, 58, to sell hair-care products.

Aging societies will still present mounting burdens, particularly the cost of health care. But those who fear "aging recessions" ignore the fact that more people are now vital even in advanced age. "The tendency in Europe today is for seniors to have a second puberty," says Andreas Steinle, managing director of the Trendburo consulting firm in Hamburg. "They want to do everything they missed out on the first time around." The trend is driving everything from sales of speedy convertibles to a rising divorce rate among seniors. In Italy, moped makers Piaggio and Aprilia report brisk sales of special three-wheeled scooters to seniors. A recent survey showed 73 percent of Italians over 60 were still having plenty of sex, often chemically assisted. Punsters say oldies are living "la dolce Viagra."

The leisure industry is increasingly a province of the retired. Even amusement parks are trying to appeal to the aged, whether as grandparents or as solo riders. British theme parks are offering "pink knuckle" rides--meaning less scary than "white knuckle"--to appeal to adults more timid than their preteens. Lightwater Valley theme park in Yorkshire spent nearly $1 million on a new, more gently spinning roller coaster and other mature-audience attractions for the summer of 2002. Last March a new Norwegian cruise ship was launched from Oslo. The ResidenSea is a floating retirement palace in which residents sail around the world until they move on in one sense or another. In Switzerland, the Heierling company has developed an orthopedic boot for older skiers.

Even the most advanced gadgetry will appeal to those of advanced age. Today's seniors are rarely first adopters, but they grew up in a pre-PC era, which won't be true of future generations. Seniors are the fastest-growing group of Internet users: in Italy, surfers over 60 now outnumber those under 20. Alcatel, Ericsson and Nokia market oversize mobile-phone models for clumsy, arthritic fingers.

The aging phenomena are hastening changes in fields like automation--from self-service supermarket checkouts to driverless trains and buses and voice-activated appliances. At a Daimler Chrysler research unit in Berlin, newer Mercedes features are designed with older drivers in mind, including sensors that slow down the car when you're tailgating. In the works, says Daimler Chrysler researcher Frank Ruff, are rearview-mirror-mounted cameras that monitor your blinking patterns and tell you when you're tired, an autopilot for highway driving, even night-vision technology.

In Japan, authorities now offer driver training for the electric-wheelchair set, because seniors were taking their zippy models onto the highways. The retrofitting industry will boom as people replace bathtubs with no-trip, walk-in showers. Big-family homes will be replaced by new stair-free modes of communal living for seniors. Food, too, will change. Nestle already has increased the size of print on its packaging, and sells stronger blends of coffee in Europe than in the developing world because the older population has weaker taste buds; Nestle executive Edward Fern says the waning appetites of seniors mean food will also have to have a higher concentration of nutrients in the future.

Baby boomers have no intention of aging quietly into the sunset the way their parents did. "They'll be the first generation to live youth culture throughout their lifetime," says Phil Goodman of Generation Transitional Marketing, a San Diego, California, consulting firm. One in four Brits over 50 still goes to rock concerts--this summer the Eagles (of 1970s fame) were at the top of Billboard's list of the highest-grossing live concerts. Chances are that in 2012, we'll still be watching an ancient Tina Turner or Mick Jagger writhe and wriggle, arthritically, across a concert stage in London or Tokyo. OK, so you can't really reclaim your youth. But, no matter what the doomsayers may say, that's not necessarily a cause for global depression, either.