Posted in on May 10, 2012

Re-Thinking Retirement – 6 Lessons For Marketers

Last week I had the privilege of attending an event that made me smile, think and act. The occasion was the launch of Retirement on the Line, a new book by anthropologist Caitrin Lynch based on her 5 year study of eldersourcing at the Vita Needle factory in Needham, MA.

For your own smiles, read what 100-year-old employee Rosa Finnegan and her fellow panelists had to say on this blog post by Kevin Burke,  CEO of North Hill Communities (a leading Massachusetts CCRC and the event sponsor).

For thinking and acting, here are 6 key lessons for marketers from the launch event.

1) Work during retirement years provides a paycheck …. and much more.

If you stopped working today, what else besides money would you miss? When Lynch put that question to the panel of Vita Needle employees last week, every single one responded “the people.” 40-something Dave Shumway said “It may be cliche, but it’s family.” This factory provides elders with people who care for them and who they can care for. The connections are strong and critical to enjoying retirement years.

Getting a paycheck is part of the equation, of course, but it often signifies something different for many of these older workers. One gentleman basically works to afford more travel!

Other benefits? 82-year-old Joe Reddington would miss “the being busy. And using the brain to work out problems.” 76-year-old Bob O’Mara said he’d miss “the chance to feel meaningful and busy and contributing.”

Marketing Take-Away: Marketing a retirement community or a fitness center or a club? To illustrate the benefits of becoming a part of that “family,” find ways to use the first-hand testimonials of the family members. Traditions of America encourages homeowners to describe what they like best about their active adult community in videos posted on YouTube and their website. The results are quite motivating when you hear a real owner like Judi Whitehouse say “we have a great family here.”

2) Retirement work needs to feel different than work at other life stages.

The median age of Vita Needle employees is 74. They include retired teachers, retired GM line workers, retired bank execs, retired architects …

Mike LaRosa is Vita Needle’s Operations Manager. He’s been with the company for about 20 years. He commented after the event that many of his employees had far loftier titles, far more important jobs and made far more pre-retirement than he may make if he stays at Vita Needle for another 20 years. Those titles and positions are not important in their retirement work.

Even for those elders who did factory or machinist work during their career, Vita Needle work is different. It offers flexible hours and different experiences.

Marketing Take-Away: If even work in retirement needs to feel different than other life stages, what is that unique benefit your product or service offers that is different than the benefits the buyer would have enjoyed earlier in their life? How will life experiences be different – how will they mean more – when your target retires?

3) Rich connections are forged when old and young work together.

Old and young working together. Photo courtesy Vita Needle.

Vita Needle’s business model is based on a workforce of part-timers. That means elders and teenagers and everyone in between. The factory has workers born in almost every decade of the last century. At the North Hill program last week, you could see the obvious friendship and respect. And you could hear them laughing frequently, together, with humor that cut across the ages.

Marketing Take-Away: Create and foster intergenerational connections whenever possible. These can be simple – Westminster at Lake Ridge has a grandparents day each year that is tremendously popular – or a bigger part of the culture – Lasell Village encourages residents to mentor and advise students on the Lasell College campus, and students work throughout the Village.

These old-young connections can distinguish you from your competitors. Fairing Way is a new community on Boston’s South Shore. One of the most unique and most motivating aspects of Fairing Way is that it is in the heart of an all-ages master-planned community. As Fairing Way put it on their website, “we prefer friendly greetings to gates … wide open spaces to closed doors … laughter to limits. We believe most active adults value these things as well.”  

4) Under the right circumstances, work arrangements can benefit employers and also workers.

It’s a win-win for employees: they get paid and do what they want in retirement. (Bob the traveler is a perfect example.)

It’s a win-win for Vita Needle: they get a dedicated, skilled workforce without having to pay for benefits/full-time perks. With the old people, they can leverage the wide experience of their workers. And they bring with them an incomparable work ethic. LaRosa said “work ethic is something people learn from experience.”

Marketing Take-Away: LaRosa says managing older workers isn’t magic. “You have to look at the individual as that: an individual. Not an older individual, not a younger individual. An individual.” What a great idea for marketers, as well!

5) Membership and mattering are key values for today’s older Americans.

Many of the workers told Prof. Lynch that outside of Vita Needle they are unrecognized or even invisible. Many old people feel that way. “Old people just want to matter,” said Lynch.

My own  parents definitely find ways to matter. They are nearing 80 and living independently. Each is very visible in community groups, serving on boards related to historic preservation (Mom) and justice issues (Dad). But Mom and Dad are lucky – no health issues keep them from getting to meetings several nights a week or mentoring youth during the day. Transportation and health prevent many who try to age in place from being full members who matter.

Marketing Take-Away: Life can be like a funnel, where the number of people we connect with daily shrinks as we age. Does your retirement community marketing tell the story of aging like an hourglass, where social connections actually swell? Willow Valley Retirement Communities has more than a hundred clubs where you can find membership and feel you matter. The marketing team wisely features these clubs in a special brochure and on the website.

6) The lifestage called “retirement” can use some re-thinking.

Lynch described looking at retirement cards at her local pharmacy. There are cards that feature pictures of fishing, or drawings that show torn-up calendars, melting clocks, vanishing to do lists … When the reality is that people will have 30 years of “retirement,” is fishing and nothingness what they really want to do?

When asked what would happen if he couldn’t work at Vita Needle, Joe Reddington said “I’d get rotten if I didn’t work.” Rotten like a tomato on the ground. What are his plans for the rest of his retirement? “I expect to retire for real some day. And then die. I’d rather die at my bench.”

Marketing Take-Away: Make sure your marketing campaigns do not use outdated imagery to depict retirement living. Vita Needle is the right and remarkable answer to the needs of the Joe and many other retirees. However, not every retiree wants to work in retirement. Marketers must illustrate the many, varied opportunities available in retirement. Our marketing must be relevant and appealing to segments of one, each re-thinking and re-defining retirement for themselves.

What are you thinking or re-thinking about retirement? Please share your thoughts and actions in the comments below.

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