’Til Death Do Us Part
The death-positive movement pushes brands to transform the final frontier of customer experience — growing old and dying
America is growing older. By 2030, all baby boomers will be 65 or older according to the U.S. Census Bureau — meaning one in five residents will be of retirement age. But “young” and “old” are social constructs that vary by culture and definition. And in post-demographic consumerism where someone’s age is no longer strictly tied to adulthood milestones like education, marriage, raising kids or retirement, age just isn’t as reliable an index for understanding consumer habits as it used to be.
All that aside, though, aging still is a biological process. The Census Bureau projects the number of deaths to rise substantially between 2020 and 2050 as a significant share of the population ages into older adulthood. And for the first time in U.S. history, older people will outnumber children. A national demographic transition of this scale portends a cultural shift. The plain fact is, an 80-year-old contemplates death more often than the average 25-year-old.
How does this impact our attitudes towards mortality today? The organizers of RAADfest decidedly want nothing to do with it. Short for “Revolution Against Aging and Death,” the conference signals Silicon Valley’s Peter Pan dream to hack death for people interested in scientific methods to reverse human aging — or die-hard attempts to avoid dying hard.
Influencers in the changing skincare industry, on the other hand, want to view aging less as malicious code and more as a natural part of life. Beauty companies over the past couple of decades have overhauled the way they package and market products that treat aging skin. Allure magazine recently went so far as to ban the word “anti-aging” from its publication, with editor-in-chief Michelle Lee stating, “Changing the way we think about aging starts with changing the way we talk about aging.”
While the conversation around aging has started to shift, we still live in a death-denying culture. SNL’s Toilet Death Ejector skit about old people avoiding the embarrassment of being found dead on the toilet is living proof (couldn’t resist) that we’re not comfortable confronting our own mortality. And why should we be? Thanks to modern medical advances, most “dying of old age” occurs behind closed doors in hospitals and nursing homes, keeping it out of sight, and out of mind.
Exasperation with this avoidance has spurred celebrity mortician Caitlin Doughty to launch the “death-positive movement”, a term playing on sex positivity. Death positivity is about how we can break down taboos and anxieties around death while improving end-of-life care for the public.
There’s plenty of commercial incentive for businesses to do more to better serve aging populations by adapting to death positivity. The Harvard Business Review calls it the longevity opportunity: in 2015, U.S. consumers aged 50 and older accounted for almost half of the country’s GDP, or $7.6 trillion of economic activity. That number is expected to reach $15 trillion next year. In this brave new world we’re entering, old is gold. Yet while the 50+ cohort boasts serious buying power, advertising geared towards people over 50 remains objectively bad.
This represents a significant opportunity for innovators and entrepreneurial brands to do things differently. The “disrupt or die” adage has never been more pertinent. By borrowing language from the birthing industry, death doulas and midwives are transforming caregiving, comfort and support for people who would prefer to die at home. As we run out of burial spaces, grasp the environmental impact of traditional burials, and grapple with soaring funeral costs, more people are looking for ways to be sustainable even in the afterlife. National cremation rates are on the rise, while environmentally friendly businesses are exploring less carbon-intensive alternative burial methods like shared graves (co-dying, anyone?) and human composting. And here’s an app for the ages — WeCroak’s only function is to send you death reminders — notifications that arrive “at any moment, just like death.”
In his 1950 essay series The Labyrinth of Solitude, Mexican poet Octavio Paz drew on his culture’s ability to take a more welcoming view of death than much of the West. “To the people of New York, Paris, or London, ‘death’ is a word that is never pronounced because it burns the lips. The Mexican, however, frequents it, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it… at least he does not hide it; he confronts it face to face with patience, disdain, or irony.”
What can brands learn from this more open perspective on death? How can they help us build a healthier relationship with mortality so that when our AARP cards arrive in the mail, we’re not zooming off to RAADfest or spending our retirement paychecks on the latest anti-aging formula? Even millennials — the bright and shiny cohort that brands often prioritize over older generations — are fast-approaching middle age and the crisis that comes with it. Death is one industry that not even they can “kill.”
From ride-sharing services for seniors and WeWork-style retirement communities to hospice cruises and putting the fun in funerals, the end-of-life industry continues to evolve as it helps consumers come to terms with death. Whether it means hiring gerontologists as marketing consultants, tapping into granfluencers or promoting gray with mermaid tones as the new statement hairstyle, brands can’t ignore the death-positive movement for too long. For those that do, it might wind up being the final nail in their coffin.