Purpose, Ageism and Culture Change: Notes from the Milken Institute Global Conference

Marc Freedman and I were fortunate enough to take part in the 18th Milken Institute Global Conference, which aims to develop solutions to social problems and attracts top leaders from business, government and media, along with leading-edge social innovators. Over 3,500 participants from 50+ countries were in attendance, with 700 speakers spanning 11 content tracks.

Most of those people were packed into one hotel for each day’s events, which resulted in rather a scrum – but also offered a good opportunity to connect with acquaintances old and new, a great feature of one-stop meetings!

Overall highlights were a lunchtime panel on the global economy, moderated by Sheryl Sandberg, which included no fewer than three former U.S. Treasury Secretaries; a conversation between Mike Milken and California Governor Jerry Brown; a fascinating panel by a group of brilliant millennials on the convergence of philanthropy, technology, celebrity and marketing, and another panel on the future of impact investing.

Closer to home, Elanna Yalow (CEO, Early Learning Programs, Knowledge Universe) led an excellent discussion on early-childhood education that included former Michigan governor John Engler, Chicago-based investor/philanthropist J.B. Pritzker, CEO/Founder of Busy Bees John Woodward and Linda Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. All of the panelists enthusiastically agreed that investment in very young children has a huge –indeed, outsize – impact on their future prospects. Secretary Smith observed that the quality of one-to-one interaction between young children and adults is the biggest single indicator of future success. We’ve long understood these realities at Encore.org, which is why we believe our efforts to engage encore talent on behalf of vulnerable youth are so important, and will constitute a win-win for both youth and older adults who take part.

The most exciting aspect of the conference for me was the depth and breadth of the “aging and longevity track,” a series of panels and more intimate discussions covering many aspects of aging. In 2011, when Paul Irving (Encore.org Vice Chair, former Milken Institute President, current Chair of the Institute’s new Center for the Future of Aging and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the USC Davis School of Gerontology), called a Global Conference meeting to talk about the future of aging, precisely two people showed up. Fast forward to 2015: There were seven jammed sessions and a number of private meetings, bolstered by a huge amount of interest and engagement from conference attendees. The sessions spanned a variety of relevant topics, including age-friendly cities, AARP leadership, the science of longevity, healthy aging, the longevity economy, financial security and innovations, and building a legacy of purpose. Paul is largely responsible for this progress; he has done an amazing job to bring this issue front and center at the Milken Institute.

The “purpose” panel, titled “From Success to Significance: A Legacy of Purpose for Longer Lives,” was moderated by Encore.org board member Laura Carstensen, who also serves as Director of the Stanford University Center on Longevity. Laura kicked off by noting all the years that scientific advances have added to life, but without letting the culture catch up. As she put it, “No one thinks the best way to use the extra 30 years is just to make old age longer.” Our CEO and Founder Marc Freedman was also on the panel and agreed, adding that social innovation is needed to make those years productive and purposeful. Marc offered several ideas, including a gap year for grown-ups, which would mark the transition into a new and significant life stage – the encore years – focused on purpose. Paul Irving named the two major challenges for the coming decades: aging and climate change, and urged us to “stop talking about retirement.” Michael Eisner (Eisner Foundation founder and former CEO/ Chair of the Walt Disney Co.) and AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins also contributed to the lively discussion. (The full video is here.)

The longevity economy panel was both fascinating and sobering, in part because the massive demographic shift to a wave of older consumers creates both challenges and opportunities. Indeed, panelist Joe Coughlin (Director, MIT AgeLab) posited that “business is afraid of this huge new market.” It was great to hear from Gretchen Addi, of the IDEO design firm, about the new focus on designing products for older consumers and designing “with them, not for them.” (If you missed the wonderful NPR piece about a 90-year-old designer working with IDEO on these products, here’s the link.)

The sobering bit came when panelist Lisa Suennen talked about her MBA class on health-care venture capital at U.C. Berkeley, in which entrepreneurs come in to pitch their companies. In one class, two entrepreneurs, one millennial and one boomer, pitched their respective businesses. The boomer’s pitch and company was vastly more impressive, but the whole class “voted” to invest in the millennial’s company. Paul Irving theorized that, even had the class been filled with boomers, the vote would have gone the same way.

The moral? Ageism is still a big issue for the encore movement: Unconscious biases, evident in members of younger generations, persist even among those in their encore years. This is why culture change is so crucial, so we can get to a place where age and experience are regarded as powerful assets, not liabilities.

But there is room for hope, as big business, policy leaders, the media, philanthropists, and thought leaders turn their attention to this opportunity and its inherent challenges. The Milken Institute focus on this issue and the excitement and vigorous debate during the conference are all welcome signs of good progress and increasing awareness of issues that will affect every one of us as we age.