Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Aging of America. What Does It Mean for the Future of the Arts?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on............."

America is dealing with both ends of population changes:  1) the coming of age of the Millennials, now having surpassed the Baby Boomers in absolute numbers; and 2) the aging of those Baby Boomers as they begin, en masse, to become seniors (aged 65 and up). 

We're aware of the challenges of involving more Millennials in our work - as audiences, supporters, donors, advocates and employees and leaders.  We are also going to face the challenges of Boomers declining as audiences, supporters, donors, advocates, and, of course, the transition of leadership.

According to projections of the Senior Population by Seniorcare.com, there are currently almost 50 million people in the U.S. 65 and older, which number is expected to climb to 83 million by 2050 (just 30+years from now).

And every state is expected to share in that aging process.  Some states will, of course, have larger aging populations than others. According to Seniorcare, these eight states have the greatest number of seniors:
  • Montana
  • North Dakota
  • Wyoming
  • New Mexico
  • Florida
  • West Virginia
  • Vermont
  • Maine
That's of some significance because as Seniors age there are greater health costs to be born by those states, and the money spent on seniors is money not available for other needs.  Despite our substantial progress in making the value connection between aging and the arts, competing funding demands may mean less for the arts in many places.   Then too, despite the rosy picture of increased longevity of life spans and the pleasures of leisure pursuits in our old age that we like to project, the reality is that many seniors suffer serious health issues and have depleted financial resources - particularly for leisure time activities.  As people age they may be far less likely to be audiences for our performances or exhibitions, and because many of them will face financial challenges, fewer may be able to be financial supporters of our field.

As a senior dealing with some health issues, I know first hand, that situation impacts my time, wallet and inclination towards leisure time.  The issue isn't just about the expense (though for many that has, or will, be a factor), but also about how much time, energy and enthusiasm one has for pursuits outside of trying to deal with health challenges.  The heart and mind may be willing, but for many seniors the 'body' simply won't feel like being in an audience or involved in an organization.  And many of those that may end up in that situation may very well be people who formerly were very active attendees, supporters and advocates. What will it mean when more and more of them excuse themselves from our tables?  Because that is likely.

This raises numerous questions about how to prepare for this shift.  What are the ways we can minimize seniors flight from audiences and support?  What kind of approaches might maximize continued senior involvement in the arts at all levels?  Who will design, fund, implement and manage those kinds of approaches?  How will we compete for scarce government resources when up against the health needs of seniors, and other pressing needs and causes?

Do we need research that helps us to understand at what point those who become seniors are more likely to be candidates for involvement in the arts, and at what point are they less likely?    Who falls into each category?    

Are the states that are likely to face the biggest challenges by the growing senior population (including the oldest of the older cohorts - those 80 and above) prepared for these changes and challenges?  What can they do?  What should they do?  And what should the rest of the states do?

And perhaps the most important question is when ought we start doing something?  Clearly the private sector has begun thinking about the challenge of the growing senior population.  One need only look at television commercials and note the now established pattern of ever increasing pharmaceutical company advertisements aimed at seniors and the plethora of conditions seniors are beginning to deal with.  This is a growth market for them.  And they have obviously concluded that network and broadcast television is the optimum medium to reach this audience.  That suggests to me that increasingly senior income will be spent on dealing with health issues.  On the other hand, it would seem the film industry has begun to abandon the market in favor of both the younger Millennial markets and the family market with blockbuster action films aimed at the 18-30 males, and animated features aimed at families with younger kids.   Some industries will forsake the senior audience, other industries will court it.  And those decisions are likely the result of research and judgments.   Which end of the spectrum will we end up on, and is it likely some arts organizations will embrace the senior growth market, while others of us, flee from it?

Which direction would be best for the arts?  My guess is most of us will say both - we must court the younger audiences and retain the older ones - both with new approaches and thinking.  And that is a romantic notion, but is it smart?  It seems a reasonable question for us to ask.  Along with how we go about whatever decisions we make.

Tick tock.  4400+ boomers turn 65 every day.  16 million a year.  In the short run that is a potential boon.  Or is it?  And the long run?  How ought it affect our marketing strategies, our content approaches, our audience development and our financial thinking?

Have a good week.

Don't Quit