Growing pains? Communication strategies for a maturing longevity sector

Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen on the shifting longevity landscape and the need for pivotal strategies to shape its narrative.

The longevity industry faces a dilemma. Will millionaires like Bryan Johnson be the face of the industry, positioning the quest for a longer life as an eccentric pursuit of the elite? Or will new figures and companies arise that can position longevity as something accessible, affordable, and achievable – an answer to the impending demographic challenges facing many aging populations?

Despite challenging financial conditions, the longevity industry garnered more than 1 billion dollars of investment in the first three quarters of 2023. While many of these companies currently research diagnostic tools and treatments for age-related diseases, most aim to eventually develop a commercial product to combat aging and extend people’s lives. Bryan Johnson recently announced the launch of his BluePrint product line which offers foods and dietary supplements based on the nutrition program he developed for himself over the past two years. Companies like GlycanAge and Fountain Life are researching the biological markers of aging while marketing testing services and health counseling to consumers who wish to track and improve their biological age. Meanwhile, accelerators like Age1, Exceptional Ventures, and the Amaranth Foundation are investing in longevity startups, betting on big returns once the technology and market catch up.

To avoid public backlash and achieve commercial success as they move from the “Longevity Next” to “Longevity Now” phase and bring their product to market, companies will need to justify the massive amounts of money that went into their development, convincing consumers that their products serve a public good. In the era of corporate social responsibility, the consequences of the longevity industry failing to reposition itself now could be drastic. Companies that lack public support are likely to face increased regulatory scrutiny, as has been the case with the self-driving car industry. While self-driving cars have the potential to be much safer than the average driver, the industry failed to convince regulators and the public of this before going to market. Accordingly, there has been strong public sentiment against them; activists in California burned one of Google’s Waymo self-driving taxis in February, and the UK government has proposed a law that would make the manufacturers of self-driving cars liable for accidents rather than the human “driver”.

 Furthermore, the longevity sector may be criticized as exacerbating public health inequalities. A drug or intervention that is guaranteed to extend one’s life would have unprecedented universal value, however, if it is available only to the super-rich, its availability will likely breed resentment and public backlash. As such, longevity companies and the industry as a whole must find ways to challenge existing healthcare delivery models  and democratize themselves. VitaDao, a community-governed and decentralized drug development accelerator, is already taking steps towards this through the tokenization of intellectual property rights to research projects.

With each challenge comes an opportunity. Companies can get ahead of future public relations challenges by (1) positioning their products as public goods and themselves as leaders in addressing pressing social challenges, (2) legitimizing investments in their products by communicating value and ensuring products’ accessibility, and (3) creating mass appeal by using marketing practices that target diverse consumer groups.

Demographic shifts

The longevity industry has a unique opportunity to position itself as a public health solution to mounting demographic challenges as longer lifespans and decreasing fertility rates strain pension funds globally.

For married couples over the age of 65 in the US today, there is a fifty percent chance that at least one spouse will live until age 90. The Social Security Administration expects that it will be unable to pay people their full entitlements by 2034 and many individuals do not have sufficient savings to last their full expected retirements. While many countries, like the Netherlands, have temporarily solved this problem by raising their retirement ages, labor force participation poses an additional challenge. Stalls or declines in healthy life expectancies in countries like the US and the UK mean older people are unlikely to be able to remain in the workforce longer than previous generations, even if they are living longer. In the US, the percentage of 65+ year olds in the workforce has dropped from pre-pandemic levels due to health concerns and early retirements. As a result, there are now nearly 1 million fewer senior workers than if the pre-pandemic labor force participation rate had held steady. A recent analysis by the International Longevity Centre UK predicts that ill health and demographic changes will drive a 2.6 million shortfall of paid workers in the UK by 2030.

Increasing lifespan without greater employment opportunities for older adults means that many people alive today will outlive their planned retirements. Longer lifespans will strain public funds and elder care networks, which is why finding means of increasing healthspan is so important. Still, merely increasing healthspan is not enough, longevity companies must collaborate with governments to target the shortfall in paid workers and involuntary worklessness among older adults. While the solution may seem simple, keeping older people in the workforce is especially challenging given that their higher salaries and likelihood of taking early retirement packages often make them the first to go when redundancies are necessary. Furthermore, the current speed of technological development can make it difficult for older people to remain competitive in evolving employment markets.

Longevity companies should lead by example, partnering with financial institutions to offer innovative savings and retirement plans that guarantee employees a comfortable retirement well into old age. Aging expert Andrew Scott has suggested hybrid life and retirement insurance as a possible solution. Longevity companies should also ensure the generational diversity of their workforce. Individuals who are in the workforce from age eighteen to eighty are more likely to make career switches throughout their lives. Companies should create recruitment programs for those at a variety of career stages, as well as offer more flexible working arrangements like part-time work for older people who may not need to work full-time but still want to make valuable workplace contributions.

Public perception

While improving healthspan and helping individuals remain in the workforce longer is a promising solution to demographic challenges, increasing retirement ages and promising people can work longer does not carry mass public appeal. Recall the protests that followed the French government’s announcement last year that it would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 as well as media responses to a recent report that found the UK government may have to raise the state pension age to 71. Longevity companies must tread lightly to ensure that they are seen by the public as providing a wellness-based solution enabling longer, healthier, and happier lives, rather than merely propping people up so they can keep paying taxes for a few extra years.

Longevity companies will also need to justify their spending against big-picture questions related to resource allocation. While 74% of the world’s deaths are caused by noncommunicable and mostly age-related diseases, nearly five million children under the age of five die globally from preventable diseases each year. Why should companies invest resources in lengthening the lives of people who have already lived relatively long and good lives, rather than focus on raising global life expectancy by targeting early deaths?

A typical response is that there is more than enough research funding to tackle both these problems at once. Globally, we have already made huge strides in improving childhood mortality. Since 1990, the total number of under-five deaths has been reduced 59% from 12.8 million globally. Yet, communicating this as an industry that is primarily viewed as the pet project of a few eccentric billionaires is a challenge. Companies in the longevity space will need to emphasize the necessity of extending healthspans to address demographic challenges, as well as the value of improving quality of life as people age.

Safety, efficacy and desirability

In addition to justifying investment in their research, longevity companies will also need to sell the public on the safety and desirability of their products. Some of the most promising longevity solutions being explored are combinations of existing treatments or off-label uses of existing medications or biotechnologies. While these interventions will have to go through extensive trials to ensure their safety and efficacy, the real-world is different from controlled studies and consumers may be hesitant to be among the first generation to test a product.

As a result, companies will need to balance the costs of their products with their perceived efficacy. While there may be a pool of high-net worth individuals willing to gamble millions for a shot at a longer life, this customer base is limited. Initial clients are likely to be those who are already invested in health and wellness, who would not balk at spending an extra $300, $500, maybe even $1000 per month if they believe it really could add extra healthy years to their lives. Yet, the same may not be true for the average consumer.

Companies will have to find creative ways to tap into new markets, perhaps by framing longevity products as the buy-in consumers need to start making healthier choices. The benefits of longevity therapeutics will not outweigh the harms of an unhealthy diet, sedentary lifestyle, or excessive drinking and smoking. Yet, research shows that people are more likely to stick to lifestyle changes when they have financially invested in it. An investment in a longevity product could be the motivation needed for individuals to make healthy lifestyle changes and companies should position their products as such. Of course, this will require convincing customers of their safety and efficacy, as well as ensuring that their products are not prohibitively expensive for the consumers they wish to target.

Preparing for the growth spurt

Longevity companies currently face an uphill battle. If they continue to be seen as developing products only for the super-rich, they risk losing public support and generating increased regulatory hurdles. As such, they must take steps now to (1) position their work as the solution to demographic challenges, (2) legitimize investments in their products by communicating the full scope of their value and ensuring cost accessibility, (3) generate appeal beyond the wealthy and health obsessed. As Andrew Scott has said: “Neither technology nor demography are destiny. We can shape how they affect us.” Longevity companies are bringing about the next significant technological advancement in public health, but how their products are received and how these companies are remembered will be decided by how they position themselves today.

Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen

About Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen

Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen is an Analyst for the London-based strategic communications firm Eterna Partners, which specializes in corporate and financial communications, public policy, and campaigns involving complex issues that intersect business, politics and communities.

Maryellen has a keen interest in the longevity sector, having recently completed a Masters dissertation on the regulation of human enhancement technology at the London School of Economics. She is passionate about the intersection of technology and wellbeing, building fair and equitable societies, and fostering connections between people.