Asia’s affluent boomers are making aging aspirational

Spend on adventures, not on face cream.
Spend on adventures, not on face cream.
Image: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
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We say money can’t buy happiness. But money does have a way of making the unsavory more palatable. In some cases, even enjoyable.

In the context of Asia’s growing affluence, aging—a process many consumers around the world approach with fear and loathing, and attempt to fend off with expensive creams, supplements, and all manner of antidotal services—has taken on a new appeal.

Consider this: Hong Kong and Japan have the highest life expectancies according to the World Economic Forum. Singapore and Korea are not far behind. The United States didn’t even make it to the top 30.

Now let’s measure rising life expectancies against rising wealth: A McKinsey & Company report states that Asia is on track to top 50% of global GDP by 2040, and that it will drive 40% of the world’s consumption by then. Wealth-X, a company that produces reports on ultra-high net worth consumers around the world, says Asia is experiencing the fastest growth in wealth creation in the world.

It also notes the region’s increase of ultra-wealthy individuals—defined as those with a net worth of $30 million or more—by 27% in 2018, and forecasts the strongest growth by 2022.

This means that Asians have a measurably longer life expectancy, and also increasingly have the means to pursue wellness at a younger age.

To bring all these trends together, wealthy people in Asia who are approaching middle age are re-contextualizing aging as aspirational.

This is particularly significant when we look at how substantial the anti-aging market is. All signs point to powerful growth—predictions say $271 billion by 2024—in everything from skin care and cosmetics to the integration of elderly housing plans.

Instead of an anti-aging market, this looks more like a pro-aging market.

It helps that in most Asian cultures, aging is viewed more favorably than in western societies, and cultural norms and values traditionally center around respect and honor of elders. But this new approach to getting older is less about the respect of elders in society, and more about how much older people can do in society. And it comes down to wealth, and the money that middle-aged Asians are investing in themselves.

Instead of bracing for the pitfalls of old age, or treating getting older as prescriptive of failing health and decreasing mobility, this demographic is digging into their (deep) pockets and eying the coming decades as an opportunity to flourish rather than wind down. Market patterns indicate they are doing everything in their buying power to ensure their quality of life not only holds strong, but improves. Rather than limiting consumption, aging now leads to a bigger range of services, products, and activities.

Old(er) money

One way Asia’s affluent agers are re-contextualizing the notion of getting older has been to shift from a chronological construct to a biological and mental mindset. Now, 65 is the new 45.

Rather than postponing living well to after retirement, people are embracing a life-well-lived mindset in their forties. Why wait if you can afford it?

Conversely, people have started to enjoy the fruits of a leisurely life traditionally associated with retirement as early as in their forties. If people are focusing on the present, they are no longer holding out for retirement to dig into savings. And with enough wealth, people have been able to achieve a higher quality of life earlier on, and then maintain that quality lifestyle for much longer.

These lifestyle changes are reshaping markets and policies throughout the continent. Because leisure is becoming more available to more people, people are traveling more frequently—in style—while snapping up second, or third, homes in countries with strong reputations for wellness tourism.

New property developments have cropped up across the region, designed to cater to these luxury consumers. Countries like Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are capitalizing on the trend by offering long-term visas for non-residents.

Profile of the new ager

Based on what I’ve learned from researching this new class of consumers, the new “agers” are tech savvy. They’re active on Instagram and on WeChat, and are engaged with the world. Because they have spent so much time pursuing wellness for self-care and improved health, they have also turned into a generation of travel experts.

There’s a marked difference in this and previous generations. We often discuss the prime of our lives as period of our peak physical state, which for most people is between 20 and 30 years old.

But for wealthy Asian consumers, middle age is the new prime of life—not the beginning of the end that prompts the dreaded midlife crisis.

Now, middle-age marks when people have the resources—including the time—to focus on themselves, take on new adventures, and explore the world.

Life in the middle

People are spending more on travel and wellness, and indulging in bucket-list activities before they have that end-of-life urgency.

In speaking to luxury tour operators, it is clear this segment is now more adventurous in location choices, and in how they seek out self-care, than other consumers. One agency, the multi-continent Lightfoot Travel, reported that they are spending upward of $200,000 a trip.

They also said they observed a 20% year-on-year increase in bucket-list activities.

Wellness isn’t just spa treatments anymore. Businesses recognize this, and have designed services like “gourmet hiking” tours to adapt.

A typical itinerary? Hop on a helicopter and fly around Mt. Everest before eating breakfast at 14,000 feet. Hike Rwanda’s protected Virunga Mountains to see gorillas.

Trek through physically-demanding mountain ranges in Slovenia, the Spanish Pyrenees, Provence and the Kumano Kodo Trail in Japan.

Health resorts are also seeing a significant uptick in this segment. At Kamalaya, a spa and yoga retreat in Koh Samui, Thailand, 55% of the guests are in their late forties. Many return repeatedly as part of a regular wellbeing regimen.

Mindfulness is also on the market, as at one popular health retreat two hours outside Manila, where more middle-aged travelers are signing up for “cellular rejuvenation” programs and “psycho-emotional clearing.”

With the luxury of literally more time on their hands, these middle-aged consumers have also become one of the biggest drivers of medical tourism, for which Asian countries are among the top destinations.

People travel with greater frequency to Thailand for end-to-end solutions; Hong Kong and Malaysia for fertility treatments; Korea for cosmetic treatments; Taiwan for cardiac and orthopedic services and Singapore for oncology, neurology, cardiology, and stem cell therapy. The reasons are multi-fold and range from access to premium medical expertise at a lower cost, the convenience of avoiding waitlists to the geographic proximity to these countries.

Asian countries have taken advantage of their consumption power by relaxing visas for medical tourism. Some have gone so far as setting up government agencies, like the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), to court medical tourism dollars. The MHTC has projected year-on-year growth of 30% by 2020 for the industry, and is expected to see almost $680 million in revenue.

Recent data from Market Data Forecast states the Asia-Pacific medical tourism market was worth $7.79 billion in 2018 and is estimated to grow to nearly $20 billion by 2023.

Medical tourism has some overlap with the anti-aging market, but the way these consumers are thinking about their own longevity will likely bring up new questions for providers. Middle-aged Asian consumers don’t want to buy youth, they want to buy things that make them appreciate where they are right now.

At this rate, aging will not only be an aspiration, but a celebration.