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Marc Freedman

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Outsourcing The Old Folks

Posted: 07/02/2012 10:40 am

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a new film set in India and directed by Shakespeare in Love's John Madden (age 63), hangs its plot on the notion of "outsourcing" the elderly. Sonny, a young Indian entrepreneur played by Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel, opens a once-grand, now-crumbling palace as a kind of Leisure World for the global village. Early in the action he tells his disapproving mother that he has a dream to get rich and do some good in the process: "A most brilliant one: to outsource old age," adding that the possibilities were limitless: "There are many other countries where they don't like old people, too." Besides, it's cheaper for the superannuated set to move to India than retire in high-cost zones like the U.K. and the U.S.

In truth, Sonny's scheme is merely a modernized version of a mid-20th-century vision. He's the fictional heir to real-world entrepreneurs like Del Webb, who set out a half century ago to outsource America's elderly to a previously barren sun belt. Webb reportedly coined the phrase "the golden years," summoning retirees in 1960 to "an active new way of life" to be lived out in inexpensive houses dotted across a makeshift golf course far from downtown Phoenix. When the community, Sun City, opened, 100,000 people came to check it out, causing a traffic jam that stretched for miles. Economic living was part of the draw. But, people also came for the promise of a new identity in a society that cast its elders as pariahs and put little stock in old age. The way Webb's team figured it, if you created a community where everyone was old, nobody was old.

It's no surprise to encounter an updated version of Webb's ideas at a time when so many see aging societies as little more than a coming gray wave of liabilities, where walkers will soon outnumber strollers, and the future begins to sag under the weight of unbearable dependency ratios. Why not outsource those liabilities -- simply get them off the books?

But the plot line of Marigold soon heads in the opposite direction, going from an outsourcing parable to what might be termed a re-coming of (a certain) age story. The disruptive experience confronting a new setting opens the characters -- a who's who of contemporary British cinema, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, and Downton Abbey's Penelope Wilton, all at the top of their game -- to lives of engagement. They find new life instead of old age. Dench's character lands her first job, drawing on her experience and accumulated know-how to train young Indian call center workers in the subtleties of cross-cultural communications. She goes from being outsourced, to becoming a resource.

But for all its uplift, the really hopeful lesson from Marigold is simply that it got made -- and that it is not alone. A small but expanding cluster of new movies is starting to grapple with the experience of millions of baby boomers entering uncharted territory in the years between midlife and anything resembling true old age, inhabiting what could be termed the oxymoronic years (its denizens labeled the young-old and the working-retired). Isabella Rossellini, the soon to be 60-year-old co-star of Late Bloomers, another film dealing with the challenges of moving beyond midlife, recently stated in an interview that, "There is a not a real place for people between 60 and 80." (A former high-ranking media executive I met recently echoed Rossellini's sentiments, describing himself as a new member of the PIP Squad -- Previously Important Persons.)

Last year's Larry Crowne, starring and directed by Tom Hanks -- whose wife Rita Wilson helped launch The Huffington Post's Huff/Post 50 site targeting boomers -- told a less exotic tale, but one many Americans over 50 can relate to. Laid off from his job at a big box store, Hanks' Larry Crowne heads off to community college to update his skills (and manages to fall for Julia Roberts, his instructor, in the process). Next year's The Intern features Tina Fey as the founder of a fashion company who takes on a 70-something mentee.

It's too early to tell whether these films are a passing fad, or the first blush of a whole new market -- not only in the film industry but in areas like education and career renewal. Together, these changes might help turn the purported liabilities of an aging society into something resembling assets (and be profitable to boot).

There are signs that market is forming: Marigold's arrival to U.S. screens this month comes with $70 million in foreign box office receipts already in hand, for a film that cost a modest $12 million to make. And there's no denying the impact of watching the best actors of a generation coming forward to play people their own age on screen -- and frequently to use the platform these films provide to talk about what it all means to be entering a new stage of life on the other side of the middle years.

Who knows, maybe the aging of society won't be so bad after all. Especially if we are as innovative about engaging the assets of this population as we have been historically at finding ways to write them off. Here too, Marigold's Sonny has some wisdom to impart. In one of the film's more memorable scenes, he tells Penelope Wilton's disgruntled character -- complaining the real hotel is nothing like the Photoshopped palace in the marketing brochure -- to have faith in the future. "Of course I had hoped that by now it would be the present," he tells her. "But in India, we have a saying: Everything will be alright in the end. So if it is not alright, then it is not yet the end."

With research projecting that half the children born since 2000 in the developed world can expect to see their 100th birthday, one thing about the future is certain: when it comes to the longevity revolution, the story is just beginning to unfold. With the right moves, there's still time to pull off a Hollywood ending.

This post first appeared in the Harvard Business Review at HBR.org.

 
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