Note to readers:
In tandem with publishing my newest book, Generation Reinvention, I have recently launched a radio program called Generation Reinvention: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Future.
This time I interviewed John Erickson, a serial entrepreneur whose work has significant implications for the future of Boomer aging. After reading the background article below, you can listen to my conversation with John by clicking here.
At first thought, retirement housing, television programming, and political advocacy seem distinct and mostly unrelated. Connections between these disparate industries are elusive.
That is, until you connect the dots. And those dots have become united through the convictions of one man: John Erickson.
He has changed the status quo for community-based retirement housing, introduced the first cable channel with tailored programming for adults 50+, and provided thought leadership for older Americans demanding to be heard in Washington.
His entrepreneurial odyssey began over a quarter-of-a century ago. Before the 1980’s, those who aspired to live in retirement communities often needed to have significant assets. Hopeful residents invested their savings in a hefty, nonrefundable deposit and then paid monthly dues to perpetuate a lifestyle catering mostly to the wealthy and upper-middle class.
John Erickson saw another alternative: well-appointed and managed communities for the middle class, offering equivalent amenities associated with robust retirement community living: an affordable, aspirational retirement lifestyle. That was a game changer.
Beginning with his flagship project of Charlestown, located on a 110-acre campus near Baltimore, Maryland, his team transformed a former college campus into a vibrant community for those “62 and better.”
Since successful launch of Erickson Living, his company has developed 19 other communities in eleven states, currently providing housing for over 23,000 retirees. His closely knit organization received recognition in 2009 by Fortune magazine to be among the “Best 100 companies to work for.”
All his communities focus on his “six pillars of successful aging.” The ingredients for vibrant retirement living include exercise, diet, spiritual well-being, a comprehensive wellness and health care plan, and financial security. The final ingredient is social structure.
An expanding retirement housing enterprise would be enough to keep most entrepreneurs busy, but success of his community model disclosed another need and opportunity.
“I put miniature community television stations in each of my retirement housing campuses,” reflected John Erickson during his conversation with me. “Residents produced their own hometown networks. It occurred to me that an opportunity existed to develop an entire TV network that would focus on better quality of living as you get older.
“I decided to take my hometown project and grow it into a national network. This would not be a typical ‘reruns network.’ It would become a network that would deal with all kinds of contemporary and inspirational issues.”
He took his concept and persuasive presentation to Comcast and won their agreement to launch a 24-hour cable channel called Retirement Living TV in 2006. Since then, RLTV has become a sophisticated television resource with Emmy award-winning programming and legendary on-camera personalities such as Sam Donaldson, Joan Lunden, Jim Palmer and Florence Henderson. Programming includes a variety of shows tailored for interests and passions of older adults: health & wellness, avocations, financial planning, housing, relevant world news, travel, politics, and contemporary culture.
One would think that a growing network of retirement communities and a 24-hour cable network would be sufficient to keep this entrepreneur fully occupied. But he’s simply not finished.
John concluded that voters 55 and older are too easily dismissed by a bevy of candidates seeking elective office. He observed that Boomers and older generations are passionate about the issues, take time to become educated about their policy options, and show up at the polls to vote.
So, earlier this fall, his organization launched another initiative called Prime Votes to help inform Boomers and seniors about important issues in the mid-term elections. With those over 50 facing myriad challenges, from sinking retirement assets due to the recession to uncertain solvency of Social Security and Medicare, he concluded that this important constituency needs a louder, better informed voice in Washington.
RLTV created a series of programs devoted to issues; the network produced and launched a public service announcement campaign on other cable channels; and John made the rounds of major media to communicate an undeniable fact: the social/political agendas of older adults need to be understood, heeded and addressed by policymakers. Any politician assuming that he or she need not focus on this cohort is making a grave judgment error.
What drives this man into so many different areas of concern to Boomers and older generations? Obviously, many dynamic factors coexist to compel him forward. But perhaps his comment to me about the future of aging provides one insight into this game changer:
“(Life after 55) is the ‘freedom years.’ This is the time you get to become or be whoever you wanted to be, to express who you really are.”
And, clearly, this is what John Erickson is doing, personally and professionally.
Unwilling to settle for the status quo in housing, television or politics, he is one of those rare leaders and entrepreneurs who has seen other possibilities for the future – alternative states – and then acted on his vision, ultimately to the benefit of all aging generations, present and future.