A few months ago, MassMutual quietly opened up the most ambitious, exciting content project we’ve seen in a long time. The Society of Grownups teaches classes, hosts supper clubs, and offers one-on-one financial advice … all with a bohemian vibe.
On a Saturday evening in November, I walked into an airy retail space in a hip neighborhood outside Boston. Inside, the converted storefront is part library, part bar, and part modern classroom outfitted with the latest technologies. The interior would make any design junkie swoon.
I was there to take a class about couples and money, along with 10 fellow classmates who each paid a small fee to enjoy a catered four-course dinner with items like a slow-roasted pork-belly steam bun, a selection of wines, and a seminar taught by a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and a behavioral anthropologist. I was expecting an enjoyable evening (the class description was upbeat and interesting), but to be fair … I had a blast. The evening felt less like a class, and more like a dinner party with friends led by an entertaining pair of experts. Our two teachers diagnosed our various financial dysfunctions and coached us about how to co-exist peaceably with partners who may not share our habits.
The space – a venture called the Society of Grownups – is the brainchild of design and innovation firm IDEO and the insurance company MassMutual. Society of Grownups runs small classes with quirky names, all intended to take the chill off difficult topics. Teachers are chosen for their knowledge and passion for teaching others. Aside from classes, anyone can walk in off the street and receive 20 minutes of advice from a CFP or make an appointment for a longer in-depth session.
Explains Lindsey Turner, Communication Designer from IDEO, “Today’s adults are facing never-before-seen levels of student debt, unemployment, and wages that haven’t kept up with the cost of living. Our society overshares on just about every other aspect of our lives, but money is one topic we’ve stubbornly refused to integrate into our daily conversations. Society of Grownups is a judgment-free community where grownups can receive balanced financial advice and learn about the lighter, more fun aspects of adulthood.”
Deliver content IRL (In Real Life)
The idea for Society of Grownups was born through a two-year research and creative collaboration between IDEO and MassMutual. The team completed extensive human-centered research, including scaled prototypes and pop-up events to test messaging, design, and curriculum. All that research was rolled up into the space and services that Society of Grownups offers today in its Brookline, Massachusetts storefront.
But don’t call Society of Grownups an experiment. Director Nondini Naqui says MassMutual is up to something much more daring. “This is a new direction for MassMutual. When people experience it, they often question what we are doing. They want to know if it’s a warm lead generator for MassMutual. And we are clear: Our purpose is not to sell product.” The on-site CFP with whom I spoke reiterated that she does not sell MassMutual products through Society of Grownups.
Naqui says the society is really intended to be a learning enterprise – both for MassMutual and for the people it’s trying to serve. She explains, “Society of Grownups exists to educate and empower adults, and the structure is helping us to incubate a bold new idea about how to deliver knowledge and education.”
Teaching financial savvy with a hipster vibe
What makes the program’s offerings interesting is that classes always touch on financial topics, but the curriculum is as likely to cover cooking, careers, or travel. Turner says that’s intentional: “Our research shows the relationship grownups have with their money is inseparable from their other life issues; money would never be the single most important part of their young adult lives. So that’s why we focused on the bigger picture – what we called a master’s program for adulthood.”
Just as important as curriculum is Society of Grownups’ respect for excellent design – seen in the physical space, the class materials, and the organization’s responsive website. All the exquisite design choices and witty messages elevate the experience, making attendees feel like they’ve dropped into a fashionable lounge or bar. (As WIRED magazine online recently quipped, “It’s like an Anthropologie for annuities.”)
What’s with the name?
The team members from MassMutual and IDEO say they experienced an “aha” moment early in the research process. Being a grownup isn’t about a specific age range, number of kids, or level of assets. Using ethnographic research, the team realized it was all about a mindset. Adults face financial pressures in each decade: paying off student loans, buying a house, starting a family, or affording travel.
And while social media has spawned a generation of oversharers, there is, as Turner puts it, “less infrastructure and fewer resources for reliable, accessible, and unbiased financial education for adults.” Society of Grownups promises a “no judgment zone,” where participants can talk in small groups about their financial goals and challenges.
Society of Grownups is still in its infancy (it opened in October 2014), but the team is working on how it will create an ongoing community with attendees. Dianna Sawyer, the program’s lead content strategist, says a big point of focus right now is figuring out how people change after attending a class. Three days after each class, Sawyer sends a brief survey asking what someone is doing differently as a result of the class. “Our metrics of success are very different from others’. We want to see people taking actions in their own lives. For example, after attending a class about the importance of wills, have attendees spoken to their partner about what they’ve learned?”
Know what I did when I got home that night? Emailed a friend to invite her to a Society of Grownups supper club. Up next: “Let’s Make a Deal: Everyday Negotiations.”
In many ways Society of Grownups is still a work in progress. It’s clear MassMutual hopes the program’s young, hip vibe will rub off on the brand. And the insurance company also stands to learn a lot about, for example, what topics interest their younger insurance customers, how they prefer to learn, and what their concerns are when it comes to money.
Yet it’s unclear how the relationship between MassMutual and Society of Grownups will evolve, and what the parent company’s longer-term goals are (e.g., will they open more locations?). For now MassMutual is giving a wide berth to Society of Grownups to ensure there’s absolutely no concern the insurance company is pitching products or services. (And to its credit, it absolutely holds a strict line on the issue.)
Image courtesy of CCO magazine