The boomer bulge and the business of ageing
Please tick the box: Are you 35 to 39? 40-44? 45-49? 50-64? Or 65-plus? It’s an oddity of surveys and application forms that the categories often imply your tastes undergo distinguishable shifts with every event birthday, but only up until you hit 50 – or 65, if you’re lucky – and then you’re suddenly lumped into a homogeneous consumer mass.
Apart from giving rise to cringeworthy stereotypes, for a vast number of product and service providers, this blunt approach to the over 50s is commercially crazy. However, as David Sinclair from the UK’s International Longevity Centre told the Business of Ageing conference in Dublin today, there are a dispiriting number of companies who don’t think the so-called “grey market” has anything to do with them at all.
Despite the fact that disposable household income in the UK peaks in the 50-64 age bracket, the response from retailers is often “that’s not our demographic”, Sinclair noted. “I think there is a huge amount of denial here on the part of business,” he said, as evidenced by the fact that the dominant advertised image of consumption is often a high-heeled woman in her 30s, beaming as she swings her shopping bags.
Incidentally, the Business of Ageing conference packs contained flyers for (among others) Flora Pro-Activ, RTÉ Lyric FM and an Emergency Response GPS bracelet – three companies who are clearly not in denial about their core demographic.
In September, Kilkenny will host Greystock, which the organisers say will be Ireland’s first ever festival for the 50-plus generation. But market segmentation research on the varying interests and needs of the over 50s has yet to be conducted in depth in Ireland. As far as the UK goes, Dick Stroud, author of The 50-Plus Market, places less than 30 per cent of over 50s in what he calls the “charmed generation”. This is a high socio-economic group that tends to be in their late 60s and early 70s and in good health. But that doesn’t mean that people in their 50s now – who are more likely to be part of the “anxious generation” – will become happier in a decade.
“This charmed group will move through and eventually disappear and the next group that comes through probably won’t have anything like the same wealth,” says Stroud. Similarly, George Magnus, senior economic adviser at UBS International Investment Bank, compared marketers’ attempts to capture the “grey market” to a snake eating its prey: “It’s a bulge, and now it’s a bulge that’s moving into retirement.”
The first baby boomers – the generation born in the post-war population spike – reach the traditional retirement age of 65 in 2011. It’s the generation that won’t take too kindly to what’s perceived as ageism at companies such as Interflora, which last year attracted criticism for bringing out a “happy birthday” range of balloon bouquets that stopped at 60. “Someone designed the product and didn’t think,” sighed Sinclair. Soon, they won’t be able to afford not to.