Society at large and marketers believe that once someone turns 50 they are of secondary interest. It’s youth and youthfulness that are prized, along with the belief that if you get them young you will have a lifetime of their custom.

A close look at the demographics and economics of the over 50s, however, shows that we need to take an interest in this important audience and reframe our beliefs about them. This article will, I hope, give you a number of compelling reasons why they need to be included in marketing campaigns and thereby research.

We are living longer

The UK market is ageing: for the first time ever there are more people over 65 than those under 16, a trend which will continue to grow in importance over the coming decades. It’s been forecast ever since the ‘baby boom’ of the post-War years created a population bulge that has not been equaled since. The leading edge of this ‘baby boom’ are now turning 65 – in numbers terms some 860,000 are turning 65 in 2012, up from 650,000 last year.

The impact of increased longevity combined with the baby boomers population bulge means that, over the next 25 years, the increase in those over 65 will be an eye watering 6.6 million – equivalent to the entire population of Ireland.

  • Average UK life expectancy for women is now 82 and 78 for men. A century ago UK life expectancy was 54 for women and 50 for men.

  • Life expectancy does depend on where you live

    • Men in Blackpool are expected to live 73.7 years and women in Manchester to 79.1

    • Highest life expectancy is London's Kensington and Chelsea at 84.4 years for men and 89 for women.

  • Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE) – the remaining period of one’s life in which one is expected to be in good health has also continued to increase. The latest figures suggest that disability – free life expectancy at age 65 is now 10 years.

  • The largest increase will be in those aged 85+. In 2009, 1.4 million people aged 85+ by 2034 is projected to be 3.5 million, equating to 5% of the population. Those aged 100 and over will increase from 11,600 centenarians in 2009 to 80,000 by 2034.

We are living younger

The nature of older people is also changing. The notion that once you reach 65 all you could expect was decline and dependency is hopelessly outdated. Older people are active in society for many years after retirement. They are generally ‘living younger’ than they did in the past. Today’s 65 year olds are often very different (for example, they’re typically more active, demanding) to those who turned 65 some 20 years ago.

Other ways in which you notice a difference are:

  • Those turning 65 today are much more likely to be involved with sports and exercise and be more sociable and adventurous than their previous 65-year-old counterparts.

  • Often referred to as the ‘young old’, their lifestyles frequently resemble those of younger people 50 years ago.

  • They have lived through sexual revolutions, student protests and fashion revolutions. Their characteristics are experimental, social-cause oriented, free spirited and individual.

  • In contrast, 85 years olds will have lived through the Second World War – a defining experience. Their characteristics are very different, focusing on the nobility of sacrifice, patriotism and community.

Challenges for baby boomers

While some commentators believe that the baby boomer generation has had many advantages, the recent economic downturn – combined with social changes – has affected those over 50 in a number of ways.

For example:

  • older children moving back home after university;
  • elderly parents requiring care;
  • dwindling final salary pensions and state pension regulation changes.

The Saga Quality of Life index2 shows that over 50s’ Quality of Life has worsened over the past year, particularly for the lowest socioeconomic groups. Those aged 50-59 year old seem to be having the toughest time, with happiness, health and living standards all falling. The key trends, that are confirmed by a number of economic indicators, show that there is increasing fragmentation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nothings’ among the over 50s.

Unacknowledged market potential

Households aged 50-64 have the highest weekly average spend. They also spend more on motoring, leisure goods and personal goods and services than other households. The 50+ population accounts for 33% of the adult population, 44% of expenditure and 80% of the nation’s wealth, yet an analysis of marketing expenditure shows that they only account for (at maximum) 10% of marketing expenditure.

It is not a homogenous market; attitudes to age and ageing show wide variation.

Given this group spans an age range of over 40 years it is not surprising that it is not a homogenous market. Someone just turning 50 is likely to have different needs and attitudes to an 80 year old.

Importantly, people do not wish to be defined or targeted by age as they see it as irrelevant. Age is not something people think about on a day-to-day basis. The most common attitude of older people to age and ageing is one of denial. It is something that happens. But it doesn’t mean that they think of himself or herself as old. Being told that ‘you look good for your age’ is the ultimate compliment. Images that show older people in this light also connect on an emotional level with older audiences.

Of course, that doesn’t stop them buying or using products that target them by age as long as they see a benefit to them, e.g. Senior Citizens rail card or the aptly named Freedom Pass available to over 62s for free bus and train travel.

Defining the market

Defining this market, and marketing to them, is in fact far more complex than addressing their younger counterparts. The over 50s are an economically diverse group with unequalled disposable income. They are more individualistic and less tribally driven than younger consumers.

Segmenting them in a meaningful way does depend on the category in which you operate – age can be a useful start point, as can life stage, the generation you belong to, income, health, behaviour and attitudes.

Most of the published segmentations show that there are a number of key drivers:

1. Attitude to Life – positive/negative
2. Outlook on life – progressive/status quo
3. Attitudes towards and approach to the ageing process itself

It is important to understand older people’s attitudes to age and ageing, as in marketing how you target and communicate with people is determined largely by how they define themselves, the language they use, and the images they relate to.

OMD published its segmentation in 2004 – UFO (Understanding Fifties and Over) based on qualitative and quantitative research. It resulted in seven segments on two attitudinal axes, with headings that give a flavor of the definitions: Live Wires; Bittersweet Have it Alls; Super Troopers; Rat Race Junkies; Living Day to Day; Unfulfilled Dreamers; and Anchored in the Past.

As far as I’m aware, OMD hasn’t updated its study so this does prompt a couple of questions. If the attitudinal statements that underpin it are still relevant – and I would think they are – I wonder, should it be updated, whether we’d see a change in the size and demographic composition of the segments? My one plea would be for people to rethink their own views on age. Most research briefs will typically have an upper age of 55, yet with the significant changes in population outlined in the article and people living healthily for longer (at least 75) shouldn't we be thinking of moving the upper age to 65?

Some myths about older audiences

They are stuck in their ways

The reality

  • They are no more or no less than younger people.
  • You can be just as stuck in your ways when you are 30 as you are when you are 70.
  • 75% buy new brands and products each month.
  • Less than 40% tend to stick with the same brands.
  • 50% are likely to try a brand they are unfamiliar with on the basis of a coupon.
  • 88% like being offered free samples.
  • A third see this as an interesting way of trying new products.

They are not technically savvy

The reality

  • 73% of over 55-64 year olds, 56% of 65-74 year olds and 26% of 75+ use the Internet. This compares with 76% among all adults.
  • Women spend on average 52 hours online a month.
  • 79% believe that technology has changed their life for the better.
  • They account for 30% of online purchases.
  • Over 65s are markedly less likely to use the internet (40%) because of their lack of experience of using PCs when they were at work.

They are over the hill

The reality

  • Not unless we are talking about their recent ascent of Ben Nevis!
  • 75% are interested in extreme sports.
  • The fastest growing sector for volunteer holidays.
  • 50% of expenditure on face care treatments.
  • Take 37% more holidays than under 50s (up to 9 a year).
  • Drinking levels among 65s and over is rising faster than any other age group.

They don’t respond to advertising

The reality

  • They do, but the demographics often used for media planning – i.e. age, affluence and socio-economic group – are limited proxies for predicting older people’s response to advertising.
  • 54% dislike advertising that is overtly aimed at 50+.
  • Women have higher recall of advertising than men.
  • The recall of ads declines with age.
  • Recall of more ‘creative’ advertising is inversely related to their socio-economic group.
  • As people get older they get more cynical and harder to impress – the ability of ads to create a positive reaction declines with age, in particular more ‘creative’ advertising.
  • Many believe that advertisers treat them in a patronising way