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Ageing: A Changing Narrative

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*This is an excerpt from our recent white paper, Top 10 Global Consumer Trends for 2017. Download the white paper for more insights on key consumer trends.


In 2017, almost a quarter of everyone on the planet will be over the age of 50, a record number. These consumers are transforming what it means to be older in terms of lifestyle and are more demanding in their consumption needs, creating what is increasingly referred to as the “Longevity economy”. Anxious as well as inspired by ageing, they are keen consumers of a long list of health and beauty products and fashion-forward options and are receptive to tech developments. “Midorexia” is a tongue-in-cheek label for the middle-aged and older consumer who acts younger than their years. However, this label highlights the shifting status and expectations of a demographic whose members are living and working for longer and prioritizing wellness while challenging the typical age-appropriate behaviour of older people.

A bigger consumer voice

It is being suggested brands focus less on millennials and more on customers over the age of 50. According to AARP, a US lobby group for seniors, the annual economic activity of the longevity market in the US is worth US$7.6 trillion, “The growing population over 50 represents both a transformative force by itself and a net asset—a fast-growing contingent of active, productive people who are working longer and taking the economy in new directions”, AARP’s “The Longevity Economy” declares.

In an autumn 2016 New York Times article, “The Hottest Start-Up Market? Baby Boomers”, Constance Gustke outlines a flourishing start-up scene, creating innovation for the longevity economy at popular events like the “Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit” and by Aging 2.0, a San Francisco platform accelerating innovation to improve the lives of older adults around the world.

New business ideas for the boomer market include chefs, online dating sites and yoga instructors for those with health issues. Tech offers often need adapting for this segment. The millennial passion for wearable trackers, for instance, is tempered by the reported difficulties that older consumers face in syncing wearable products with their computers or understanding user directions. Services and products finding a receptive audience include companies offering home downsizing, specialist gyms, electric bikes and meal kits for people with health conditions. An online “family concierge” service called Envoy employs stay-at-home mothers for light duties like walking pets. Envoy now operates in 22 US metropolitan areas with significant ageing populations, such as Miami and Phoenix, and plans to expand to 100. One of the many brands showing a more inclusive approach to older consumers is accessories brand Dune, promoted as defining its customer through attitude rather than age.

Disrupting ageing: “Midorexia” and more

Website “High 50”, with a tagline “Age has its benefits”, looks at the spectrum of lifestyle interests of this segment which could equally apply to younger consumers: Home, beauty, dating, fitness, food, health, life, money, startup and travel. A late 2016 feature on this website celebrates “age disrupters”, declaring, “Enough. It’s time to change the story about ageing. It’s time to change the stuff around us. It’s time to look at the bigger picture, too, and demand what we want—from our car, our home, our workplace, our doctor, our communities and more”. Age disruptors featured include punk singer Cyndi Lauper and Geffrey Pank, a Chinese cookery YouTube star with a million followers. This feature is inspired by the recent book “Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age” by Jo Ann Jenkins, focusing on health, wealth and self. This book is lauded by figures like Joseph F. Coughlin, director of MIT’s Technology Age Lab, Arianna Huffington and Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg.

The visibility of older role models in fashion campaigns continues in 2017, as creative directors such as Gucci’s Alessandro Michele recognise that teen Instagram stars may not impact a wider demographic. He picked theatre doyenne, Vanessa Redgrave, 79, for Gucci’s current Cruise ad campaign. In an industry known for celebrating youth, some see this as a shift. Mainstream celebrities like actress Renee Zellweger have been outspoken about the demeaning “body shaming” of older people in the public eye. The first London 50+ Fashion Week in 2016 saw models Daphne Selfe (87) and Marie Helvin (63) lead the catwalk. The main impetus for the show, organised by mail order retailer JD William, was research showing a majority of older women polled felt ignored by the high street. Angela Spindler, CEO of JD Williams’ parent company N Brown, told The Telegraph, “Our findings show women over fifty want to be represented by the media. They want beautiful aspirational fashion imagery; they want someone in their age and shape they can relate to”. Hollywood actor, Kurt Russell, 65, stares confidently from the October 2016 cover of men’s style magazine GQ in double denim. Style-aware older women grace the sequel to Ari Seth Cohen’s new style bible, “Advanced Style: Older and Wiser”. Wang Deshun, a muscular 80-year-old actor, catwalk model and DJ takes obvious joy in subverting China’s image of what it means to be old, in a country where early retirement is standard.

“Midorexia” is a label for middle-aged and older consumers who suddenly dare to act younger than their years, embarking on rigorous triathlons (called “young sports” in Latin America) or keen to borrow their offspring’s clothing. Shane Watson, writing in the UK’s Daily Mail in 2016 observes, “Those in the grip of Midorexia think…they look amazing—in the dungarees or the plaits or the thigh boots”. Mr. Watson believes the “blame” rests on a host of improved consumer props, including better hair dye, fitness trackers and diets they can rely on as confidence-boosters.

Ageing and working

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, much was made of the participation of former gold medallist Oksana Chusovitina from Uzbekistan. In her forties, Chusovitina took part in her seventh Olympics, competing against athletes whose average age was 20. She plans to be part of the 2020 Tokyo Games. The model Nicola Griffin was scouted in a bank queue; various modelling shoots followed, and she became the oldest ever Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue model in 2016 in her late 50s. “I have had wonderful feedback from normal ladies, who are saying this is a breakthrough”, she says. “They think, ‘great, I am not invisible any more. I too can look good—56, 66, 76, it doesn’t matter’”.

For many 50+ consumers, of course, work is a necessity, and they face the challenge of adapting to new tasks and skills. In countries like Singapore, with a tradition of multigenerational living but also costly, fast-paced modern lifestyles, demographic shifts see families with working parents supporting their kids but also ageing parents. To ease the burden, more “retirement age” parents feel compelled to work.

Entrepreneur and author, Seth Godin, insists that continuing education and learning new skills and workflows are vital to ensure older consumers remain relevant both professionally and socially. A trend seeing a rise in the middle-aged intern supports this. Marc Freedman is the CEO of San-Francisco-based Encore. His NGO pairs experienced corporate retirees with work in the non-profit sector. According to Carol Fishman Cohen, who runs Boston-based iRelaunch helping the middle aged start a new career, “Some of the biggest and most prestigious companies in the world now run re-entry internship programmes [for older people]”. Among them are US banks Goldman Sachs and MetLife and UK accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. UK bank Barclays offers “Bolder Apprenticeships” for prospective employees aged up to 65.

New ageing solutions

A cluster of books and research studies published in the last year reveal a focus on different ways of living and consuming to suit our longer, healthier lives. “New Aging: Live Smarter Now to Live Better Forever”, from architect Matthias Hollwich, aims to help readers think how they can start preparing earlier on in life to stay in their communities. “New aging” also entails cooperation from professionals; “A retailer could be inspired to have a store redesigned to work for older people or an HR manager could get inspired to be less ageist”, he believes.

In “The 100-year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity”, London Business School professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott emphasise that the education-work-retirement model most consumers have been raised on is crumbling. Multiple careers and new education, living and financial planning strategies are needed to create a fulfilling longer life in which intangible assets, like family and friends, are key. It calls on consumers, governments and brands to help make a longer life more inspiring. “Aging and the Digital Life Course” is edited by two anthropologists working for Intel, David Prendergast and Chiara Garattini, and highlights the ability of tech to improve the ageing experience as well as new forms of community, retail, healthcare, learning and leisure.

Michael Hodin heads the Global Coalition on Aging, a think tank on ageing policy and strategy aimed at reshaping how global leaders plan for 21st century demographic shifts to get commerce engaged with new consumer needs. The coalition works with businesses across industry sectors with common strategic interests in ageing populations. Technology is an obvious opportunity. Keen to help older consumers take better care of themselves in their own homes, a long list of robotic and artificial-intelligence-derived technologies will be commercially available in the near future, including smart pendants that track falls. Dr. Naira Hovakimyan of the University of Illinois is even designing small drones to perform simple household chores like retrieving items from another room.


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