New Age Thinking

The ageing populations of Western economies pose huge social and political challenges, but they also offer a great opportunity. Patrick Burgoyne reports

The demographics are really quite daunting. In the UK, according to government figures, there are currently 10 million people over 65 years old. By 2050 that number is set to almost double. As a society, as an economy, how will we cope?

There’s more. Within that total, the number of very old people will grow even faster, from around 3 million people aged over 80 today to 6 million by 2030, and 8 million by 2050. We will also be living longer individually. A girl born in 1981 can expect to live to be 89; one born today might expect to reach 92. Government projections suggest a girl born in 2030 might live to 95. The trend for men is similar as is the pattern across the developed world.

Given that 65% of the UK government’s benefit expenditure already goes to those over working age, and that NHS spending on retired ‘households’ is almost double that on those of working age people, it’s understandable that so much of the political and economic narrative surrounding our ageing population has been so negative.

But what if we changed the rhetoric and stopped thinking of older people as a burden or as somehow separate from the rest of society and the economy? What if, instead, we recognised that the over-50s are a hugely valuable sector with money to spend, expertise to share and much to contribute? And that they are deserving of far better products and services to meet their specific needs?

Already there has been a perceptible shift in the representation of older people in the media and an increase in their visibility in recent years. Ari Seth Cohen’s hugely successful blog Advanced Style (which was turned into a book in 2012) featured supremely stylish ladies of a certain age photographed on the streets of New York and beyond. Its influence is evident in fashion advertising where we have seen the likes of 82 year-old Jacquie ‘Tajah’ Murdock featuring in a 2012 Lanvin campaign, Jessica Lange was revealed in February as the face of Marc Jacobs Beauty and Charlotte Rampling likewise for NARS Cosmetics. In 2011 Alfred Dunhill ran a campaign featuring Sir Ranulph Fiennes and John Hurt, while Sir Ben Kingsley takes centre stage in Jaguar’s British Villains spot. All of which helps normalise the idea of older people as stylish, sophisticated individuals and not some amorphous beige mass shuffling off into irrelevancy, but there’s still a long way to go to change advertising’s attitudes toward the over-50s.

Earlier this year, Robert Campbell, once of ad agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe Y&R, launched High50, a 50-plus website and multi-platform brand which he describes as sitting between Vice and Saga. “I started thinking about it when I was at Rainey Kelly,” he says. “I was working on Range Rover. The average age of their drivers was 54 and yet the brief was always to persuade 30 year-olds to buy. It was just stupid. The real people a lot of brands want to talk to are over 50 but they are very unsure of how to do it.”

Campbell has recruited former Campaign, thelondonpaper and i editor Stefano Hatfield as High50’s editor-in-chief. Both Campbell and Hatfield believe they are building a brand with global potential whose time has definitely come, particularly in light of the impending law changes which allow people to spend their pension pots. They have, Campbell says, three killer facts which they pull out in presentations to make their case: that by the year 2020 over 50% of this country will be over 50; that already 79% of disposable wealth in the UK is in the hands of people who are over the age of 50; and that, according to their research, 97% of people over 50 do not believe that advertising is aimed at, or relevant to, them. Which is probably not surprising given that only 6% of people working in British advertising are their age.

Ad agencies know who their clients’ customers are, but either don’t know how to talk to them or are unwilling to face up to the fact that they are not selling to hip young things like them. In media brands such as Google and Facebook this disconnect can be even more acute.

“I call them Kool-aid corporations,” Campbell says “All these under-30s walking round, who are so entranced with their own brilliance that they can’t get their heads around this issue because they are hardwired with their obsession with ‘millennials’. There’s a massive opportunity here for those people who can be bothered to think about it.”

While the website provides reach, a tone of voice and an attitude that is about celebrating what could be your prime years, the ambition is for High50 eventually to provide services such as insurance and travel, either in partnership with other established brands or under its own name. Mariella Frostrup has been signed up as a brand ambassador while Hatfield points out that Elle Macpherson, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp are all 50 or older. With role models like this, Hatfield says, “brands no longer necessarily have to appeal to our younger selves”.

And why should they when, Campbell argues, “older people become more discerning, less affected by what others think. As you get older you simplify and you clarify. You don’t give a fuck about novelty and you begin to discern what’s important. This is a shocking generalisation but I’m fond of shocking generalisations: young people are guilty of mindless consumerism, older people tend to be much more mindful as consumers. If you look at statistics around, say, the purchase of new cars, you’ll find that older people will spend more on a new car and they will keep it longer. They’ll also think more carefully about their travel plans but they’ll spend more money.”

High50’s target market is affluent 50-75 year-olds (the so-called Silver Economy), avoiding, as Hatfield and Campbell somewhat inelegantly put it, anything that “smells of piss”. This will not be the place, it seems, to find reviews of stairlifts  or mobility scooters. But why shouldn’t those products that deal with specific conditions associated with ageing not be as well designed and beautiful as any other?

Leading attempts to invigorate that market is online retailer Spring Chicken. Designer Michael Wolff who works with the brand (and is himself in his 80s), says its mission is “trying to make ageing as delightful and comfortable as possible”.

The business was started earlier this year by ex-Mothercare marketing director Anna James. “When I was at Mothercare I was always fascinated that there wasn’t an equivalent for the older age group, so I was always looking at it from a strategic angle,” she says. After leaving corporate life some years later, James was looking for an idea for a start-up. At the same time, her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, “so I really got thrown into that area and I was astonished to see that in five years, the market had not moved on,” she says.

James had worked with Michael Wolff at Mothercare and asked him and designer Mike Dempsey to help with her idea for a website selling well-designed products to meet the needs of older consumers. Wolff came up with the name while Dempsey created the egg logo – later embellished with an illustrated chicken by Nishant Choksi. NB designed the website and is working with the brand going forward.

“The intention was to shake up the market for this age group and make it more interesting and more optimistic,” says James. Spring Chicken stocks brightly coloured walking sticks, ruggedly styled ‘rollators’ (walking frames with wheels) and some very cool shopping trolleys.

Where she sees particularly strong innovation, however, is in tech devices with new ideas around personal alarms and alerts, as well as mobile phones and remote controls designed specifically with older users in mind (Swedish brand Doro being a leader in this sector).

James says we will also see devices for the mainstream market finding a ready audience among older people as their functionality can meet some important needs. “The Apple watch will be a huge innovation for this market,” she predicts. “Health monitoring, reminders for people who have to take a lot of tablets – all those memory aids are hugely important and valuable to this age group.” She also points out that Google Glass has been found to be very useful for Parkinson’s sufferers as it allows those with a tremor to access information without using their hands and that driverless cars may well prove a boon to those no longer able to drive.

But, she warns, what has discouraged innovation in this area in the past is the lack of a ready route to market. “In baby products, you can have lots of inventors who can then go to the likes of John Lewis or Mothercare to sell their products.” This market, however, is still largely the domain of independent specialists. That may be about to change.

James points to what happened with the baby sector, which has seen an explosion of innovation and new product development. “Eventually stores will have an ‘easier living’ department, or however it gets phrased. There are physical needs that come with ageing just as there are with children, so I think it will be recognised as a department within department stores.”

First, though, she says “we’ve got to get people excited about designing better versions” of the products older people need. The Design Council (which is currently running a project about redesigning care), the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and Coventry University’s Ageing Society initiative have all been devoting a great deal of effort to this area for many years. Barratt has just announced it is changing the way it designs, locates and markets some of its homes in an attempt to capitalise on the country’s rising population of older homeowners, while Nestlé, Google and Ford have all announced product developments aimed at older consumers. As the commercial opportunities become more clear cut, many more will surely join them.

Indeed, there are a large number of institutions, agencies, research bodies and corporates devoting  resources to issues around ageing. In October, a two-day conference titled The Age of No Retirement, brought many together.

A combination of policy makers, educators, designers, entrepreneurs, carers and all manner of interested others wrestled with some of the most crucial issues we face as a society. There were debates, not only about the over-50 consumer and the design of products and services for them, but also about the future of work, about ageism, preparing for retirement, access to technology and how to bring the generations together.

The event was put together by Trading Times, the social enterprise set up by Jonathan Collie which matches local businesses with skilled older people in their area, and Commonland, the new studio of This is Real Art co-founder George Lee.

The debate will continue via a newspaper published this month bringing together some of the key themes of the day and at a follow-up event in Manchester in March. Major areas of concern include reimagining the idea of work – full-time versus part-time, paid versus voluntary, what it means to retire, or not – as well as encouraging us to take an intergenerational approach. “It’s time to get rid of the us and them,” Lee says. “We start to age as soon as we are born, it’s a continuum”, rather than something that only effects one group in society.

Lee stresses the importance of stories that promote a more positive view of older working people – such as BMW redesigning its factories to accommodate needs of experienced but older workers who it didn’t want to lose. Design and design thinking, Lee says “underpins everything. We have to rebrand caring, it’s become so negative. We have to rebrand work, redesign our cities and the products we use.”

Responding to the changing demographics in Western societies will be a huge challenge. But there is also a huge opportunity here to make getting older not something to be feared, but to be valued, celebrated and even looked forward to. This 48 year-old at least is feeling rather more positive about the whole thing.

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