Age no longer of concern

Research shows that our ageing population has a very different mindset to the over-50s of yesteryear. James Quilter looks at how this market is being targeted

The problem with the future is that it never turns out like the movies say it will. Look at any 1960s or 1970s sci-fi film and everyone has a personal teleport, slim-fitting silver jump suits and a penchant for sky-walkways. And everyone is young and good looking too.

But as we head into the real future, it’s increasingly evident that it has become cool to be old. Rock stars are hitting 60 in droves and they’re not slowing down or retiring. Mick jagger celebrated his 60th this week with a bash in Prague, as the Rolling Stones continue their world tour. Paul McCartney – a sprightly 61 years old – is about to reacquaint himself with changing nappies.

And you don’t have to have been a stadium rocker to put a hold on the pipe and slippers. The signs are this youthful philosophy is filtering across society.

According to Age Concern, the over-50s already make up 32 per cent of the population and, thanks to falling birth rates, that figure looks like it’s going to rise to 40 per cent by 2020. The over-50s are a big market too – spending over £240m on consumables each year and holding almost 70 per cent of the nation’s personal wealth. And research shows they are spending both their money and time in a very different way than the same group did 20 years ago.

But has this market been effectively targeted? Are the needs and desires of this group being catered for or are designers stuck in their own Logan’s Run time-warp where everything has to be aimed at the young to succeed? And are today’s over-50s really any different to previous generations?

Jestico & Whiles creative director Eoin Keating thinks they are. The group has just finished working on Darwin Court for the Peabody Trust (DW 24 July). A residential development for the over-50s, it includes IT training facilities, fitness rooms and swimming pools.

Keating believes today’s over-50s, fitter and with more disposable income than ever before, have more opportunity to live life to the full. And, he says, their attitude to life is different too.

Many ‘are children of the 1960s and their attitudes are different to those who grew up in the 1950s’, Keating says. People born before World War II are ‘more likely to just put up with what life gives them’, he maintains.

‘Generations used to be defined by age, now it’s more by outlook and attitude. [People have] higher expectations too. They reach that sort of age and don’t think they’re going to shuffle off and watch daytime TV. They feel they have something to contribute.’

Ware Anthony Rust board account director Alison Meadows agrees and believes that much of the force behind the change in the over-50s has come from role models in the public eye.

‘So many celebrities look fantastic, whether they’re 50, 60 or 70. There are people like Joan Collins or Joanna Lumley looking lovely and having a ball.’

Meadows worked on a revamp of shoe brand Van Dal (DW 13 March), designed to move it away from elderly women towards a more stylish audience aged in their 40s and 50s. She believes the over-50s are a market that has been ignored for too long.

‘Saga has been talking to this group for years and I think it is successful because it understands this market,’ she says.

Head of graphics at Siebert Head Paula McFarlane worked on the Just Brazils brand revamp – a product aimed squarely at the 45-plus market (DW 13 March). McFarlane believes the secret in positioning a brand to the older consumer is to ignore the age of the person buying the product.

‘I don’t think age groups exist any more, it’s more about a mindset and that spurs all ages. Apart from the youth market, which you still have to direct your design at, the rest of the market you don’t. You’ve got to bring out what the brand has to offer,’ she says.

Professor Roger Coleman of the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, who has been exploring the effect of social change issues on design, agrees with McFarlane.

‘The challenge is to create a dialogue with the consumer that also works with other age groups. The key to it really is stealth. You need to offer products and services that work well for lots of people, but don’t jump up and down and say “we’re for old people”.’

Coleman says companies are still reluctant to look beyond a youth-based market and are ‘missing a big opportunity’ by not developing products aimed at the over-60s.

An Age Concern spokeswoman says the real challenges and opportunities lie in product design.

‘A common design problem is that buttons, switches and fonts on things are often too small,’ she says. ‘The need for products people can use easily is going to increase, because soon the growing population of over-50s are going to enter their 60s and 70s.’

Devices like BT’s Big Button phone are selling beyond all expectations and Goodgrips kitchen and garden tools keep spawning copycat imitations. And the one thing we do know about tomorrow is that the market for these products will keep on growing.

So if we ever do manage to create a personal teleport, it’s likely the booth will have secure handgrips and an easy-to-read screen.

Latest articles

Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.