Age doesn’t tell you anything

Frisky older people on a beach

From here to eternity?

One of the many lessons ageing populations are starting to teach us is that age is a rubbish way of categorising people. Advertisers have been obsessed for years with selling to an 18-49 or 25-54 demographic and, partly as a result, we are stuck with the idea that people over the age of 50 or 55 are somehow of a piece with people over the age of 90: none of them of much interest, at least if you’re an advertiser, or, consequently, a media outlet.

The truth is that one person aged 50 isn’t even like a lot of other people aged 50, let alone with most 90 year-olds. But age goes on being used as a proxy for other characteristics – principally, as far as older people are concerned, two identities, which we might call frisky retirement and frailty.

We see the friskily retired bouncing along in ads for insurance and cruises, usually outdoors, often on a beach, evidently still having masses of great sex. This is the opportunity, so often talked about, that is offered by the ageing population – to sell things, of course; but also (to be less cynical, momentarily) to evolve new ways of life, because they are living longer with much higher levels of education, better health and more money than any generation before.

The frail include the lost tribe of the lonely, as well as the demented and the residents of care homes. They are the fourth agers, approaching death whether from near or far, and we turn away from them in fear. They explain the other reason that the 50-plus population is seen as a homogeneous lump. This is a period that none of us wants to contemplate, and if we concentrate on the idea of a long, sex-filled third age hiking through woods to the beach, we don’t have to.

Sometimes, when it suits, there’s an effort to subdivide the ageing population: the third age and the fourth, the young-old versus the old-old. But this too, uses age as a proxy for other, more germane characteristics; it’s not really very helpful, because it’s perfectly possible to be old-old at 65, as well as one of the youngest-seeming young-old.

The research company Nielsen recently pointed out that the Baby Boomer generation was neglected by brand marketers, who have never taken much interest in the over-50s, but who now face a population skewed towards the old in terms both of numbers and disposable income. This was greeted in some quarters as a statement of the obvious, but there have been rather fewer ideas about how to change it.

Some efforts, it is true, are being made to segment and reach the older consumer. Generation Jones, the creation of Jonathan Pontell, has gained some traction by sectioning off the group born between 1954 and 1965. In an American context, Jonesers are slightly younger than the Baby Boomers, and they are of huge interest to marketers, given that they include Barack Obama and any number of people who currently run things.

(The Jones reference is said to come from the Counting Crows song Mr Jones, though I’ve listened to it and I’m not sure why. I assumed at first it was something to do with Bridget, although she already has quite enough cultural baggage. Wikipedia seems to think it’s got something to do with the slang term Jonesing – new to me – meaning yearning or craving.)

Jonesers are a start, but they are an age-led start, subject to the same reductive stereotypes as so much discussion about ageing. Which is not to say that age is irrelevant; but it doesn’t explain the totality of people’s interests and anxieties, let alone their identities. We have allowed ourselves to become so focused on age that we are incapable of seeing the diversity that the part of life after 50 – half of many lives – entails.

A few marketing experts have urged an age-neutral approach, noting, for example, (who woulda thought!) that 41% of iPads in the US have been bought by the over-50s. But even this falls prey to the lump of ageing fallacy: the idea that the over 50s are a distinct group, or at best two distinct groups, and they need managing and including (poor loves).

In fact, they’re a group that needs to be unpicked, unbound, seen as a bundle of niche enthusiasms and diverse people making intricately personal choices. Just like young people, in fact. Our antipathy to ageing, combined with deeply-rooted marketing and advertising prejudice, has allowed older people to be treated as a lump, in a way that no one would any longer think of imagining the young. Which is daft really, when you think that the older people get, the greater the extremes of capacity they display.

Ageing is both an opportunity and a tragedy. Sometimes, because things are complicated, both at the same time. Much like the rest of life, then.


A word about words

A photograph of the word 'Old' on a wall‘Older people’, the subject matter of this website, has a euphemistic ring. It sounds weaselly. Older than what, or whom? Babies? Toddlers? Teenagers? It’s a phrase that reminds me of the old Jonathan Miller joke: ‘In fact, I’m not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish.’ It prevaricates and quibbles and refuses to come out and say what it means, leaving open the option that it could be referring to a group who are older than, say, a class of 10 year-olds.

The relative term has grown in popularity because the absolute one – old – is so loaded with cultural baggage. ‘Old’ is used so often as a synonym for bad that we’ve stopped noticing. It conjures images of ‘tired’ or ‘finished’ or ‘obsolete.’ This is also true of its satellite words: think of ‘sunset industries’, or ‘ageing infrastructure’ or conversely, ‘young cities’. (I was tempted to write ‘vibrant young cities’ there, because that’s the near-automatic second adjective). Words that began simply as chronological designations, open to all sorts of evaluative layerings, have become rusted over with self-loathing notions of decline and decay.

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