Whilst the younger generations have been touted as disruptors and earned themselves column inches about destroying everything from napkins to dating, it is the older members of our society who have the potential to bring about the widest scale disruption. Our ageing society is simultaneously a feat of medical and scientific achievement, a social challenge, and an exciting opportunity.
Rising life expectancy and falling birth rates mean populations around the world are getting older. However, the outlook on growing older is portrayed as a ‘narrative of decline’ rather than a time of opportunity and change. The implications of this are that we are collectively burying our heads in the sand and are failing to prepare for our old age, whether that be personally, professionally, in government policy or marketing strategies. The negativity surrounding getting ‘old’ can cause anxiety and a reluctance to prepare for this inevitable stage of our lives. This lack of preparation is often worsened by institutional failures to adapt to an ageing workforce and customer base, as well as problematic representations of the elderly in the media and a lack of knowledge on what it means to be old in contemporary society.
As much as it is maligned, old age is misunderstood. Even the question of how old is old generates a wealth of responses depending on who and where in the world you ask. If you ask a 16 to 24-year-old they might tell you that old age begins at 61, whereas a 55 to 64-year-old will say it doesn’t start till 72.
According to our survey, old age starts latest in Spain, at 74 years of age, but in Saudi Arabia you are old at 55. But, regardless of when old age starts, it is important to address the negativity surrounding it and plan efficiently to make ourselves comfortable in our golden years.
Negativity and wellbeing
By 2050, the world will have more than two billion people over the age of 60. But, despite our ageing populations, we are generally negative about getting older. Not only is this detrimental to the way in which we understand old age and prepare for it, but it also has a substantial impact on our wellbeing. People who are negative about old age die around 7.5 years before those who are positive.
By thinking that ageing will be a negative process, people will have a more pessimistic vision of their own future and expect to face difficulties in their daily lives and relationships as they age. This then manifests itself as stress, depression and anxiety. These attitudes not only damage our health, but can also lower levels of engagement in preventative and health-promoting activities.
As much as we worry about getting older, being older comes with its share of positive and negative effects on our wellbeing. On the one hand, those in later life are some of the happiest in society – those in the 65 to mid-70s age bracket give higher ratings that the things they do are worthwhile and have higher happiness scores than other age groups. On the other hand, a third (32%) of all people aged 65 and above in the UK live alone and 17% of older adults are affected by isolation. While older people are enjoying their relationships, with two in five (40%) of those aged between 65 and 80 being sexually active, STI diagnoses in people aged between 50 and 70 have risen by more than a third over the last decade.
Our negative perceptions of ageing can be explained, in part, by how older people are portrayed in the media. Research in the US, UK and Europe suggests that older people are likely to be stereotyped as frail, ill and dependent and having low social status. Findings from the European Social Survey show that people aged 70 and over are perceived as contributing relatively little to the economy, and are a burden on the health services. But we also associate older people with words such as ‘wise’ and ‘respected’. This juxtaposition creates a ‘doddering, but dear’ archetype which is damaging.
Older people are a group who have been largely airbrushed out of popular culture: 1.5 percent of TV characters are elderly, and most have minor roles. Gender also has a bearing on the representation of older people. Men aged between 42 and 65 get more dialogue (39%) than those aged 32 to 41 (32%) and 22 to 31 (20%). But it’s at 65 – around the age which we know from our research that the public identifies as ‘old’ – that the real problem starts with men getting just 5% of lines and women 3%.
Most advertising features the under-40s, when in fact the over-40s spend most. When nearly one in ten of us (9%) across the world is over the age of 65, it is no surprise that there are calls for change; three in ten (31%) of the British public would like to see more older people in advertising. Representations of older people are often problematic as they are often used as a conduit for comic relief, with stereotypes of physical, cognitive, and sexual ineffectiveness.
Across the world, rates of internet use among older people have risen dramatically in the last decade. Only slightly more young people aged 18 to 24 believe that “the internet is part of my life, I’d miss it terribly if it weren’t there” than those aged 64 and above (89% versus 84%). Older people have an appetite for digital and have started to generate their own content that speaks to what contemporary later life is like.
It is not just advertisers who overlook those in later life. Around four in five (82%) of those aged over 55 say their favourite retail brand no longer understands them or what they need. More than half (56%) want something friendly and welcoming, where there’s no pressure to buy, 54% want somewhere which is age agnostic, and welcomes people of all ages and sizes, and 50% want somewhere that is pleasant to wander around. These ideas are not revolutionary, and a retail space incorporating them would almost certainly appeal to shoppers of all ages. The theme of good design being universal is continued in product and packaging design. OXO Good Grip kitchen tools and the Nescafé jar with a ‘waist’ were designed for easier use by arthritic hands, but are useful for everyone. People don’t want to buy things for old people – more cross-generational products and better designs for everyone are vital.
Poor Planning and Policy
The negativity that we feel towards old age inhibits our ability to plan for it.
For instance, lack of awareness of what we need to save to be comfortable in retirement is a major challenge – as is awareness of just how long retirement will be. We vastly underestimate how much we need to save in a private pension plan in order to get an income of £25,000 per annum in retirement. The average guess was £124,000 when the actual figure is £315,000. Under-30s estimate just £80,000, and while we get more accurate as we get older, by then it may be too late to do much about any pension shortfall.
Lack of knowledge and confidence in financial management, coupled with consumers who are either unable or unwilling to pay for professional advice, compounds this problem. But there is hope – 47% of working-age people believe new technology will make saving for retirement easier, and 55% believe that new technology will help give future retirees a better standard of living. However, in person banking is still vital to reach those not online. Financial institutions will also need to take steps to understand dementia, and other health and non-health related vulnerabilities of older consumers, and provide the mechanisms to help support them.
While some older people are, certainly, living financially comfortable lives, this is not the case for everyone. Poverty is a real concern for many older people around the world – in OECD countries, 12.6% of those aged over 65 live in relative income poverty, compared with 11.4% for the population as a whole. In the UK, 16% of pensioners still live in poverty.
Poverty and low incomes have knock-on effects in many areas. Affluence is a strong indicator of good health in later life. Those who live in well-to-do Richmond upon Thames in London can expect to live 17.8 more years in good health than in Manchester (72.2 years compared with 54.4). It appears that, while we are living longer, these extra years are not necessarily healthier. This is already putting strain on health and social services and families around the world. The GP Patient Survey shows that, in England, 20% of those aged 65 to 74 have caring responsibilities (compared with 17% overall), and that they are more likely to do this for 50 or more hours a week.
Poverty rates amongst older people are, in part, linked to low levels of employment in that age group. In the UK, 3.6 million people aged 50 to 64 – almost a third of that age group – are not in work. For around 1 million of those people, this is not a choice, but rather they have had to leave employment involuntarily because of issues such as ill health, caring responsibilities, or redundancy. In the UK alone, over half of those aged over 55 say they have been discriminated against unfairly because of their age. However, at the other end of the spectrum, and further evidence that old age is not a singular experience, the global average age of CEOs is 55!
It is perhaps, therefore, no surprise that older people want things to go back to how things were before. Nostalgia can influence the voting of older people. In the UK, 61 percent of voters over the age of 65 voted to leave the EU while 75 percent of voters over the age of 24 voted to remain. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, called this out, stating that too many older voters were driven by “nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink”. In the US, over-65s were more likely to vote for President Trump and his message to ‘make America great again’ than any other age group.
Nostalgia is also a powerful force for marketers and advertisers. Associating brand messaging with positive reference from the 90s, 80s – and even the 70s – humanises brands, forging meaningful connections between the past and present and, hopefully, increasing sales.
But what does this all mean?
By focusing on the negative aspects of ageing we are in danger of missing out on all the positive elements later life has to offer. In order to make ageing a time of opportunity, rather than a period of decline, there are a number of lessons that government, business and we as individuals need to take on board.
Our perceptions about ageing and later life are not in line with reality. In part due to how older people are (mis)represented in the media, advertising and public life, our perceptions of later life are often woefully inaccurate. These misperceptions have a number of impacts – because we do not know what to expect from our latter years we are not prepared (mentally, financially or practically) for this potentially substantial phase of our lives. In addition, if we view old age as a period of decline and ill health we are more likely to have negative feelings about old age, leading to depression and a negative experience of old age – a vicious circle.
We’re not saving enough for our later years. Linked to this misperception about old age, we are very unclear about how much we need to have in our pension pots to ensure a comfortable income once we stop working. The closer we get to the age of retirement, the better we are at estimating how much we need to have saved. However, by this point it may be too late to do anything about it. While this failure to save enough for the future can be explained, in part, by the current financial situation (young people earn up to 20% less than the national average in many countries), the ‘head in the sand’ attitude to later life mentioned above also plays a part. While some government initiatives, such as auto-enrolment, have attempted to tackle this inertia, there is still more to do.
Inter-generational relationships and communities could help. While advertisers and the media may be slowly changing their portrayal of older people, this may not be enough to challenge our misperceptions. Forming inter-generational friendships can help bridge this gap. Despite being advantageous for both the older and younger parties, inter-generational friendships appear to be uncommon. It is not just socially where older people’s wisdom and experience could be beneficial – 94% of employers believe that older people could be the key to bridging the skills gap.
We can all start making changes now, which will improve our lives later. It’s never too late to make a positive difference. Research has found that people in their 90s could improve their overall wellbeing by increasing the level of light activity they participate in regularly. It is also never too early to start thinking about later life – living a healthy, active and social life now is a good indicator of positive later years, as we tend to continue to live as we always have. Our future is very much in our hands.
We’re living longer, but sicker, lives. There is no doubt that we are living longer, but longer does not necessarily mean healthier or happier. Our increasing life span means that more people are in need of medical or social care for longer. This has profound implications for health and social security budgets, and we are already feeling the strain. With the number of Americans living with dementia expected to treble by 2050, the pressure looks set to increase. As well as paying for the care required, governments will also have to consider who (or what) will provide it. The UK is already experiencing a shortage of carers (which will likely be worsened by Brexit), but will it and other countries follow Japan’s lead by investigating robotic solutions? There are other legislative implications for governments – in the UK questions are being asked about the suitability of the current Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards in place for people with dementia.
The balance of workers and dependents is shifting. Living longer is not just putting a strain on health and social care budgets. The shift in median age seen in many countries means that fewer people are contributing to the public coffers in taxes, and more people are dependent on the state, in terms of the old age pension. This balancing of the books will not be an easy job for governments (particularly as many parties rely on older people as a core section of their voters). As mentioned above, it is not just state pensions that are in difficulty – we are not saving enough into private pensions. Governments will need to consider whether to intervene, and if so, whether it will be a ‘nudge’ or a shove.
People may want – or need – to work longer. With life expectancy increasing, is it still practical to have a retirement age, when people have potentially another third of their life to live? Many older people feel they still have much to contribute to society and the workplace, or rely on work to give them feelings of worth and fulfilment. Financial precarity, as mentioned above, may mean that people are unable to stop working. Governments around the world may need to reconsider state retirement ages, and put in place legislation dealing with age discrimination, which half of over-55s say they have experienced.
Service delivery may need to be re-evaluated. While older people are often more digitally-savvy than they are given credit for, older people, in particular older women, are the group least likely to have access to the internet. In a more and more digital world, with pensions, benefits and medical information increasingly online, governments will need to ensure that some of their most vulnerable citizens are not getting left behind.
Don’t ignore older people – they have more money than anyone else! Despite making up only about a third of the UK population, over-50s account for nearly half of all consumer spending – worth about £320 billion a year. Older people are the top spenders in a number of categories, such as the hotel and travel sector, food, clothing, household goods, services and eating out. Most businesses, therefore, cannot afford to ignore the over-50s. Unfortunately, many retailers do not understand the needs of this powerful group, and therefore, risk losing them. The lack of older people in advertising hasn’t gone unnoticed either; in a study by Campaign Magazine, four in five of those working in advertising, media and PR agreed that the advertising industry comes across as ageist.
When you do portray older people – get it right. As mentioned above, our perceptions of later life are wildly out of step with reality – and this has consequences. These misperceptions are, no doubt, in part due to current depictions of older people in advertising and media. Experiences of later life are diverse and varied, but media and advertising tend to portray older people as one of a series of tired tropes. In the UK around half of those aged over 65 feel that they do not have enough sex, and a third are happy to have sex on a first date. Portraying older people as pensioners on Zimmer frames is hugely missing the point (and potentially missing the sales). However, there are signs that advertisers and brands are starting to catch up with what people want; Marks & Spencer have long promoted older women in their campaigns, while high-end fashion house Celine made the 80-year-old Joan Didion the face if its recent campaign.
Good design of products and service will be vital. Most older people want to stay, and be cared for, in their own homes for as long as possible. Providing goods, services and in-home adaptations which allow for older people to stay in their homes safely, for longer will be increasingly important in the future. Product manufacturers and service providers may also discover that features designed to assist older people – such as easy open packaging, clearer instructions, or personalised delivery – will prove to be popular with all age groups.
Employers will need to harness the potential of older colleagues. With people wanting, or needing, to stay in the workplace longer, employers may need to change their attitudes to older people. Although, nearly all employers believe older people have an important part to play, only a quarter of these are actively recruiting older people. With many older people reporting they have experienced age-based discrimination in the past, employers will need to address any bias, conscious or unconscious, in their hiring and employment practices.