Ageism Sucks: It’s Bad for Business and Bad for People
By Ken Dychtwald
For far too long, marketers have been in love with youth and uncomfortable with aging, and today they’re directing nearly all their attention to Millennials and Gen Z. But those cohorts are strapped for cash, time-constrained, and are not proving to be brand loyal to anyone’s products and services. On the other hand, due to increasing longevity—particularly of women—and the aging of the massive Boomer generation, the swelling ranks of older adults 50+ are forming an unprecedented social and marketplace force. In addition, compared to their parents, today’s older women and men have new and far more ambitious dreams, aspirations, and appetites for this new chapter in their lives. As a result, there’s now an enormous upside to aging—and this largely untapped opportunity is hiding in plain sight. So how did we get here?
It Used to Be “In” to Be Old
In the colonial era, at the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the average life expectancy was only 37, and the median age was a mere 16. However, all those men at the signing were wearing white wigs. Most weren’t actually old, but they were certainly trying to look old, a custom of the time to indicate wisdom, power, and gravitas.
Then, with the birth of the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a massive economic and sociological flip, and America began its obsession with youth. While on the farm, older men and women could continue contributing to some aspect of work or family life; in the factory, there was no sympathy for aging hands slowing down the assembly line. And since the industrial technologies were new, the wisdom of the old offered no useful advantage over the enthusiasm and raw strength of the young.
By the Roaring Twenties, youth was worshipped along with young attitudes, aspirations, and lifestyles. This youth obsession was turbocharged after the end of World War II, with the birth of the Boomers, the rise of middle-class affluence, and the emergence of modern media and marketing.
Modern Advertising Set Its Sights on Youth in the Mid-20th Century.
During the Mad Men heyday of the 1960s, young people represented the most potent growth sector. Boomers were teens and young adults, and tens of millions hadn’t yet decided what kind of shampoo, shoes, toothpaste, cars, or technology they were going to prefer. Their loyalty was still up for grabs. In contrast, older people were thought to be frugal, set in their ways, already brand loyal, and focused on winding down more than gearing up. In that era, it was smart for marketers of nearly everything to target people between ages 15 and 25 as that’s when young consumers were forming their identities, coming into a little bit of spending money, and figuring out who they were and what they liked.
Ageism Remains Both Pervasive and Pernicious in American Society.
Dr. Robert Butler was the leading 20th century pioneer and thought leader in the fields of aging, gerontology, and geriatrics. The Founding Director of the National Institutes of Aging (and my good friend and mentor), in his 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Why Survive?: Growing Old in America, Butler introduced the phenomena of “ageism” and defined it as “the discrimination, abuse, stereotyping, contempt for, and avoidance of older people.” He even introduced a clinical psychiatric disorder, “gerontophobia,” which was characterized by a discomfort not only with older people, but with one’s own aging process. Ageism has had a century to take root. While in the last few years increasing attention and effort has been mobilized to end other isms—from racism to sexism to homophobia—ageism has remained the overlooked ism.
Today things have changed dramatically. According to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, people over 50 now own over 70% of all personal wealth held in the U.S.[i] While people over 50 now represent the majority (52%) of consumer spending,[ii] they are depicted in less than 20% of advertisements.[iii] Even more damaging, AARP recently found that older adults are seven times as likely to be portrayed negatively as younger ones, and the portrayals are heavily stereotyped.[iv] To women and men over 50, the message is clear: “This brand doesn’t really value or respect me.” As influential advocates like Ashton Applewhite and Marc Freedman enthusiastically argue, ageism is wrong-headed and it prevents organizations from benefiting from the full growth potential of the new mature market.
Five Tips to Improve Age Inclusion in Marketing and Advertising
From nearly fifty years on the front lines, here are five tips to improve age-based inclusion, whether you’re a for profit or non-profit organization:
- Go where the money, demand, and curiosity is. The Consumer Expenditure Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that older adults’ spending accounts for 45% of new cars and trucks, 47% of restaurant/fast food meals, 48% of adult apparel, 51% of personal care products, 53% of entertainment, 53% of groceries, 54% of pet products, 56% of housewares, 65% of out-of-pocket healthcare expenditures, 66% of home maintenance and repairs[v], and 80% of retirement accounts.[vi] Importantly, today’s 50+ women and men are far less set in their ways than previous generations and are actively involved in trying new things, exploring new possibilities, and even reinventing themselves.
- Put a few 50, 60, and 70-year-olds on your creative team. A major cause of ageism in advertising is the lack of age diversity among those who are creating the ads. Less than 10% of workers in the ad industry in the U.S. are over the age of 45.[vii] The average age for a manager in America’s advertising agencies is 39, almost 10 years younger than the average age for managers across all other business professions.[viii] People with more life experience and perspective—as well as those who can identify with older consumers’ true needs and how they’d prefer to be marketed to—are not even in the room. Would we allow a complete absence of women or people of color on teams that create advertising geared to them? Of course not! Enough is enough!
- Capitalize on the coming tsunami of time affluence. During the next 20 years, Boomers in the U.S. will find themselves with 3.9 trillion hours of free time to fill—and worldwide the number tops 50 trillion hours of time affluence.[ix] Whether you’re offering travel holidays, adult education, volunteer programs, video gaming, matchmaking, even porn sites on the internet, realize that today’s new mature consumer has more time to fill and money to spend than any generation in history. Use your imagination.
- Show diversity and variety among older adults. Just like not all women are the same and not all LatinX people are the same and not all LGBTQ+ people are the same, not all older adults are the same. Older people are people, unique in their life experiences, strengths, challenges, hopes, and dreams. Karyne Jones, CEO of the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging, reflected, “There aren’t many companies reaching out and marketing to the older Black community. Sure, there are Black people in commercials, but they’re going to a pharmacy for a flu shot. Or they’re depicted in caregiving situations, which is a positive light but still stereotyped. They’re not driving a great car or exercising or shopping at the best stores. Maybe a young woman of color is shown in that light, but not older women.” Karyne went on to reflect, “I own my age. I have never gone for this 70-is-the-new-50 stuff because it says that you shouldn’t be proud of where you are in your lifespan.”
- Target lifestage and lifestyle, not age. It’s far more important to relate to your consumers, users, or workers based on what interests them, what they care about, what stage of life they’re in—retiree or budding entrepreneur, widow or newlywed, couch potato, or athlete. Age is an increasingly non-important measure of anything.
Create a New Vision of Maturity: Be Aspirational, Not Desperational
As I mentioned in my recent post, “Re-thinking Purpose in Life’s Third Age,” when I asked feminist pioneer Betty Friedan why she wrote The Fountain of Age, she said we had come to a place in history where we were measuring everybody by the metric of youth. She said to me, “When you’re 50 or 60 or 70, you’re not going to be as quick or your body’s not going to be the same.” She then mused, “Maybe it’s time we began to measure the world by the metric of age and maturity: How thoughtful are you? How experienced are you? How wise are you? What are your new dreams?”
If you’d like to learn more about how Age Wave can help you connect with mature consumers, you might enjoy reading What Retirees Want: A Holistic Guide to Life’s Third Age or find out how to bring my newest presentations to your group—click here.
[i] Federal Reserve, Survey of Consumer Finances, 2019
[ii] BLS, Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2021
[iii] Eisend, Martin. 2021. “Older People in Advertising.” Journal of Advertising.
[iv] AARP. 2019. Media Image Landscape: Age Representation in Online Images.
[v] BLS, Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2021
[vi] Federal Reserve, Survey of Consumer Finances, 2019
[vii] Brodmerkel, Sven, and Richie Barker. 2021. “Making Sense of ‘Ambiguous Ageism’: A Multi-Level Perspective on Age Inequality in the Advertising Industry.” Creative Industries Journal.
[viii] BLS, Current Population Survey, 2022
[ix] Age Wave calculations for 2021-2040, based on BLS Time Use Survey and Census Bureau Population Projections