Is the Demographic Dead?

13 Mar 2013  |  Richard Jacobs 
Richard.Jacobs

If age has become less relevant in society - with older people behaving much more like the young - how relevant are traditional demographics? Richard Jacobs, Head of Commercial Strategy at Real & Smooth Radio, investigates.

We have all heard the phrases 'life begins at 40' and, perhaps more recently, '40 is the new 30'. It is generally accepted that 40 is not considered old in society today and that many 40 and 50 somethings are behaving more like 20 year olds by dressing well, going out more and broadly living a life more traditionally associated with someone 20-30 years younger.

Many media owners and interested parties have acknowledged this phenomenon but only a handful have really tried to understand what lies behind this cultural and behavioural shift.

Naughty 40s

We conducted some initial desktop research that showed some simple - but illuminating - statistics from the ONS which showed how divorce rates among the over 40s have risen substantially in the UK since the early 1970's.

40 years ago 1.5% of all 40+'s were divorced. It was harder to get divorced and there was a social stigma attached to it.

20 years later (in 1991) this figure had climbed to 7.3%

Moving forward another 20 years (to the latest published results) and the figure had risen to 13.1% - almost double the level of 1991. It's easier to get divorced now and there is little or no stigma attached to it.

These figures were interesting but the most exciting piece was when we added the number of 40+ who were still single. The combined figures revealed that 25% of all 40+'s are either single or divorced.

A quarter of our target audience were now in the same position they were in back in their 20s!

This data gave us a statistical explanation for something that is assumed and talked about but rarely demonstrated in numbers.

The reason that 40+ consumers are behaving more like 20 and 30 somethings is partly that there are more of them now that find themselves in the same situation they were in in their 20's and 30's.

Sexual Health

Our desktop research started to reveal more interesting dynamics and stories to tell. We discovered a recent campaign by the Family Planning Association encouraging older people to use condoms because the instances of sexually transmitted infections was rising higher in the over 50's than many other groups. It started to paint a picture of people who were perhaps starting a new journey and having fun again.

Mid life transition NOT mid life crisis

We knew that desktop research would only take us so far and we were going to have to conduct our own research to determine what really defines older consumers.

We began by conducting a series of Quant surveys of UK consumers across a wide subject range including purchasing habits, socialising, sex and personal finance. What became very clear was a strong sense of confidence in most areas of life.

With many of life's difficult decisions behind them, the older demographics can start to enjoy themselves. This age group appear to know what they want and now make choices based on knowledge and experience. Relationships breaking down, parents getting old, friends or family members dying, financial crises, disenchantment with society at large...they've been through it all, and somehow come out the other side.

The surveys revealed that they are often going out more, spending more money on fashion and beauty products and generally behaving more like you'd expect a 30-something to behave.

They have more time to enjoy doing the things that they want, not because they're retired or slowing down, very far from it, but because their children (if they have them) are a little older and need less constant attention.

Importantly, they have better health than ever before in history and the financial means to exploit it.
Children of the Hippy Generation

Maturity can bring a new perspective on life - many felt that it was time to stop living life for other people - "it's time to live life for me; not my parents, my boss, my partner, my friends or anyone else."

This is the first generation of 40 somethings to be born of the baby boomer generation. In the UK, they are born out of a more liberal, tolerant, connected and mobile society than ever before and it makes them a very different group of people

There are also a huge variety of external factors that allow generations of people to mix socially, politically and attitudinally for the first time.

The web is important but so too is access to foreign travel, the influence of mass immigration and emigration and a huge cross pollination of ideas and beliefs across the globe.

The Bridge Generation - a marketer's dream.

In one of the focus groups we heard from a participant who said they felt like a bridge between their parent's generation and their children's. As a consumer it meant that they had a huge influence on the purchase funnel of both groups. In some cases they were literally buying products like iPods for parents and children and in others they were advising parents or helping children to purchase products and services.

With the recession deepening, tuition fees rising and more young people forced to stay at home with their parents until well into their 20's and sometimes 30's, the influence that parents have on their adult children's purchases is likely to get even stronger.

From sofas and beds to cars and coffee makers, youth marketers could have a much wider group of consumers to influence than just 15-24s.

One could argue that the Bridge Generation therefore has potentially three times the purchasing power or influence on purchasing than either the youth or the baby boomer generation as they make decisions for themselves, their children and their parents.

The Challenge for Advertisers

My question to agencies and advertisers is very simple. If older consumers think and behave younger than their years, it is very likely that they will want to use your product or service as much as your current target audience.

If you are stopping your media targeting at 44, can you really be sure that someone who is 45 or even 55 isn't interested in what you have to offer?

They may not be using the same media brands as a 20 something so you can't assume you'll reach them on a 15-35 or 25-44 schedule.

I've often heard the rather outdated suggestion that consumers over a certain age are set in their ways and won't change their brand preferences, so there is no point in advertising to them.

A quick glance around any office, train carriage or bar will reveal just how fast older consumers adopt new technology like iPhones, Kindles and iPads.

As consumers we move on, adapt, adopt and can even enjoy being engaged by media brands and advertisers.

As we progress through our lives we tend to know a little more of what we like and what we don't. But, having grown up in a world of ever changing possibilities, we are more likely to seek change and adopt new ideas and products if they can enrich our lives in some way.

As financial uncertainty continues to be a backdrop to consumers lives, the 40+ market continues to be a largely uncharted territory just waiting to be explored, celebrated and sold to.


Reproduced, in part, from an article entitled, Is the Demographic Dead, by Richard Jacobs and Jeni Whittaker - copyright Henry Stewart Publications.

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