THE BLOG

Is Old the New Gold?

22/01/2014 12:00 GMT | Updated 24/03/2014 09:59 GMT

What will everyone be discussing at the World Economic Forum in Davos - apart from Bono's new superdark sunglasses and the luxurious hospitality accompanying debates about third world poverty? At a recent event I attended, the speakers concluded that ageing populations will dominate the agenda.

Which dovetailed neatly with two inspiring articles I'd just read. The first focused on a recruitment agency that is one of Sweden's great entrepreneurial success stories. Veteranpoolen began as a small office helping retired people get part-time jobs. Today, it has several hundred branches catering for a growing population who have reached an age where they don't want full-time work but have the energy, enthusiasm and need to do something useful. Unlike in Britain, age does not seem to be a barrier in the Swedish national psyche.

And then I turned to the remarkable confessions of 70-year-old journalist Angela Neustatter who insists she's fitter, happier and having better sex than ever. 'How refreshing to reach an age where I care less and dare more,' she wrote. Spending money being symptomatic of that empowered attitude.

To understand the economy of this market Japan, where the over-60s account for a quarter of the population, is a fascinating case-study. Elderly shoppers in Tokyo, for instance, benefit from a shopping mall designed with them in mind. Here older people can access medical clinics, benefit from 5 per cent discounts on pension day, join in any of 140 leisure activities ranging from calligraphy to hula dancing and, through the "Begins Partner" programme, find love.

According to a recent report, 'retailers and manufacturers of consumer goods are swooping on this market segment, which is both expanding and spending more - unlike most consumers in the developed world. Daiichi Life Research Institute estimates that the over-60s account for 40 per cent of Japan's consumption spending.'

Across the world, those over 55 - dubbed the "silver segment" by Boston Consulting Group - will, it says, account for more than half the consumer spending growth in developed markets over the next two decades.

"These are the wealthiest, most active, healthiest and longest-living retirement generation in the history of the world," says Jerry Black, executive vice-president and chief strategy officer at Aeon, Japan's largest supermarket group, which operates the specially-designed Chiba mall.

So here's the conundrum. Older people spend more money than ever, there are more of them and there are more products designed specifically with them in mind yet - according to figures in America anyway - they are targeted by only 5 per cent of advertisers on TV.

In a recent KPMG analysis of shopping habits, Vicky Redwood, Chief UK Economist at Capital Economics, put it like this: "By 2030, the number aged 65 or older is projected to reach 15.5m, growing 43% on its level in 2012, compared to an expansion of only 13% in the population as a whole. While this group currently accounts for less than £1 in every £5 of total spending, this share might rise to £1 in every £4 within two decades."

The conclusion, according to KPMG, is that 'the rising influence of this group could see sales shift towards the categories and methods of shopping that they favour. Health, DIY and home maintenance retailers, which attract a large share of elderly households' budgets, should benefit from this change, whereas retailers selling clothing, beer and soft drinks, which are geared towards a more youthful market, could lose out'.

Perhaps with people like Angela Neustatter in mind, Neil Saunders, Managing Director of retail analysts Conlumino, in the same report added: "The baby boomer generation has no intention of retiring quietly to a life of crochet and gentle gardening. They are down-ageing: acting younger, both physically and mentally. Understanding this is important because it's this older segment that's going to drive retail over the next ten years."

However, where does the 'Wilf Generation' fit into all of this? Wilf is 55, nowhere near retirement, looking after a young family, fit as a fiddle and enjoys scything tackles on the football pitch on Saturday morning. I have the bruises to prove it. Wilf isn't 'old', he's more likely to be found in a Shoreditch speakeasy than Glyndebourne. He's nothing like the people who, in effect, had probably just left secondary school by the time he got there.

Five years in this market is a huge psychological gap, 10 years is the equivalent of a generation, 20 is a different era. Yet we're packaging all these people up into one neat bundle because it's easier that way. Instead, we should be looking to re-label the entire population, not racing to use the word 'old'.

Advertising, marketing and media businesses are foolishly ignoring some of their richest potential clients because they don't know how to categorise them, or are afraid to do so. So how about: 18-35 is adults, 35-50 grown-ups, 50-65 mid-life and then you can utter the 'o' word?

If the economics of ageing will be such a hot topic in Davos, then perhaps we should be having the same conversations in Soho and Shoreditch.

Grant Feller is a former national newspaper journalist and now Director of GF-Media, a content

consultancy.