It’s the age of ageing

The move of humanity to cities, and the ageing of the world population, are the two major transitions at this (or any other stage) in human history. Urbanisation is happening in a rapid and visible way. Ageing, in comparison, feels like a more sedate and invisible process.

This massive demographic change has long been forecast, and its potential impact on business and society much debated. But clear responses to this shift are harder to find. Given the profound nature of this ageing of the world, the lack of preparedness and the relative absence of defined strategy – within business or in the public policy arena – is  curious. That said, this is not universally the case. Japan has been actively gearing up for ageing since the 1960s, as revealed in this recent essay by the FT’s Asia editor.

Ageing is hidden in plain sight

We’re regularly peppered with arresting statistics (ILC – a think tank dedicated to ageing has a great crib sheet) and personally confronted by the ageing process and mortality. The statistics become a numbing blur that are difficult to comprehend or respond to. The personal experiences are difficult to translate from the particular out to the general.

As a result, the ageing of the world seems immune to concerted strategic attention and intervention. Even the White House Conference on Ageing only takes place once every 10 years.

But there’s clearly lots at stake here – commercially, socially, economics and politically. Globally, the older population is increasing at a rate of 2.6 per cent per year. the over 80 population group at 4.6% per year (World Population Ageing, 2009, United Nations Report on Economic and Social Affairs). And this is not just a developed world phenomenon: By 2040, the developing world is projected to be home to more than 1bn people aged 65 and over – 76% of the world’s total. (The 2009 Ageing Report: European Commission)

Cast either as a threat or opportunity these changes are hugely significant – and to ignore them, as many businesses appear to do – seems peculiar given the awareness that clearly exists.

So why is the apparent opportunity of ageing being passed over? Here are four reasons:

1. Young is the new old

In C18th England, it was the done thing to wear grey wigs, even amongst the young. Reaching old age was a clear sign of having lived an affluent and comfortable  life. Wearing a grey wig was a means of communicating wealth, affluence and status.

Yet now, with people reaching old ages the norm and not the exception, many societies and economies privilege youth. Even those that revere and respect their old (say Japan or India) wish to highlight their youthfulness and vitality. Youth has symbolic value in macro-economic contexts. Ageing appears not to carry the codes of aspiration even though to reach old age is a sign of a decent life in an increasingly affluent economy. Anti-ageing products have replaced the grey wigs. Youth is symbolically desirable.

2. Crude models of understanding cloud our perspective 

Analysts of consumer society divide the world up into increasingly nuanced groupings and segments. Data tools and techniques make slicing and dicing the population easier and easier. At the same time, there is a tendency to talk in terms life stages that belie that enormous differences within these groups. Dividing the world in age bands like 16-24, 25-35 or 18-34 clearly has its uses, although those that do it would be careful to underplay its dangers. But lumping older people into 65-74s or, worse still, the ‘over 55s’ has a tendency to paper over the enormous differences within those ranges. A 65 year old is no more like a 74 year old, than a 15 year old is to a 24 year old. A little more discrimination would be helpful. As two authors of a superb book on consumer cultures of ageing note:

“It is increasingly meaningless to consider ‘age’ as conferring some common social identity or to treat ‘older people’ as a distinct social group acting out shared concerns and common interests”
Gilleard and Higgs – Cultures of Ageing

3. The fixation with youth obscures demographic truths

In a world that values youth and youthfulness, all that is not youthful is relegated to second place. Older plays second fiddle to younger. But if the inescapable truth of demography were combined with the logic of business this might not be the most obvious strategic choice.

Consider this:

The number of old consumers is growing faster than the number of younger ones. If you focus on the 15-34 market you will see little or no market growth based on demographic change. If you’re aiming old (or not ignoring the growing older category) you can expect to see your market expand without necessarily having to grow your own market share. So there’s a (simplistic) choice between markets that are growing demographically  and those that are not. Clearly other factors come into play as business make market decisions – not least issues of product execution, fit with portfolios and competencies – but demography is, at the end of the day, hard to argue with.

4. Age specific strategies find favour over age neutral approaches

Companies have what, on the face of it, is a simple choice: focus on products, services and communication that focuses on older or young exclusively; or, think about how what you do could be attractive to both young and old. The tendency has been for a segmented approach to dominate but the inclusive design movement teaches us that designing for all means excluding no one.

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The opportunity exists to focus on products and services that deliver the sort of simple and deep experience that appeal across the ages. Facebook and Apple are two technology companies who have shown this is possible. Sales figures for iPhones and iPads amongst the over 55 population are hugely strong. Facebook is not just for the young either as their response to older users of the network dying shows clearly .

Now that the age of ageing is truly upon us, it’s time the commercial world seriously considered how they build bridges across age. Businesses need to weigh up the risks of ignoring a market whose time has truly come.

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Coda: Simon, the author of this post and founder of Stripe Partners, spent five years running a research and development team focused on ageing. If this topic interests you, and you feel that your business could benefit from thinking more about its ageing strategy, please be in touch.