Redefining Aging


Aging is changing: the perception of it, how it’s managed, and increasingly, how it is represented. Like diversity and inclusivity, it has been a territory in need of reconsideration and is beginning to undergo a change. As this shift happens, brands have an opportunity to rethink outdated stereotypes about an aging cohort to be relevant to them and how to connect authentically with a new group of consumers.

Aging by the Numbers:

  • The number of people aged 60 and older will outnumber children under five years old by 2020 (WHO), creating a shift in favor of an aging population.

  • In the US, the fastest-growing age demographic of employees is 65 and older, set to rise to about 25% between 2016 and 2026 (US Census).

  • Economically, people 50 and older generate $7.6 trillion in annual economic activity. By 2032, when the oldest Millennials turn 50, this market is expected to drive more than half of the U.S. GDP (AARP, Longevity Report).

Perception of Aging

Aging is inevitable, as are the physical and cognitive declines that come with it. Brands, products and services have responded primarily by focusing on how to provide comfort for aging consumers through financial security, healthcare, and retirement. While these are necessary considerations as one ages, they are not the only ones. Today’s aging population has a wide set of interests, activities and pursuits to consider.

Slow down, that used to be the mantra for middle age. The dreaded half-century reached, fifty somethings were expected to take up less challenging physical activities - if they were physical at all. A gentle stroll around the golf course, perhaps, rewarded with a gin and tonic at the 19th hole.
— Neil Tweedy, The Guardian. "Extra time: how smart exercise keeps you younger for longer"

In the MIT September 2019 issue, “Aging is Over!,” the article “Why are Products for Older People so Ugly?” the author interviewed 100 people in their 70s, 80s and 90s and found that among them, the one thing they missed was feeling useful. Our society, in perpetuating a perception of aging as a life of leisure turns out to be fun for some, but not fulfilling for all.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s important to consider the overwhelming negative view society holds of aging, as though it is something to be dreaded. While it is true that Millennials view aging with anxiety and fear, 50+ consumers in a recent JWT Intelligence survey hold the opposite perspective. 94% said they accept their age and 87% embrace growing older. 76% agree that “60 is the new 50” and ”50 is the new 40.”

When Cover Girl named Maye Musk a Cover Girl at 69, the shock and applause affirmed the bias against aging. A woman at 69 as the Cover Girl? The commercial opens with “They say at a certain age you just stop caring. I wonder what age that is” and takes a defiant step towards age-positivity. In the case of Go Daddy, Lyn Slater of @TheAccidentalIcon says, “Age is just an illusion” and promotes #maketheworldyouwant, which flips the assumption that age is the determinant factor in your life regarding personal pursuits.


Managing Aging

What does old mean and how does one define it? The United Nations defines “elderly” as age 65, but Japan has extended that definition to 75. Beyond that, older consumers are taking on an age agnostic perspective, focusing more on the life they have left versus the years lived. Aging is starting to be viewed as a series of new life stages that are not life limiting.

There is an amazing calculus in old age. As much is taken away, we find more to love and appreciate. We experience bliss on a regular basis.” She goes on to quote a friend: “When I was young I needed sexual ecstasy or a hike to the top of a mountain to experience bliss. Now I can feel it when I look at a caterpillar on my garden path.
— Mary Piper, New York Times. "The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s"

Older cohorts are seeking opportunities for self-discovery and creativity, are engineering encore careers, increasing their athleticism to live a longer and healthier life, and considering what it means to leave a modern legacy.

Kate Spade 2016 Campaign

Kate Spade 2016 Campaign

The more society can foster a positive attitude with aging, the better we will be for it. Ageism can have serious health consequences. Studies have shown that older people with positive age stereotypes are more likely to recover form disability than those with negative age stereotypes (source); people can also develop a higher risk of dementia because of negative stereotypes (source).

Representing Aging

For those in marketing and design, the first step in creating an age-positive society begins - like diversity and inclusion - with visual representation. According to a 2019 JWT Intelligence study, 91% of women aged 53-72 “wish advertisers would treat them like people and not stereotypes.”

Getty Images “Disrupt Aging Collection”

Getty Images “Disrupt Aging Collection”

AARP has partnered with Getty Images to update their visual library with images of aging people to reflect the diversity within aging and their modern pursuits. An AARP analysis of over 1,000 images, found that while nearly half (46%) of the U.S. adult population is over 50, they’re only in about 15% of media imagery.

The images that do show older adults portray individuals as socially isolated or otherwise dependent, and not often in a work setting. This despite the fact that one in three people in the U.S. labor force is 50 and older.
— Lydia Dishman, Fast Company. "AARP Partners with Getty Images to Make Aging Cool"

Brands and agencies are largely responsible for our mainstream visual culture. We have the power to shift stereotypes by re-imaging the full spectrum of life and how our strategies and communications come to life.

Parting Thoughts

It’s time to rethink, reposition and rebrand aging. For brands and agencies, think about your product and who you’re advertising to. Are you thinking too narrowly? If you’re currently advertising to an older cohort, how are you representing them and does it reflect their aesthetic and verve for life? Think about mindset marketing, breaking taboos and consider this cohort as power influencers.