Companies have been quick to target the growing number of over-50 empty nesters. But, warns Alan Mitchell, these marketing-literate Third Agers need careful handling.
Ever been irritated at how difficult it is to get into a car or see what's going on through the rear view mirror? If so, don't despair. The swivel electronic seat and magnified rear-view mirror could soon be on their way. So, too, could radar-assisted parking and hand brakes which work at the press of a button.
These are some of the features that Ford is considering for its new cars as a result of a joint project with the University of Loughborough, 'Ergonomics of the Third Age', which aims to meet the needs of the 50-plus driver. It must be one of the first times a major global corporation has given more than a cursory nod to the so-called 'grey' market. It also shows how the much-vaunted 'grey' marketing revolution is taking hold.
Its outlines - or, more specifically, those of the 'demographic timebomb' which lies at its heart - are well-known. Population figures currently show a declining 18-24 age group and a massive increase in the over-50s. Over the next 10 years the number of 50-54 year-olds in Britain is projected to grow by 10%; that of their 55-59 year-old counterparts by 30%. Not only are these 'Third Agers' more numerous, but they are also unprecedentedly wealthy. Most are 'empty nesters', who, free of the financial responsibilities of children, have paid off their mortgage, have often already received inheritances from their parents, and are at the peak of their earning power. Most also have company pension schemes.
Critically, they have 'spend-it' attitudes. They are what David Jones, head planner of ad agency Publicis, calls the 'Mick Jagger generation', those who created the post-war youth revolution and still identify with 'youth' idols such as Jagger and the Beatles. The psychological gulf between them and their parents, who experienced the 1930s depression, world war and post-war austerity, is vast; far greater than that between them and their own children.
Already this group is making its mark. Financial services companies now sell a myriad of products targeted at the 50-plus market. Likewise tour operators: 10% take four or more holidays a year. In the case of Ford, its marketers took heed of figures which show the number of 55-plus drivers will jump by 37% over the next six years. Significantly, 40% of them buy new rather than second-hand cars (almost twice the proportion of their younger peers). And the net is widening: the over-50s are now PC makers' second largest market, as well as a target for pub chains, gardening and sports equipment firms.
'This is the most lucrative target audience of all time,' claims Geoff Wickens, marketing director at market researchers BMRB International. 'For these people, these are the golden years, not the grey ones.' Michael Barnard, marketing director at Whitbread Inns, agrees; 'The 18-24 market was where pubs once made their money. Now the over-55s are the gold mine.' At another level, the grey revolution has been a more subdued affair. The marketer's dream of the empty nester has been partly eroded by economic realities. As Mintel points out, the over-50s have been particularly hard hit by downsizing. And, of course, they are not a homogenous bunch.
But the real reason is more subtle, according to Roger Coleman, director of Design Age, a Royal College of Art project on the impact of an ageing society on design. He suggests that because the rising generation of over-50s still see themselves as young, they are not articulating their demands in the ways that marketers originally anticipated. They are marketing-literate, value-conscious and demand high levels of service - and they do not respond to straightforward and often patronising 'targeting'. Meeting their expectations is now the threshold requirement for all marketers.
For some, all this is a neat reversal of the 1960s. Then, says Coleman, post-war baby boomers triggered a 'cultural flip' in which society stopped looking to age for the lead and started looking to youth. As these boomers grow older, he predicts, 'our culture may flip again'. Brian Godbold, director of design at Marks & Spencer, agrees. 'This generation has always had it their way - everything has always been targeted at us. There's no way we are going to have it very different.' This, perhaps, is where the significance of the Ford project lies. Features such as the swivel seat will become standard rather than reserved for niche products. 'Third Age design is not about large writing for people with bad eyesight,' observes Godbold. 'A bottle that opens easier is a better designed bottle anyway.' Or, as specialist consultant Danielle Barr recently commented: 'Third Agers are no longer a segment. They are the new mainstream.'.