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Retire ‘retirement’: how brands misunderstand ageing

Australians over the age of 50 have the highest levels of wealth and disposable income of any age segment, they outspend millennials in entertainment, auto, health, travel and almost every other category, but are largely ignored by brands.

The Secrets & Lies – Ageless and Booming Report also reveals that 94% of the over 50s dislike the way marketers communicate with them. More than a quarter of all Australians are over 50 and yet it’s almost impossible to find organisations and brands that understand this high-value audience. There is an unrivalled opportunity in the enormous purchasing power. This report is based on research involving 2,500 Australians aged 50 to 79 years which reveals this group is booming and growing.

The risk of treating as a homogenous group

The risk of using ‘over 50’ as segmentation shorthand is that we treat this vast and diverse population as a homogenous group. It’s symptomatic of how little attention is paid to this audience that they’re typically lumped together with their parents without due consideration for the different life stages. Many Australians in their 50s are still busy raising kids, building careers and paying off mortgages. They’re a long way off 80, and not even close to traditional retirement, but this distinction is often overlooked.

They have a sense of self-assurance not felt in their 30s and 40s. That’s why 71% of them say they’re happier and more comfortable in their skin than they’ve ever been. Retirement becomes a big discussion topic once people hit their 60s, but the fact that the word ‘retirement’ hasn’t been retired is an opportunity begging to be taken. Language and imagery matter. More over 50s have no intention of ‘retiring’ in the traditional sense. They might change the way they work, how they work, how much they work or even what they do for a living, but this ‘ageless’ sentiment lacks the new language needed to describe it.

Business needs to engage better with this wealthy segment

For hundreds of past generations, in cultures around the world, being an older member of the tribe, family or community was associated with wisdom. Valuable knowledge could be passed on to the next generation. This gathering and transferring of wisdom wasn’t simply bestowed upon the elders as a polite or patronising mark of respect, but stemmed from a sensible and useful realisation. What better way to plan ahead than to speak to, and listen to, people more advanced in their years?

But have we become biased against ageing? What happens when a culture is evolving so quickly that the central knowledge base that traditionally provided such a steady hand on the tiller of effective decision making no longer fits in the context of a new world?

An important question for organisations to ask is whether they have an unconscious bias against older people. Apart from the obvious sectors such as retirement, aged care and health services, many organisations do not have a strategy to engage this rich and growing segment of society.

They have ambition, purpose and money

Ageing is a loaded word but it’s a topic that gets lots of play. It’s bursting at the seams with emotion and angst. Beauty companies, the fashion industry, the media and many others treat it as something to be avoided. And yet, Australians over the age of 50 are embracing life with ambition, purpose and money in their pockets. Ageing is poorly understood, particularly by business and marketers who largely ignore or misfire with this audience. The fallacy is that they can’t do tech. They’re not cool. They’ve retired from work and shut the door on meaningful life. They have no aspirations. They’re boring, unattractive and irrelevant. None of this is true.

The majority of the over 50s audience don’t think of themselves as old, and they have no time for brands and organisations that lazily shove them into that category. The clichés and misnomers surrounding ageing are as insulting as they are inaccurate. Marketing is littered with images of the over 50s slowing down, disconnecting, opting out and generally frittering away their time. Their ‘secret’ is that age is a state of mind.

The size of the prize

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) latest Household, Income and Wealth Report shows that over 50s make up 27% of Australia’s population yet hold 50% of private wealth. Nielsen data shows this group buys most of the car and travel purchases.

Strong work ethic and plenty of money to spend

Baby boomers are the generation with the highest disregard for age. Those born between 1946 and 1964 experimented with drugs in the 60s, protested the Vietnam War, waged relentless campaigns for women’s liberation and revolutionised music. Now into their 50s, 60s and 70s, they’ve spent a lifetime challenging the status quo to build a legacy of change and they’re not about to become complacent or invisible now. When they weren’t pushing against the establishment, they were working hard to build lives and families in a period of great economic uncertainty.

The over 50s segment is now being bolstered by Generation X, bringing even greater expectations of a full and active life in their later years. This is driven by a work ethic instilled by their parents.

Over 50s Australians outspend millennials in entertainment, auto, health, travel and almost every other category but 94% dislike the way brands, organisations and marketers communicate with them. Of all the marketing briefs received during the past 12 months, we estimate that only 2% of them focus on targeting over 50s. This demonstrates a stunning lack of understanding and respect for the audience. Not to mention an alarming lack of attention on those who have the most money to spend.

The over 50s audience is a new kind of mass consumer. It’s a mature and diverse group of people enjoying the same things as the younger generations. They want to continue to be their best selves for as long as they can. And they want marketers to realise that they’re just as interested in ‘new’ as everyone else. Australia’s over 50s are in much better financial shape than the rest of the population. They have the highest levels of wealth and disposable income, with a tendency to make financial decisions a little more quickly than other audience groups. They want to enjoy life and they’re ready to pay for experiences.

When it comes to buying consumer good online, the over 50s spend about $40 billion more than millennials and Generation X each year. They spend an average of 27 hours per week online, with 77% regularly researching and buying products.

Still breaking the rules

A classic misconception of this audience is that they’re ‘set in their ways’. Nothing could be further from the truth. They’re revaluating and reinventing their lives in ways large and small.

The divorce rate among women over 55 saw double-digit growth from 2015-16 and many are remarried in their 50s. More than half of new clothing, household items and furnishings are purchased by people over 50. They’re going back to university, starting new relationships and buying new homes. They’re reshaping their lives and looking nothing like their peers of a generation ago. Plenty of others are embracing single life.

One-third of people over 55 have never married – a figure which has doubled during the past 15 years. More than half of women over 50 always expect to be sexually active. Imagine the opportunities here in fashion, gym memberships, cosmetics, hospitality and holidays. This group is also challenging traditional work patterns.

One-third of Australian start-ups are founded by over 55s. It’s not the image the movie industry has perfected when marketing the entrepreneurial stereotype, where everyone is 20 years old and rides around the open-plan office on a scooter. They’re also embracing the gig economy and people over 50 will account for most of the self-employed workforce by 2024.

And, despite what many assume, they’re not blindly loyal to brands. Change is in their generational DNA and they’ll happily move on from products or services that no longer meet their needs. They are happy to forge new relationships with brands and people. 

Six-point action plan for marketers

To help brands forge these relationships and better connect with the over 50s, we have identified a six-point action plan for marketers:

  1. Get forensic and make sure you understand the data around this powerful demographic; their consumer behaviour, purchasing habits and intentions. There’s a significant new market to explore
  2. Invent new ways, new models, new products and new brand positions to connect with this audience
  3. Ensure you are reflecting the vibrancy and optimism of the over 50s; they’re gearing up, not down
  4. Recognise the change and evaluate what role your brand or organisation can play for an audience that’s changing their lives
  5. Differentiate between 50 and 80. The over 50s are not a homogenous group. Investigate their various sub-segments and target them accordingly
  6. Model diversity and ensure your organisation values the skills, expertise and voices of the over 50s.

Those of us in the marketing industry have failed to fully appreciate and embrace this audience. We are urging a rethink across the industry. After all, those organisations and brands that accurately relate to, and connect with, this audience will win their attention and gain a bigger share of wallet.


Rose Herceg is Chief Strategy Officer at WWP AUNZ. Ageless & Booming is the third and latest research report in a series called Secrets & Lies, which analyses the difference between what Australians say and what they think or do.


November 13, 2019

Really? Every advert I read in the AFR magazine and most of the ones on TV are about cruises or holidays in Alaska and Scandinavia for the over 50s, with "no kids" etc.

When was the last time you saw a cruise marketed at Gen-X or Gen-Y ?!

November 11, 2019

I couldn't agree more with the sentiment in this article. The word 'retirement' is outdated and wrong.

When I 'retired' I objected to the word, but I still use it as there is a broad understanding of it compared to alternatives. At the time, I looked for an alternative. One that appealed to me was 'Jubalacion' - the spanish word for retirement!
Anyway I have landed on a very simple alternative:

We are the 'rewired' generation. So rather than retiring, we are rewiring.

Much more positive vibe.

November 11, 2019

It is clear that politicians are also biased against older voters, evidenced by the despicable way Labor branded self-funded retirees "the top end of town" as part of their plan to abolish franking credits. In doing so, they unleashed an avalanche of vitriole in the media from younger people, many of whom feel retirees should be stripped of their wealth which they have accumulated over their lifetimes. While Shorten and his colleages were claiming Labor stood for "Fairness for all Australians", they prosecuted intergenerational conflict. The lesson is that not only advertisers but politicians should not underestimate Grey Power. Not unsurprisingly, the ALP election review has little to say about retirees and their concerns. Yet, the ageing demographic is growing.

Warren Bird
November 07, 2019

I just shared this article in a LinkedIn article I've written, which says:

This is an excellent article, thank you Rose.

One of the things that I suspect many businesses haven't appreciated is the way the health of we over 50's has improved. Despite every man and his dog knowing about the ageing of the population, few have thought about how that is the result of staying healthier for longer. Hence the slogan referenced in the article about 60 being the new 40. So even folk who do finish full-time work after age 55 or 60 have the physical capacity to do so much more than retirees used to do.

It's certainly one of the reasons that the last 7 years of my life have played out as they have.

7 years ago I left the role and the firm that I'd helped build from a small operation into something substantial, and at which I'd expected to see out my working life. The announcement said that I was 'retiring'. After all, I'd turned 55 so wasn't it time to put my feet up and work on my golf handicap?

That was never my intention, however because that's what was said at the time I still bump into people who wonder why I'm walking the streets of Sydney in a suit. The reason, of course, is that I work full-time. Oh, I had a couple of years during which I took it easier. I painted the house (badly, I'm reminded every time I look at the ceiling in a certain light) and had more time at the beach house. However, I intentionally stayed connected with the finance industry. I attended conferences, did some professional writing and some part-time consulting work, and picked up the role that I still have with a major superannuation fund as an independent member of the investment committee. I now refer to those two years as my 'sabbatical'.

Through staying connected, I landed my current role as the Executive Director/CEO of a financial institution, a faith-based organisation that also gives me the opportunity to combine my Christian beliefs with my professional expertise in a new way. I'm now having an amazing time helping this institution to reshape itself for the next phase of its growth and service to the community.

I turn 62 next week and, Deo Volente, am at least several years away from stepping down from this role or from full-time work. I do not recognise myself as being in any way part of the market that much advertising of over 50's products and services is aimed at.

I often think of the words of an old colleague from the financial markets economics fraternity who has refused to retire. He told me many years ago to put all thoughts of retirement out of my head. He had friends, he said, who had made lots of money from the financial markets and then opted out to live the good life, some as early as age 40. They were enjoying their lives, he said, but all they could talk about when he got together with them these days was how their golf game was going. People who once knew what was happening in the world and formed intelligent views on what things meant had becoming boring, he said. "Don't you be like that" has been his sage advice.

That said, among my friends and colleagues who have retired, I'm yet to see any who’ve become boring people. Some of them are driving their wives to distraction by being around the home and interfering with her way of going about each day, but all of them are keeping active in different ways, including both mind and body. One of them has been doing some handyman work for us - he loves it and is good at it, but for the life of me, that's not my thing! All of them travel a lot, either often during the year on short trips or for one longer journey each year.

I don't think that much of the over-50's advertising hits the mark for them either.

The sector that I think has got it right is cruise travel. Companies like APT, Viking, Scenic don't push the 'over 50' angle at all. They just present the lifestyle on board, the destinations, etc and drop in along the way that there are no kids on the ship, nor casinos, but rather sophisticated dining and on-board entertainment. That could appeal to someone under 50 just as easily, or it might even turn off some over 50's who like holidaying on a cruising "VIP lounge". But for many of my vintage, that approach hits the mark. At the other end, cruises designed for families seem to just talk about the facilities and activities for them and the kids. Some over-50's who are grandparents might love that idea!

Age is actually not the point. More businesses need to understand that.

November 07, 2019

As a working mum approaching 50 in a few years, I really enjoyed reading both Roses and Warren”s articles. Turning 50 seems less daunting now. I took time off work, 8 years to be exact, to raise the kids. I returned to work a few years ago and am loving it. The mortgage is paid off but I hope to continue working for many more years and enjoy the income and sense of purpose work brings. And of course a nice holiday at least once a year is the cream on top! Thank you.


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