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The Silver Economy: How the Over 65s Are Rejuvenating the Grey Market

  • Strategy
  • Trend Forecasting

Whilst the term ‘grey market’ is broadly used to refer to those aged 50 and above, as we continue to live longer, that is increasingly too broad a demographic tranche to digest.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the global population of people over the age of 60 will almost double between 2015 and 2050. Equally, a 65-year-old is not the same as an 85-year-old. A couple of years back, Pittsburgh sprinter Charles Allie flew across the 400-metre finish line in under a minute – at the age of 71. Likewise, there are people over 90 dashing to Curry’s, incensed that their iPad’s USB-C cable doesn’t come with an adaptor. Those lucky enough to keep their health reject the notion of being old – let alone too old to be precluded from the market.

Rejecting the traditional ageing path

Boomers have a stolid and uncompromising reputation. But in many cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Those same people who ushered in the counterculture revolution and ripped up the rulebook decades ago are doing it again – reincarnated, according to J. Walter Thompson, as the ‘Elastic Generation’. Increasingly free from age restriction, they are rejecting a traditional, linear ageing path in favour of revisiting life stages at will, from dating and studying to launching businesses and taking up new sports, languages, and flat-sharing opportunities. Research suggests those in their 50s and 60s are often the happiest they’ve ever been – enjoying the comfort, confidence, and security that at best hovered like an elusive phantom, just out of reach, in their 20s and 30s.

Less surprisingly, their assets and disposable income make a mockery of Gens Y and Z. Wallets no longer fish out unspeakably ancient Crunchie wrappers but real cash they are ready and willing to spend. According to the European Commission, if ranked among sovereign nations, the European ‘silver economy’ would be the third largest economy in the world (behind only the US and China), and according to a 2018 FT article, UK Boomers’ net property wealth has been calculated to be around 17 times greater than that of 30 to 32-year-olds. The upshot of all this being that, in 2019, one in five UK Boomers were found to be millionaires.

Climate consciousness

The older generations are also adapting to the current climate crisis. A survey by PwC from 2021 shows that older consumers are more likely to spend more on sustainable products, compared to the ‘Greta Generation’ Gen Z. According to a YouGov poll from 2021, 61% of UK pension holders want their retirement savings to help fight climate change – and further to this, of course we’ve just seen Yvon Chouinard give his company, Patagonia, away to help fight climate change, making “Earth the only shareholder”. Plant-based products, traditionally associated with Gens Y and Z, are being integrated into the lifestyles of many older customers; to this end, ‘Perennial’ has developed a plant-based drink designed for the over-50s, which intends to “redefine the adult nutrition category for active health maintenance, rather than sickness recovery.”

Post-pandemic digital savvy

These changes have been accelerated by the pandemic. Global marketing and media company The Drum claims that 58% of people over 65 increased their use of technology in 2020, and 57% of the 2,000-strong sample contacted loved ones via digital means whilst 43% shopped online. But the pandemic didn’t simply rejig the means of purchase but also, ultimately, people’s priorities. Post-COVID, Boomers’ priorities have become more difficult to extricate from those of the younger generations, having coalesced around the same formative collective experience. This has manifested itself as ‘Generation Lockdown’ – a demographic who, after two years of uncertainty and lockdown drudgery, seeks brands they can trust, strive for sustainability, are drawn to nature, and search for the surprising and the memorable.

From keeping up with the speed of digital advancement to adopting a more sustainable lifestyle, Baby Boomers have proven to be an adaptable generation. They have also shown that the sense of adventure does not go away with age.

Adventure seekers

Arguably, the most efficient means of memory-making is to escape abroad – and the older generations enacted this more readily than any other during and in the aftermath of COVID. National Express Holidays reported a 185% increase in Spring and Summer holiday bookings year-on-year at the start of 2021. Almost all its customer base (98%) is aged 65 and over.

Often seeking active relaxation, the over-65s spend more, go away for longer and lodge in more expensive accommodation. In fact, so long as comfort is guaranteed, they are happy to spend more than double on accommodation than millennials, recognising that sometimes it’s just not worth finding an uninvited cigarette butt floating in the loo. While it’s equally true that Boomers like to hunt for offers, it’s less about budgetary reasons so much as the satisfaction of cracking a local experience or customised tour. ‘Silversurfers’ is a lifestyle website that caters for this crowd, offering adventure and sports holidays exclusively for those aged 50 and above, from cycling holidays in Tuscany to dodging icebergs in Alaska.

Reconceiving retirement

All of this is having a transformative effect on our intellectually sedentary and increasingly myopic conceptions of ‘retirement’. Boomers’ means and attitudes have recalibrated what it means to ‘retire’ – and traditional models of retirement must evolve commensurately. ‘Care-homes’ – already much-maligned before the pandemic as being synonymous with intellectual and aspirational death – are being reconstituted as high-end residential complexes replete with higher specification services; or, in the words of Anthony Oldfield of JLL UK, “amenities with the back-up of care services, as and when they need it.” We are now also seeing retirement homes being tailored to specific demographics. For example, Auriens Chelsea offers a luxury later living residence in London, while Tonic Housing, which opened late last year in Vauxhall, is the UK’s first retirement community specifically for the LGBT+ community.

Sex, drugs, and gaming

Ultimately, seniors want to feel as rejuvenated as possible with the means they have available to them – and savvy entrepreneurs are already capturing this market. In the US, ‘incredibles’, the edible brand, has made THC gummies that are easy on the teeth, adopting the treats of youth and lulling one into a soft sleep. ‘Dad Grass’ offers a mature alternative; cigar-like in appearance, these low-THC cannabis products intend to be reminiscent of marijuana as it was decades ago.

Pushing the boat out further, relationship charity Relate has released a brand of ‘Hornicultural Society’ vegetable-themed condoms aimed at the over 65s to tackle the taboo of later-life sex alongside the high prevalence of STIs within that age group. Meanwhile, Senior Dating Agency Ltd has launched two new dating sites that cater to the over 50s.

Gaming, too, is making the jump to seniors. Astonishingly, the fastest-growing demographic among adult gamers is those in the 55- to 64-year-old category – a group that has risen by almost a third since 2018. Services like ‘Arkadium Advantage’ have launched a new elderly-friendly gaming subscription service that provides easy opportunities for elders to enjoy casual gaming and deliberately absconds any complicated setup process. Xbox, which recently worked alongside McCann London to create the ‘Beyond Generations’ campaign, has established a ‘ReBoxing’ campaign whereby younger generations gift their old consoles to the elderly when they upgrade. Companies like SilVR Adventures are also offering VR experiences to the elderly – from a tour of the Sistine Chapel to a classic concert to revisiting a sanctum from childhood.

A vast new economy

There has long been an unsavoury inclination to infantilise seniors; to talk down to them as though they were toddlers. But as global average life expectancy continues to increase and the grey market swells ever larger, this will not only unlock a vast new economy but may also revolutionise our comprehension of what it means to get older.

What is now a homogenous ‘grey market’ will begin to sub-divide into smaller, more considered brackets, such as the wellness-obsessed and the tech-savvy, as the weight of opportunity grows. And once older generations are as market-saturated as the rest of us, then perhaps we will finally take them seriously – less a patronising infantilisation and more a reincarnation. Any brand worth its salt must recognise this, and double down on it.