Founded Blog, Founded Culture | February 9, 2018

Isn’t it time to shatter society’s last acceptable prejudice?

By Maria McHugh, Planning Partner

As reported by the BBC last week, the recent Spring 2018 shows in New York, Paris, Milan and London saw a record number of models in their 50s and 60s on the catwalk. Elon Musk’s mother Maye Musk, was one of them, a 68 yr old model, who says that she has never worked as much over the past 50 years as she did in 2017. Maye might have hit her tipping point, but does this represent a tipping point for the rest of her generation? That is one of the things we’ve been exploring as part of our research into the what makes today’s 50 and 60-somethings tick, and society’s attitudes towards them.

It’s not altogether an optimistic picture. While the first shoots of age-inclusivity might have hit the Paris runways, they are certainly not in evidence across other aspects of society and culture.  There is still a huge chasm between society’s perceptions of people in their 50s and 60s, and how this generation sees itself.  As we’ve been finding out in our qualitative research across the country, this generation sees themselves in extended middle-age, whereas younger members of society still see them as old.

The European Social Survey reported in its Ageism model in 2011 that Brits think old starts somewhere around 59. Of the 28 countries surveyed, Britain had the second lowest perception of old age, after Turkey. People in Greece had the highest, not considering old age to start until 68.

Another quantitative study by Cigna Insurance in 2015 showed that Brits aged between 18-34 consider someone to become old at 61, whereas those aged over 50 believe they will become old at 74.

Probe a little further, and it’s not hard to find examples of ageism lurking on or near the surface of our society.

A study by ComRes for BBC Radio 5 in 2016 found that over a quarter of 55 to 64 year olds in the UK say they have experienced ageism.

Look at broader culture, and you see can a myriad of examples. We did an analysis of the age of the contestants on one of the UK’s most popular shows, Strictly Come Dancing. The 2017 finale was watched by a whopping 13.1m viewers. Numbers like this are only achieved by shows that have universal age appeal. Yet, the irony is that across all 15 seasons, only 8% of the 213 contestants featured were aged over 60. And, many of these were cast in comedy roles. Remember John Sergeant, Russell Grant and Anne Widdecombe?

Another more recent example is ITV’s new series Girlfriends, written by one of the UK’s most successful TV screenwriters, Kay Mellor. The series is about three female friends who are in their late 50s. Such a premise must have touched a cultural nerve, because it was newsworthy enough to actually be featured on ITV News at Ten!

As a major producer of cultural content, the marketing and advertising industries must also take responsibility for helping to perpetuate this ageist agenda.  The messages and imagery that are used in communications that address this audience are too often laden with assumptions and stereotypes that can be defined as ageist.  It is doubtful whether this is borne of any malicious intent; it is far more likely to be down to the convenience of leaning into accepted rhetoric about this audience, and the lack of time or effort taken to generate real insight or understanding.

Our research has shown that today’s 50 and 60 somethings too often feel singled out and alienated as ‘other’ by the very marketing messages that are designed to engage them. This isn’t just creating a commercial opportunity cost for marketers, it’s creating a cultural opportunity cost, by seriously underestimating around a third of the population.

We need to ask ourselves, wouldn’t it actually be a whole lot more fun to be provocateurs of social change rather than contributors to an ageist status quo?