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An Old Blindspot

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  • Picture of
    Colum Menzies Lowe FRSA
  • Accessibility & inclusion
  • Social innovation

Let’s face it, discrimination is stupid, as Jurgen Klopp has so eloquently pointed out recently, after his own supporters hurled homophobic abuse at an opposition player: “Only idiots think this way”. 

How foolish does someone have to be to think that being a certain age, let’s say over 55, makes people suddenly less dynamic, have less enthusiasm or are somehow less useful in the workplace or society. That their skills and wisdom garnered from decades of work and life experience are now somehow less useful than the perceived vitality of others. 

Why would anyone think that having reached 55 people cease to be interested in fashion or self image and that they don’t care about how they dress or are perceived by others? Shopping for jeans is no less fraught than for younger audiences; older people still wonder if their jeans are too long, too short, too loose, or too skinny. Why is there nothing more embarrassing for a child than for their parents to actually dare to try and dress fashionably, “OMG Dad, so try too hard!”

What sort of person believes that, having reached 55, people automatically become infirm, grumpy and miserly, that the clumsy stereotypes portrayed on TV and in the media have any basis in reality, or accurately reflect what we all see around us in our daily lives? Who is it that thinks that people over 55 suddenly become less beautiful or less appealing to others? It shouldn’t take 56 year old model Paulina Porizkova to pose nude in Los Angeles Magazine for us all to accept that people can be beautiful at any age; it is, of course, all in the eye of the beholder. 

Surely no one actually believes that people having reached 55 are only interested in gardening, grandkids and ballroom dancing, sustained by tepid tea and soggy sandwiches?

I read recently that Baby Boomers and Generation Xers (sorry, I hate that too) buy more cars, spend more on luxury travel, and own more electronics and homes than any other age group, accounting for a whopping 40 to 50% of all consumer spending. We also know that in the UK over 55’s will soon account for 63 pence in every pound spent, and that older people already hold roughly 70% of all household wealth. And yet, despite all this, according to advertising analytics business Nielsen, only 5% of advertising is directed at people over 50. 

To counter this, it is often argued that people spend less as they age, and while there is some evidence to support this, I would argue it has little to do with finances, lack of interest or miserliness, it is simply because British industry has in the main, and for reasons only it knows, decided to ignore older people as a market sector. There are obviously the noticeable exceptions that specialise in this market, but for everyone else, why exclude the largest single market segment in the UK? 

The answer might be quite simple, they are ignored because marketeers on the whole have not taken the time to understand their needs, wants and desires, and the truth is, for nearly three quarters of this demographic, there is little to differentiate them. Three quarters of older people have no significant disability or difficulty carrying out acts of daily living, a significant proportion of them are still in employment of some kind, going on holiday, driving cars, ordering takeaways, and doing the same monotonous things everyone else is doing. They are concerned about and aspire to much the same things that everyone else does, they’re just doing it while being ignored by the mainstream of consumerism.

Let’s call this marginalisation by its real name; it is ageism and it is not benign. It impacts society and our own loved ones, indeed, unlike other forms of discrimination, we will all grow older, some of us, if we are lucky, might even grow old. Ageism is something that, unless we do something about it, will affect us all, not in a tangential manner, or obliquely but specifically and personally. Now, you really would have to be a fool not to take that seriously and start thinking about your future self. 

If you would like to find out how design can positively shape our future lives and explore issues relating to age, agency and joy, Colum would love to invite you to the upcoming talks series curated jointly by Design Age Institute and the Design Museum, ‘Designing for Your Future Self’. You can also get involved in 'The Wisdom Hour' from 2 October, a new creative storytelling space celebrating positive stories of ageing, facilitated by This Age Thing and hosted at the Design Museum. Find out about all the latest news and events from Design Age Institute at www.designage.org

I extend a warm welcome and invitation to our upcoming events:

Colum Lowe is Director of the Design Age Institute at the Royal College of Art, and 55 on his next birthday. He is also a Life Fellow of the RSA, having joined over 30 years ago, a former winner of the RSA Student Design Awards and past Student Design Awards brief writer, jury member and supporter. 

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