UNITED STATES - MAY 09: Photo of Bob DYLAN; performing live onstage at the benefit for ousted Chileans: Felt Forum, New York (Photo by Steve Morley/Redferns)
In the words of the Bob Dylan song of their era, today’s over 60s intend to stay forever young © Steve Morley/Redferns/Getty

When I was younger, I chaired a discussion about new opportunities to sell products and services to older consumers. With the population ageing, the panellists predicted a rise in orders for large-print restaurant menus. There would be growing demand for cruise ships with easy-to-open door handles.

They were exciting times for those hoping to attract a large, affluent, time-rich group of consumers.

Now that I have reached the age we were talking about, I am not interested in these carefully-directed products. Companies dedicated to the needs of baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — hold no particular attraction for me.

It seems I am not alone. Last week, Saga, the personal finance and travel company for the over-50s, more than halved its dividend and warned of falling profits in the coming year.

Saga said it faced particular problems in its insurance business. The company had been a forerunner in spotting what an attractive insurance proposition older customers were. They were more cautious drivers, and had fewer accidents. Because they spent more time at home, they were less likely to be burgled.

But other insurers now have the same data. And they often offer lower premiums. I have had Saga insurance policies in the past. But price comparison websites this year showed there were cheaper options elsewhere.

Lance Batchelor, Saga’s chief executive, said the answer was to move “the conversation from price to value”. What sort of value? “Get to your UK destination by taxi if your car’s too damaged,” Saga’s website offers. “Receive eligible private medical treatment if you or your spouse/partner is injured.”

I will stick with the lower prices, thanks.

The theory of distinctive marketing to older consumers seemed sound. The number of people over the age of 60 is expected to double worldwide from 962m in 2017 to 2.1bn by 2050, according to UN figures. Europe has the most aged population, with 25 per cent of people over 60. By 2050, about a quarter of the population in all parts of the world, apart from Africa, will be over 60, the UN says.

Rising longevity will inevitably lead to increased need for specialised housing, medical and social care for those reaching the ends of their lives and struggling with physical and mental impairments.

But the decades before then, currently populated by baby boomers, present fewer distinct marketing opportunities. First, as Saga found, baby boomers can make online product and price comparisons and do not need companies to hold their hands. They can also research their own holiday destinations and find the best ways to get there.

Second, they are the generation that never planned to get old. When The Beatles asked “Will you still need me when I’m 64?”, 64 years old seemed an impossibly long time away. Now it has arrived, no one that age particularly wants to be reminded of it.

This generation doesn’t dress old. It expects to look fashionable. There is no need any longer for bifocal glasses, with their tell-tale dividing line across the lens. There are varifocals instead, which are indistinguishable from any other spectacles, and come in the same designer frames (although downward vision is sometimes difficult and you do need to take care with that bottom step).

Researchers looking for distinctive ways to sell to baby boomers find it difficult to discern any. A US study into how companies could “delight” baby boomers and millennials — with delight defined as “having one’s expectations exceeded to a surprising degree” — concluded that “significant differences did not exist between baby boomer and millennial males”.

The study, published in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice in 2015, did find some differences in what delighted millennial and boomer women. Female millennials wanted to be served by friendly, attentive and helpful employees, whereas baby boomer women wanted caring employees with expertise. Millennials were also more delighted if their goods and services were delivered quickly. These female differences are clearly not vast.

In the words of the Bob Dylan song of their era, today’s over 60s intend to stay forever young. Providers need to adjust their marketing. Today’s oldies want quality, service and competitive prices. They do not want to be corralled into a specialised market. Companies that forget that risk having to cut their dividends.

michael.skapinker@ft.com
Twitter: @Skapinker

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