Communicators should sit up and take note - middle age is the new youth

What's the common link between Radio 2, ITV, the Daily Mail and UKIP?

Missing a trick: Stereotypes about Sage cruises are outdated, claims Grant Feller (Credit: Thinkstock)
Missing a trick: Stereotypes about Sage cruises are outdated, claims Grant Feller (Credit: Thinkstock)

The most listened to radio station in the UK is Radio 2. The resurgence of ITV is partly due to the strength of mature original drama serials like Broadchurch and Vera. Books about the First and Second World Wars (and Hitler) are topping the charts and sell more than any others.

The most important paper in Britain is the Daily Mail. Among the most sought after celebrities for interviews are Mary Berry and Bruce Forsyth. And the most significant political movement in Britain is UKIP.

‘Middle age is the new youth’ claimed Bob Shennan, the boss of Radio 2, in a recent interview. And he’s right – but he’s perhaps more right than that rather familiar sound-bite suggests. Not only is it the ‘new youth’. It’s also the new power.

Culturally, politically and socially, people of middle age have almost imperceptibly changed the way Britain behaves.

That’s partly because they’re pretty experienced at it. They were the teenage rule-breakers and boundary-definers of the late 60s, the eager young Turks of the 70s, the tastemakers of the 80s and the moneymakers of the 90s. With the dawn of a new millennium they passed the baton on to a fresh generation who proceeded, quite understandably, to ignore them, thus presenting them a decade later with the perfect excuse to retake centre stage.

They’re the ones with the money. Property-owning, good pensions, disposable income, achieving professional nirvana and thus willing to work way past 60. According to a recent report by Enders Analysis and polling gurus YouGov, the over-50s now spend £100billion annually and, by next year, the 40-plus age group will outnumber those younger than them.

They’re also more interesting and less shallow. Perhaps that’s something to do with proudly possessing longer attention spans but they also have far wider horizons – undoubtedly due to a greater experience of life.

They possess a two-fingered joie de vivre that were alien to previous generations who saw merit in quietly settling down into a comfortably safe ‘middle-age’ where boring was a badge of honour and unpredictability a dangerous quality – think Wendy Craig in Butterflies, a freak in the 1970s, a heroine for today.

And, as all those examples above show, they still enjoy doing what we’re reliably informed no one really does anymore. They listen to the wireless, watch mainstream TV, read actual books with long words and complicated theories, admire the values and world-views of people who don’t like to be told to behave in a certain manner and don’t fear old age. And they vote.

In the past two weeks, I sat with five of the biggest PR and media agencies in Britain. The men and women I met with were all older, wiser and more experienced than me but all bemoaned the fact that, in the middle of one of the biggest transformations in brand advocacy in decades, they were surrounded by extremely youthful, though talented, staff who found it difficult to identify with the core audience their clients most craved.

I also had lunch with a hugely influential economic-political guru who’s been informally advising two of the three main party leaders. ‘Grant, it’s like being back at university when you’re in Number 10,’ he told me. ‘The advisers running around like headless chickens are the people with their hands on the reins of power and yet they’re barely old enough to have passed their driving tests. How do they know what the rest of the country wants and feels?’

When people talk of an ageing population, images of Stannah stairlifts, Saga cruises and greying hair spring to mind. Instead, it should be fancy new sports cars, adventure holidays in South America and endless aspiration.

It would be a mistake for Cameron, Miliband and Clegg to think their disaffected followers voted Ukip because they don’t like homosexuals, foreigners and Brussels bureaucracy. It’s because Nigel Farage was reassuringly middle-aged, he spoke with and not down to, wasn’t afraid to risk authenticity by shrugging off the PR-vetted image to reveal his innermost feelings and knew that the worlds of Westminster, Notting Hill and Soho represent less than 5% of the population. He’s even got a proper middle-aged name! Nige. So much less metropolitan elite than Dave, Nick or Ed.

If middle age is indeed the new youth, then the middle-aged should be the ones steering the conversations – not just making the radio and TV programmes but creating the messages, the storylines, the agendas. It doesn’t mean that we’ll be a more patrician society but we’ll certainly be a less patronising one.

After all, grey isn’t dull anymore. It’s the new black.

Grant Feller is director of content consultancy GF Media 

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