Preparing for Demographic Change: How Adland Needs to Rethink Its Youth Bias

Preparing for Demographic Change: How Adland Needs to Rethink Its Youth Bias

Phil Rowley 11/04/2023
Preparing for Demographic Change: How Adland Needs to Rethink Its Youth Bias

As birth rates decline and life expectancy rises, the advertising industry will experience a demographic shift, in which older people outnumber the younger generation.

This means, soon enough, advertisers and agencies will be operating in a world in which older people outnumber the young.

This will have far reaching implications on culture, society and the economy, and is documented in a new report, The Future of Wellbeing, that looks at the various forces set to impact our lives over the next decade and the implications for brands and marketers.

Adland needs to take proactive steps to prepare for demographic change. World Health Organisation figures suggest a fifth of the global population will be 60+ by 2050, but the industry skews towards youth. Notably, 44% of UK agency staff are under the age of 30, according to the IPA.

Now is the time to evaluate how the sector can age gracefully alongside its audience. This isn’t simply an argument of ethics, business sense, or representation; it’s necessary to future proof an entire system.

Internal Pressure

This isn’t to say older people don’t exist within the industry of course. Traditionally, organisations have had a tendency to assign C-Suite positions to older groups. And in many instances with fair reason; they’re the ones with years of life and business experience, tackling challenging briefs, training teams, and watching the media landscape change.

This typically translates to a small number of older people at the very top focused on the big picture. While their younger colleagues manage the day-to-day operations, speaking with clients and making media strategy and buying decisions.

I’m sure this sounds familiar. After all, it’s now such an embedded age profile that it’s perhaps become an unconscious part of the recruitment process. But it may also be somewhat self-limiting.

As such, a bad habit the sector needs to shake—whether it’s conscious or unconscious—is giving talent a “shelf life”. Not everyone needs, or indeed wants, to spend the latter part of their career in a boardroom. I’m sure there are plenty of older people who love what they do and would prefer to stay working at the coalface—if we could flex around their changing needs. Our industry would benefit hugely if they did.

Making this work will mean finding more accommodating ways to keep older staff in roles across the entirety of a business. It’s a challenge worth facing though. Changing our thinking, hiring policies, and questioning adland’s long-standing youth bias will build more diverse and representative cultures that match the coming demographic changes.

How Agencies Can Rethink their Structure

Agencies that want to dismantle any notion of adland having “best before” dates can start by making workplaces more inclusive for all. This means looking inwards at internal structures to build space in teams for older employees.

Employees as a whole want to feel safe, valued, and mentally healthy. For example, for older people, we’re already seeing this translate into paid menopausal leave, flexible hours to balance family life—including parenting, grandparenting, and other care duties. Thinking about the context for different life stages will encourage older generations to consider mid- or even entry-level roles and will improve retention from long-standing employees.

Cross-Generation Teams Deliver Better Insights

As the “grey market” of today is on course to become “the market” of the future, brands and agencies will need apply more pressure to reach this growing demographic—and it won’t be enough to just make casting more diverse.

Knowledge of trends, culture, and the platforms that matter to certain age groups will only strengthen our strategies. However, agencies that rely too heavily on younger staff fall short of authentically representing older generations, and instead revert to tropes about older people because the knowledge isn’t there.

Better health means we’re seeing an extended “Autumn of Life” in which citizens are older but healthier for longer. Older audiences are becoming less predictable in their media consumption habits—31% of TikTok’s users are over the age of 50.

They are not identical in their needs and aspirations, and as this cohort grows in size and complexity, this will become even more obvious. Simply put, the catch-all 55+ segment needs to be consigned to history along with Last of the Summer Wine because 59% of consumers are more trusting of brands they feel represent them.

However, daytime ad breaks are largely an affront of infomercials for stairlifts and foot spas. It doesn’t have to be this way—there are examples of advertisers and brands that are getting this right. Airbnb’s recent Bonnie & Clyde ad showed a couple in their twilight years on holiday, but accompanied by a Jay-Z and Beyonce song.

But older citizens with traditional values will want to be heard too. Research suggests that anti-woke sentiment is becoming louder. As Professor Steven Pinker suggests in his book Enlightenment Now, it’s not ambivalence to liberalism, but that older audiences are less likely to change beliefs because of cultural shifts.

As the pool of older generations as key consumers grows wider, adland can’t ignore the influence of more traditional values and will have to adapt accordingly.

And no, that doesn’t mean we need to see a return to “classic” ads for Werther’s Originals or Mr. Kipling’s “exceedingly good cakes”. Nostalgia really can only go so far.

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Phil Rowley

Marketing Expert

Phil is a Global Innovation Director, Media Futurist & Conference Speaker with 18 years’ experience from London, Dublin & Auckland. His key skills are evangelising about the future, simplifying the complex, energising clients and hastening the inevitable. He is also Co-author of - and speaker for - PHD's book 'Merge | The closing gap between technology and us’. Phil holds an MA, Politics and Media from the University of Liverpool. 

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