Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Aging Gracefully: Emerging Issues for Public Policy and Consumer Welfare

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Aging Gracefully: Emerging Issues for Public Policy and Consumer Welfare

Article excerpt

To be an aging consumer in a youth culture means facing several challenges, including maintaining self-esteem in the face of negative media portrayals, redefining the meaning of being sexually active, coping with vulnerability, planning for retirement and investing for the final years. Despite tremendous differences and contradictions among aging consumers, many policymakers take a narrow, single-minded approach to issues of consumer welfare and public policy, which fails to address the wide variation among members of this group.


Few people know how to be old.

--La Rochefoucauld (Stack 2005)

A critical question regarding aging consumers is: What does it mean to be an aging consumer in a youth culture? Probing this issue leads to many more questions: How do aging consumers reconcile their increasing years with the value put on youth? How do they maintain their self-esteem when they perceive that others want to put them "out to pasture"? How do aging consumers feel valued when media images exclude them in favor of the 18-49 demographic? How do they cope with negative portrayals such as physical and mental decline, unattractiveness and loss of independence when they encounter images of their own demographic group?

One of the challenges that aging consumers must face is abruptly being perceived as "old" once they attain a certain age. Upon turning 50, many consumers who still regard themselves in their prime are dismayed, even insulted, to discover they are on the mailing list of AARP. Furthermore, researchers have found that people 50-59 years old have experienced more life-changing events than in any other decade of their life (e.g., care for a parent, the return of an adult child to the home, retirement, loss of a parent), which prompted Silvers (1997) to call the "50-something" the "50-anything."

This leads us to another important question: When do consumers become senior citizens? Various retailers offer senior citizen discounts, but some do so as early as age 50 whereas others wait until consumers become 55, 60 or 65. Although marketing factors determine the age when senior citizen discounts are offered, the variation leaves consumers uncertain as to what point others perceive them as old. Accepting a senior citizen discount may offer attractive savings but can also result in a loss of self-esteem at being identified as a senior.

Though the descriptors vary, terms such as seniors, aged, old, mature, elderly and the gray or silver population all carry some degree of mental baggage for aging consumers. Some researchers have approached the topic of old age chronologically (Long 1998) with segments such as "young old" (55-64 years old), "mature old" (65-74 years old) and "old old" (75 years and older). Others have found that segmentation is better accomplished through psychographics, life-changing events and experiences. For example, Moschis (2003, pp. 521-522) separates aging consumers into four segments: "healthy hermits" (those who reacted to life events by withdrawing psychologically), "ailing outgoers" (those who maintain positive self-esteem while accepting their old age status), "healthy indulgers" (those who have experienced the fewest life-changing events) and "frail recluses" (those who have experienced a large number of life-changing events associated with physiological, social and psychological aging). Regardless of the strategy for segmentation, we must question what it means to consumers' self concept when they are segmented by old age categories or by lifestyles of the aged.

One factor to consider is that many consumers do not feel their chronological age. Myers and Lumbers (2008) interviewed older consumers, who reported that they are staying younger longer and taking longer to age. These participants regarded themselves as more fit and active than their parents were at the same age and also perceived themselves as a decade younger than their actual age. …

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