Cognitive Age: Understanding Consumer Alienation in the Mature Market

By Johnson, Edna B. | Review of Business, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Cognitive Age: Understanding Consumer Alienation in the Mature Market


Johnson, Edna B., Review of Business


Between the year 1990 and the year 2000, 12 million more Americans older than age 50 will be spending an estimated additional $300 billion a year (Sandor, 1994). By the year 2020, the number of people aged 50 or older will increase by 74 percent, while those under age 50 will only increase by a mere 1 percent (Exter 1990). It seems apparent that older American households are becoming wealthier, more numerous, and more willing to spend than ever before.

A lot of business decisions are based on misconceptions about the older consumer (Spoor, 1994). In its 1993 survey, The Georgia State University Center for Mature Consumer Studies found that seventy-five (75) percent of seniors are dissatisfied with the way companies market to them (Spoor, 1994). With the number of mature consumers increasing, such findings should be of particular concern to marketers. "Older [consumers] in the United States are increasingly being recognized as one of the fastest growing market segments and as a formidable market force" (Mason, Bearden, & Crockett, 1980). Two criteria commonly considered by marketers when evaluating a possible market are size and income. In both areas older Americans are proving to be a significant group. Over 50 million Americans are past the age of 55 (Schewe, 1988). People aged 55 and older represent over one-fifth of the U.S. population, own 77 percent of the financial assets, purchase 43 percent of domestic cars, make up 80 percent of the luxury travel business, eat out three times a week, consume 25 percent of alcoholic beverages and account for 42 percent of all consumer demand (Auken, Barry, & Anderson, 1993).

While much is known about the increasing size and market potential of older consumers and the markets to which they devote their consumption resources, very little is known about their overall attitudes toward the marketplace. As Americans age, marketers must focus on the cognitive age of older consumers and its relationship to consumer buying behavior. Research on cognitive age suggests that nonchronological age measures may contribute more than chronological age to understanding how older consumers view themselves and how they consume (Wilkes 1992). The research reported here examines the relationship between cognitive age and consumer alienation. This study provides useful information that can assist marketers in developing methods to better attract and retain this formidable market force of older consumers.

Consumer Alienation

The concept of consumer or marketplace alienation recognizes the emergence of a psychological attitude as the result of four underlying constructs (rather than discrete measurable subscales) - marketplace powerlessness, normlessness, isolation, and self-estrangement (Allison, 1978). The marketplace was conceptualized here as all institutions involved in offering goods and/or services and the practices or activities conducted by these institutions. Allison (1978) offers the following descriptions of the underlying constructs of consumer alienation. Consumer powerlessness may be defined as feelings held by consumers that they are unable to help determine market practices, and are unable to control the market environment or events within the marketplace. Consumers may have a sense of powerlessness if they feel they cannot influence business behavior to be more consistent with a buyer's needs. Lambert (1981) suggests that an alienated consumer believes he has no control over any of the aspects he faces in dealing with the marketplace.

Consumer normlessness may be described as a belief that marketers will behave in ways that are unethical, unjust, and undesirable in order to meet their selfish goals; marketers are not to be trusted. Normlessness is often manifested in unclear standards for buyer behavior.

Social isolation from the marketplace is characterized by feelings of estrangement from the institutions, practices, and outputs of the market system. …

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