The new old: Why the creative industry needs to rethink the ageing population

The over 60s already outnumber the under 16s, and by 2040 one in seven people will be over the age of 75. But while the current generation of old people grew up in an era without technology, the ‘new old’ will be very different. So how can the creative industries reframe old age? That’s the focus of a new exhibition at The Design Museum exploring how designers and creatives can meet the challenges of a rapidly ageing society.

A futuristic apartment serviced by an Amazon-like company in return for your data, a scooter for life than follows you from youth to old age and a garment connected with ‘electric muscles’ that assist elderly wearers to stand up and walk. These are just some of the projects on display at the New Old exhibition. Each section of the pop-up show features a special design commission from the likes of Priestman Goode and Karmarama, creating new solutions for demographic change as well as addressing the challenges of ages.

Too often in marketing and communications older people are met with stereotypes and are regularly thought of as burden on society, something that needs to change as today’s digital natives steadily become the older generation, says Jeremy Myerson, the Helen Hamlyn professor of design at the Royal College of Art and curator of the exhibition.

“Currently, we have a feeling in the creative industry that ageing is a demographic time bomb waiting to explode, it’s a crisis,” he continued. “I think designers, advertising agencies and marketers have got to see the opportunities, and have got to look at ageing in a positive and not a negative light. We need to stop thinking about older people as a homogenous grey market and start thinking about the different tribes of older people in the same way that we segment the youth market.

“We also need to be a lot more sophisticated and we need to have less stereotypes like grannies on a motorbike, which don’t ring true, and more real life depictions of older people and their motivations. Of course, the new old are not going to be like the old old, they are going to have different expectations, they’ve lived through the digital revolution, they were hippies, they are not going to sink in to old age in the way that the war time generation have done so, so the old tropes and stereotypes around old age are no longer relevant in marketing. We need a new language.”

One agency rising to this challenge is Mother Design, which was commissioned by The Design Museum to re-examine the portrayal of old age in communications. The agency was inspired by the connotations of age within the alcohol world, where older wines and spirits are revered and seen as a positive. The resulting project is a line of five spirits named Fine Aged Spirit intended to promote the benefits of ageing. Each bottle shows a different age – 50,60,70,80 and 90 – along with a description. For example, the bottle for 80 years old reads ‘Reward for a well-spent youth, full of happy experience and fond regrets. 80 is our most balanced spirit. Drink it all in’.

One of the biggest hurdles for agencies when it comes to designing comms for old people is that very often it’s young creatives producing the work and failing to place themselves in the shoes of an older person, says Dan Broadwood, strategy director, Mother Design.

“Designing and creating communications to change the way that people think about ageing is going to be crucial in 2017,” he continued. “The first challenge that we face is that as both agencies and individuals we are excited by the new and by the novel, and that means we spend a lot of time creating for the young. We spend a lot of time creating for industries that are cool and exciting and alongside that, the media and the interconnected lives that we now live are increasingly excited about things that seem digestible and bite size in the moment, which often prioritise sound bites over design and work of real integrity.

“So one of the roles that we have to play as an industry is to make the idea of designing for and communicating to older ages exciting and enticing. That is much more difficult to do than that is designing products and brands for older ages because really that process is something we do all the time. Developing empathy with an audience and understanding how to best communicate to them is what we do as an industry whether that is advertising or design, the greatest hurdle is how do we get the creative industry excited about solving that problem.”

The New Old exhibition is open until 19 February.

Video produced by Katie Deighton

Natalie Mortimer

I look after all things creative.

All by Natalie