The language of longevity – what does age mean today?

Feb 27, 2019 | BLOG

By: Rachel Lloyd

“I will never be old. Old age will always be 15 years older than I am.”  

Attributed to Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626)

Traditional age descriptors such as ‘old, ‘young’ and ‘middle-aged’ seem increasingly confused and unhelpful as longevity starts to make an impact. What do such terms mean now? What is ‘young?’ What does ‘middle age’ encompass?

As a Director at Message House research and communications consultancy, I lead our longevity research and we felt it was vital to have our own evidence on this. In November 2018 we therefore conducted a survey of a representative sample of the UK public specifically to understand attitudes to age and life stages. Among other questions, we asked “when you think about ‘old people’ / ‘middle-aged people’ / ‘young people’ which of the following age categories do you think of?” and provided options of different age brackets.  

The findings are fascinating and can be summarised as follows: young is getting older; old is getting older and middle age is expanding. Let’s take a look at each aspect in turn:

Young is getting older

Looking first at which years people associate with ‘young people’ (the orange line above) – we can see that youth is definitely lasting for an extended period. 40% of respondents believe that 25 – 34 is young and, for a small number of people, ‘young’ lasts until 45 – 54. As we live for longer, juvenescence (the state of being young) is lasting longer.

There’s some important, very recent data from the ONS that helps us understand why we perceive ‘young’ to be getting older. For example: fewer in the youngest age groups (16 to 17 and 18 to 24) work and more stay in education than 20 years ago; people are living with their parents longer; home ownership starts later in life; the age of marriage and of first time mothers continues to rise. Many of these are ‘threshold’ acts that can define when we view adulthood starting – as they get later, we perhaps consider adulthood starting later than we used to.

Old is getting older

At the other end of the age spectrum, ‘old people’ (the yellow line above) are perceived to have got older also. Previously, ‘old’ might have been associated with retirement at 65. However now only 60% of people think that 65 to 74 is old; indeed not everyone thinks that 75-84 is old. We also know from our data that Francis Bacon wasn’t alone in his view – the older one is, the older one believes that being old starts at; 18% of 65-74 year olds don’t consider 75-84 to be old.

A key reason why old has got older might be because, due to longer lives, most of those over 65 are no longer behaving in ways that traditionally characterised old age. They are often in paid work, healthy, volunteering, travelling and on Facebook.

Middle age is expanding

What age brackets do people associate with ‘middle age’ – the green line below?

It’s evident that middle-age is long – in many people’s opinion it lasts approximately 50 years.  Perhaps this is the real definition of the middle-aged spread? It’s certainly a far more welcome one! A consequence of the young getting older is that older people will be wrestling with challenges that were once the preserve of middle age; for example Alistair McQueen, Head of Savings & Retirement at Aviva, has raised the question of whether a mortgage free retirement is a thing of the past.  Could both being mortgage-free and retired be consigned to history?

Significant areas of crossover on the graph above highlight the diversity of public opinions and the current state of flux. We tend to form views on the basis of those with which we are familiar, like our parents’ experiences – my view of ‘old age’ might overlap significantly with your perception of ‘middle aged’, for example.

At Message House our focus is on improving brand and corporate communications. So what do these evolving definitions of age and stage mean for those looking to communicate effectively in the emerging era of longevity? I think three aspects are particularly significant:  

  • Recognise the decoupling of age and stage. Brand comms need to be smart and tread carefully in this era of age and stage blur – a 35 year old may be living with her parents and a ‘retiree’ may still be in paid work and paying off his mortgage.
  • Develop your own brand language to reflect the new age of longevity. Does the language we use truly reflect how people live now? Language and visual images can unnecessarily limit the audience for products and services if they don’t reflect the multiple and diverse paths through life.
  • Lead the pack. We are likely to see continuing blur in the coming years, as traditional definitions of age and stage become less accurate. The ONS data suggest that this is a continuing journey and we are far from a final destination. Consumers will look favourably on those brands that demonstrate an inherent understanding of their lives and how these are evolving.

If brands succeed in this, we might all be happier to embrace our older years than Francis Bacon was. After all, it was Bacon himself who stated that “knowledge is power.”

Rachel Lloyd

Director, Message House

Rachel Lloyd is a Director at Message House, leading their research on longevity to help clients explore its implications. Message House is a research and communications consultancy providing smart insights to improve brand, corporate and political campaigns.

Message House conducted an online survey among a nationally representative sample of the British public during November 8-9th 2018. Base size for those aged 75+ are small and results therefore directional.