Last month, The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled “Whatever happened to middle age? The case of the disappearing life stage”.
The claim that middle age no longer exists as a demographic is bold and sweeping, but Vitafoods Insights interviews with market experts have confirmed this and highlighted it as an increasingly important consideration for the industry.
Mike Hughes, head of research and insight at FMCG Gurus, told us it was something he agreed with for two reasons.
“Firstly, younger consumers continue to delay traditional life stage patterns such as getting married, having children, and getting on the property market, in favour of taking advantage of personal and professional opportunities that did not exist for previous generations,” he said.
“At the other end of the spectrum, older consumers continue to adopt a ‘forever young’ ethos and look to break age-related stereotypes. As a result, the ‘middle ground’ is eroding, with consumers looking to act and think as young as possible until as late in life as possible.”
Peter Wennström, founder of the Healthy Marketing Team (HMT), said he too had witnessed this trend, saying: “The concept of middle age is very outdated.”
Life begins (again) at 60
Wennström likened the traditional life-stage progression to a football game of two halves, with the first half being an upwards climb to the age of 50, and the second half being the post-50 decline.
“People married and had kids in their early twenties, then for women, came the menopause at around 50, after which they were no longer in the dating game. That was the old idea of how life was organised,” he said, adding: “Your lifestyle was also connected to your life stage. You dressed like a child, a youth, a grown-up, or an old person.”
Now, he said, society has changed so much that life has become more like a three-stage hockey game than a football match.
“The first period is youth, followed by the working period, and then the final period after retirement. And it’s a new game at each life stage,” he said. “Women often have their first child in their thirties and, with health and wealth, people are still active in their sixties and seventies.”
The rise of the ‘sibling society’
Another important factor in understanding the disappearance of the middle-aged demographic is the rise of the so-called “sibling society” phenomenon, according to Wennström.
“You are no longer parents to your children; you are siblings,” he said. “Parents want to be friends with their children; they dress the same. The other side of this is that parents have a hard time disciplining their children.”
Middle class expansion fuels a global trend
FMCG Gurus predicted that the demise of the concept of middle age would play out in markets across the globe.
“This is something that will not only be witnessed in most western societies, but also in developing economies as the middle class continues to grow (meaning more disposable income for leisure-based activities, which influences the delay of traditional life stages) and also ageing populations in those countries that were previously associated with a younger demographic,” said Hughes.
Moreover, he added, continued globalisation meant many people in these countries were at a crossroads, where they were looking to maintain traditional values whilst adopting cultural influences from other countries.
“As this is incorporated it will result in more consumers feeling ‘young’ until they eventually concede they are ‘old’, with the middle ground being blurred out,” he said.
The HMT also agreed that today, the point in life when people became aware of the need to prioritise health was more important than the traditional definition of middle age.
Maria Pavlidou, senior B2B strategy expert at the HMT, said: “The state of being middle-aged isn’t what it used to be. However, what is still relevant and applicable is this awareness that always comes at some point in life, that we are getting older and should take care of our health. But this awareness comes at a different time in life for everyone.
“For some people, it might happen as early as their thirties, while for others, it might only happen in their late forties.”
Next week, Vitafoods Insights will explore what the disappearance of middle age as a demographic means for the nutraceutical industry in terms of product development, branding messages, and health claims.