The value in ending demographic stereotypes
We’re so used to categorising people by age that we do it unconsciously. There’s a reason for that. Age has been a defining part of human society for millennia. Before the advent of the calendar, your maturity was measured by the number of babies you’d produced, the number of harvests you’d been part of, or the number of enemies you’d sliced open in battle. Societal pressures to act your age were strictly enforced, and the penalties for not playing along were severe.
It was a matter of life and death to keep things ticking along in a timely fashion. If we didn’t cram everything possible into our incredibly short lifespan and produce enough babies, weapons, and backup food reserves, we were in danger of being attacked by our enemies from the next village down the road who could smell weakness on the back of a summer breeze.
Organising society into age groups was a convenient shorthand. In an uncertain world, age was the best way to make sure everyone knew what they were expected to do and when.
Even in the Twentieth Century, Age Was Powerful
“Sure,” you might say. “But modern societies aren’t nearly so restrictive”, and while it’s true that age was less of a straitjacket in 1950 than in 1590, there’s no doubt that it was still bossy. Even one generation ago, when my parents were young, there was overwhelming pressure from society, family, and friends to be married by a certain age and have kids. Why? Because it’s what everyone did, or they risked mass shunning.
I talked to one couple, who are now in their seventies, who decided not to have kids when they got married over forty years ago. It’s an eye-opener how they were treated. They were called ‘selfish’ right to their face. More than once, the name of a fertility doctor was slipped surreptitiously into her purse or his pocket by a well-meaning friend or family member. To be in their thirties and childless wasn’t considered merely unusual. It was deemed abnormal, even irresponsible.
Thanks to all that shaming, the vast majority of the North American population fell in line and followed the age-based rules of the day. They got married after graduating from high school, moved to a house in the suburbs, and in quick succession, had at least two babies.
Producing more was admirable and referred to as a blessing. On the other hand, having only one child caused speculation at PTA meetings about whose reproductive organs had crapped out early, his or hers. There was no doubt about it, two was definitely the right number of progeny.
Shifting the focus from age
Today, we are in the midst of a transition away from the rigid age-based rituals of the past. We’re moving on to something not yet fully understood but definitely new. Today, we routinely talk about how fifty is the new thirty, and sixty is the new forty. Most people have friends of all ages, which would have seemed odd a half century ago. Societal rules about behaving a certain way at a certain time in your life are, today, fairly easily ignored.
Very few of us have realised how revolutionary this is.
Age ain’t what it used to be – the story of Gordon and Mihir
My friend Gordon Smith is a deservedly famous painter who has artworks hanging in important public and private collections around the world. The Queen of England recently unveiled one of his paintings that was chosen for the Canadian Embassy in London. Gordon paints six hours a day, seven days a week. His art dealer mounts an exhibition of his work every year in October, and the paintings sell almost immediately, with six-digit price tags attached.
Gordon and I drink whiskey and sneak the occasional cigar (shhh!). We talk about everything from being boy scouts and having newspaper routes as kids to our favorite plays and films to the best stores for socks in London. How old do you think Gordon might be? Twenties? Thirties? … Not even close. Gordon is ninety-nine. No one has told him he is too old to be a busy and successful artist. He’d probably throw something at them if they did.
How about Mihir? Three years ago, Mihir entered and won a global competition organized by Google to promote scientific innovation.
He submitted a comprehensive study of the flight patterns of fruit flies. His hypothesis was that flying robots capable of the same aeronautical maneuvers as the fruit flies could be quite useful.
Mihir won the competition, and the next thing he knew, he was working with MIT and Stanford to build his flying robots. Today, Mihir’s robots go into impossible places, like buildings that have collapsed after an earthquake or a bomb, to see if there’s anyone left alive.
Any idea how old Mihir is? If you’re thinking “surprisingly young,” you’re on the right lines, but I’ll bet you haven’t guessed how surprisingly young. Mihir was seventeen when I met him. He was fourteen when he entered the Google Science Fair and won. Nobody told him he was too young to make robots that save lives.
Around the world, people are defying expectations and shaping their lives based on what they value, not on how many miles they have on the clock. Now, if only someone would tell the marketing executives!
Age is Out, Values Are In
The traditional roles associated with age may be breaking down, but the reliance on demographics remains near-total.
In boardrooms in every organisation around the world, age is still the basis for creating stereotypes, otherwise referred to as audience profiles or personas. We still assume people of a certain age will behave a certain way, and we spend trillions of dollars of human and financial resources accordingly. We can’t seem to stop ourselves from age-based profiling. Other demographics get their share of the blame too, but age is the stereotyping alpha.
Madison Avenue advertising agencies love age-based conformity. It’s easier to sell things to people when they act a certain way at a certain age because it’s predictable. Insurance companies are big fans too, still basing their risk calculations on ideas about who does what at a certain age. It would be so much easier for these and other billion-dollar industries if we would all continue acting our age.
Age-based stereotypes are still used to design, manufacture, and sell televisions, cars, noise-cancelling headphones, and bottled water to stereotypical people who no longer exist. Trillions of dollars are riding on faulty logic.
We even give people of specific ages cute names like we do with pets or favorite cars. We have boomers, zoomers, millennials, and of course Generations X, Y, and Z.
Have you heard about perennials and Xennials? They are things now with their own proponents, support groups, and specialist consultants for hire. By the time this is published, I bet you a slice of birthday cake that a half dozen new age categories will have popped up. And all of them will be equally useless because you are not your age – none of us are.
Age-based profiles have lasted for so long because, until recently, we didn’t have an alternative. We had to profile audiences somehow, and choosing an age category seemed to make sense.
Focus on true values not birth date
Instead of relying on limited, stereotypical age categories, I set up my company, Valuegraphics, as an alternative approach to help discover what people care about and using that information to communicate with them in a way they understand. Used well, this should give brands and companies the chance to serve and sell to people based on their true values, not simply on their date of birth.
At first, advertising agencies may not like this shift but I hope to make the situation better for everyone by helping companies to understand what people actually want, while advertisers recognise how to communicate with customers more effectively, leaving us all more satisfied with the products and services we buy.
And maybe, just maybe, we can put to rest those tired age-based stereotypes for good.
David Allison is the author of We Are All the Same Age Now. This article is an adapted extract from that book.
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