Sexy, stylish, sixty: Why pensioners are having all the fun

Advertisers take heed – the booming consumer market is not young and funky, it's old and wrinkly. John Walsh heralds the power of the grey pound
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The Independent Online

Over Christmas, Nintendo launched a television ad campaign for their Wii Fit Plus. The aspiring athlete stands on a plastic tray, waves a wand at a television while exercising, and finds that his or her every move, twist and jerk is replicated on screen. As parents will tell you, Wii technology entertains children for hours. So which foxy, bendy, pliant-muscled, teen dreamboat did the company's marketing people choose to sell their product? Why, Helen Mirren, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and veteran actress, whose most famous role was impersonating HM the Queen in old age. She herself, born in 1945, hits 66 in July.

In the commercial, she explains how easy the Wii Fit Plus is to assemble, what a happy alternative it is to a gymnasium ("Gym is a palaver"), how varied are its effects – it's almost, she says, "like having a new lover every day". Glowing with health in comfortable sweat pants, she concludes: "I would never have imagined myself exercising through a video console, and now I feel very, very modern and very young." You could say that Nintendo got their money's worth for the £500,000 the two-day shoot reportedly cost.

Welcome to the world of the grey pound, where enlightened businessmen strive to win the approval of an ever-growing horde of comfortably-off senior citizens. It's quite a market, and it keeps growing. According to the Office for National Statistics' new Family Spending report, the amount spent annually by over-65s rose from £97bn in 2008 to £102bn in 2009. That's 16 per cent of the nation's total expenditure. Also notable is the increasing disinclination of the over-65s to die around the time of their Biblical span of 70. According to figures released in December, one in six people now living in the UK will live to be 100.

Perhaps this accounts for the stubborn way that many of the almost-elderly refuse to accept their status as emblems of decrepitude, fit only for the twilight home. According to a report by LV=, the retirement specialists, sixtysomethings are happier than their younger counterparts, feel financially more secure and physically more robust. They take more holidays than any other age group; nearly half take two or three trips abroad a year. Perhaps surprisingly, they have also been embracing technology (email, Skype, Facebook and internet shopping) with age-inappropriate enthusiasm.

What, though, is the response of the retail world to this windfall of well-off, well-disposed, energetically high-spending consumers? How are they adapting their marketing strategies to hook these fat trophy fish swimming under their very noses? One way has been to co-opt totemic figures of age and survival. Dame Helen is only the most recent in a long line. In April 2008, the rock vampire Keith Richards, at 65, was persuaded to make his first-ever commercial. He was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, sitting on a hotel-room bed strumming a guitar, to promote the virtues of Louis Vuitton luggage. Other famous faces Vuitton dragooned into commercial modelling were Catherine Deneuve (67) and Mikhail Gorbachev (79).

In the world of fashion retail, whose basic orthodoxy is to display clothes on the most egregiously youthful and slender, Marks & Spencer caused a small but significant revolution when they signed the Sixties model Twiggy to promote their rebranding in 2005. She was 56 at the time, and is still appearing on television screens, without cracking the plasma, at 61. Debenhams followed suit last September, when they filled their windows with photos of models in their 40s, 50s and 60s, looking far from mumsy. It was a new initiative called The Style List, launched in conjunction with the fashionista Caryn Franklin, and follows other enlightened initiatives by the store chain, such as using size 16 mannequins and disabled models, and banning airbrushing.

Ageing male models are still a rarity in British male fashion. We have to look to Germany and Italy for inspiration. The German company Baldessarini, an offshoot of Hugo Boss named after its Swiss-Tyrolese founder Werner Baldessarini, markets its clothing and fragrances squarely at the sixtysomething playboy. The chap in the magazine ads is a craggy, retirement-age Adonis, his hair slicked back with expensive oil; he radiates hard-won success, good fortune and intellectual genius, while behind him a fruity brunette in a black, shag-me-Sir-Jasper frock heads for the steps of his Lear jet.

A German-born, Turkish visionary called Umit Benan has set out a store of clothes that is the envy of other designers. He has dressed a cast of 60- plus men as members of a stylish, slightly shagged-out rock'n'roll band, with an uncompromising style. The models for his Retired Rockers collection are a gallery of rogues in mix-and-don't-match styles and colours, shiny suits, 1950s shades, chocolate corduroy waistcoats, headbands, leopardskin jackets, voluminous coats, vaudevillian hats... The look is intensely silly and oddly reassuring – as though warning relatives that sixtysomething geezers will dress up any way they damn well please. But Benan clearly understands his ageing market – he makes chaps look convincingly slim, even at sixtyish, in his luxurious, well-cut fabrics. What about the mature female denim-wearer who wants to look trendy but doesn't fancy (and frankly can't fit into) her daughter's super-skinny, boot-cut jeans?

The company with the answer is Not Your Daughter's Jeans. Their soft-sell marketing coos with reassurance: "Some people say that youth is wasted on the young. But age has its distinct advantages. You're a little wiser, a lot more confident and face it – sexier than ever. You're not a teenager any more – you've been there and now you're past it, beyond it and happy to be exactly where and who you are. You wouldn't trade places with your daughter, or trade clothes with her either..."

Their version of denim contains 4 per cent Lycra for extra stretch, and a front panel that holds the mature female stomach in. Shrewdly, their advertising doesn't show a whole woman – only the lower half of a horizontal model, the jeans stretching across a curvaceous, mature bottom.

The health market – or more bluntly, the infirmity market – is set to become a battleground, as companies compete to sell older customers mobility aids and the like. The problem for them, of course, is image and the built-in dismalness of their names. For years, the Zimmer frame has become synonymous with decrepitude, immobility, the shuffling of the stricken. The Stannah Stairlift has become the humorously generic name associated with old ladies (the late Thora Hird comes to mind) unable to drag their elderly carcasses upstairs. The ear trumpet was comically Victorian, associated with retired brigadiers and irascible dowagers, but its replacement, the hearing-aid, featuring a crayfish-shaped plastic box worn behind the ear, fatally signalled the owner as a Deaf Old Git.

You should see them now. Hearing aids have changed beyond recognition. Leightons, the leading opticians, reassure their readers thus: "Many people fear that a hearing aid will make them look older and be unsuitable for the active, busy lifestyle which they are probably enjoying. [Don't you love that 'probably'?] But many of today's programmable and open ear hearing aids are amazingly light, small, stylish and clever. Just like the human brain they can identify those sounds we want to hear, while filtering out unwanted sounds, like background noise."

The super-grooviest deaf-aids are the Phonak brand. They fit inside the ear, are virtually invisible and boast cool digital features – "StereoZoom, which takes binaural processing technology to a whole new level" or the "DuoPhone" which lets you hear a voice on the phone in both ears. And now that a few million teenagers walk around with headphones in their ears, the aural stigma or wearing an earpiece has virtually disappeared.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that to make walking frames seem cool would be beyond the ingenuity of man? The name of the main manufacturer is so generic that when a group of octogenarians formed a rock band in 2007, they called it the Zimmers. But while the light, tubular walking aid still carries about it a whiff of the geriatric ward, say hello to the Rollator. It's European, it's sophisticated in shiny tubular blue and it looks like a shopping trolley with a seat, a basket and a set of brakes. Using just one, a reckless oldie could execute a nifty 180-degree turn on a street corner. Pimp my Zimmer frame – who'd have thought it?

Stannah sold their first Stairlift in 1974 and their name has become as generic as the Zimmer frame, "thought I read somewhere," admits Patrick Stannah, the company's CEO, "that Henry VIII is supposed to have had a stairlift". The market is now worth £150m, of which Stannah has 30 per cent. The once-derided device for getting the elderly to the first floor has become unwontedly popular in the last couple of years. Stairlifts, you might say, have gone through the roof. "The reason for their increased market penetration," said Stannah, "is that they really change people's lives. They allow them to live in their own home. The alternatives are not attractive – living downstairs all the time, moving house, moving to a care home. We've been selling stairlifts for 40 years – and now we're selling to the sons and daughters of our original customers, who learnt about the benefits 40 years ago. People simply know more about the benefits they provide. They've been normalised."

The secret, it seems, is to sell to the dependants of the immobilised. "The reality is, they are a really positive thing for people, so we talk to the extended family, the sons and daughters, and we get current customers involved in spreading the word." But is it possible to make them acceptable to a generation who think they're Keith Richards and Helen Mirren? "Our stairlifts are well designed, they look good, they're ergonomic, they're aesthetically pleasing, they're a mile away from where they were 40 years ago," said Stannah. "We can do great things with upholstery. We haven't sold a Stairlift to a rock star yet, but I'm sure it's coming, sooner or later."

Mr Stannah should check out the video for Pulp's song Help the Aged, on which Jarvis Cocker can be seen serenely gliding up a long graceful staircase on a bespoke version of the ascending throne.

Even the sex industry has come round to accommodating the needs of the aged. In Germany, where prostitution has been fully legal since 2002, special provision is now being made for this niche demographic. The Artemis brothel in Berlin, the largest "luxury wellness" house of prostitution in Germany, told the local newspaper Der Tagesspiegel that they were introducing "facilities" for the old lecher. They were coy about the actual details (for which we should be grateful,) but they included newly-installed seats in the showers, "helpful personnel" and changing rooms that can accommodate wheelchairs. Among the country's 150,000 officially registered prostitutes, many now offer advanced forms of occupational therapy to senior citizens in retirement homes. Some homes have even converted rooms into "intimate encounter" boudoirs, with the blessing of the local church organisations which own and run them.

You would think, in view of all this activity, that the age lobby would be pleased and flattered to be wooed so assiduously by manufacturers. But you'd be wrong. Age UK, the charity formed by the 2009 marriage of Help the Aged and Age Concern, has been running a campaign for a year called the Engage Business Network. Its aim is to persuade companies to take older people into account as consumers – to consider, for instance, how hard it can be for frail hands to get past layers of plastic packaging, or for short tempers to deal with call-centre telephonists in Pondicherry.

"I think business still underestimates the importance of older people," says Mark Gettinby, general manager of group product development. "They tend to focus on young consumers and nobody else. A good example is mobile phones. People haven't engaged with producing a mobile that works for older people. Most major telecoms concentrate on getting customers to change their contract; but older people tend not to change their phones so frequently, so they're not a target. But also, the buttons on many phones are so small, they're hard to use – and they haven't brought phones to market that deal with such issues. In fact, they've gone to extreme lengths to make things ever smaller rather than to be legible. Not just the buttons, but the menu options too."

He makes an exception for the Apple iPad, which is proving surprisingly granny-friendly. "The iPad's tablet format will probably be the thing that cracks technology for older people, both in its size, its operability, and its point-and-touch user-friendliness. It doesn't require complicated menus and it doesn't flash a sign saying 'Fatal Error!' which can be scary for people who don't know what to do."

Age UK has also looked into the financial services market. "We discovered that 97 per cent of travel insurers have an upper age limit, which might kick in as early as 69. We've started doing our own insurance and the oldest customer we covered was Harry Patch, the First World War veteran, who was 109. We insured him to travel back to the battlefields of Flanders. We're also looking at car insurance, where people have gone to town putting upper age limits on people who feel they can't shop around. It's not about age, though – it's about whether people feel confident about driving."

The charity has been lobbying UK companies, trying to persuade them that the grey pound is worth capturing and the older customer worth pursuing. "We've been working with forward-thinking organisations, like Marks & Spencer, to demonstrate that things like food packaging can be done better. The Government is aware this is happening. Their view is that if British companies don't do it, some foreign company is going to come and do it much better and the British are going to lose market share. So we're both saying, 'C'mon guys, get your act together and do this.'"

Bold words from the age lobby. Stand by for an explosion in goods for the Third Age generation. Sit tight for the supercharged golf buggy. Hold on for Jean-Paul Gaultier incontinence pants. Stand by for the Philippe Starck walk-in bathtub...