'When you're over the hill, you pick up speed'

Bernice Weston founded Weight Watchers and made a million from helping people feel better about their bodies. Now she is launching Age Power, a group to help the over-fifties feel better about their futures. Will the glad-to-be-grey set join her club? Meg Carter reports
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Bernice Weston is a woman with a mission. Having helped tens of thousands fight flab, the founder of Weight Watchers is turning her attentions to a problem which now affects more than millions: ageism. "We must fight to overturn the deep-seated, negative perceptions of older people which exist in the UK," she says. Which is why she is putting pounds 700,000 of her own money into the launch of Age Power - a national network of local self- help groups. Her dream? Power to the over-50s.

"People our age just don't have a forum," Mrs Weston, 57, says. "One of the legacies of Thatcherism is that nobody belongs to anything any more. We will create that social environment - to learn, let your hair down, share experiences and champion issues." Ageing is widely associated with a rapid decline into dependency and frailty, she says, and charities such as Age Concern have done as much harm as good: "They do little to promote the positive aspects of getting old."

Mrs Weston's sense of timing is impeccable. Ageism is swiftly moving up the political agenda. Just last week, a London conference heard that millions face destitution on retirement if the workforce isn't expanded now to provide for them. Current pension provisions are insufficient, warned the Carnegie Third Age Programme, which campaigns for a fuller role for older people in society. Meanwhile, the Labour Party is considering plans for an anti-ageism law. "The issue is not sorting itself out," Labour's employment spokesman Ian McCartney said. "It's one of the biggest postbags the Labour Party gets. A new law will underpin cultural change." And a number of advertising agencies - covering 90 per cent of the recruitment market - agreed to refuse to handle job ads where clients insist on age limits.

There are 14.1 million people in the UK aged between 50 and 75, with a total annual income of some pounds 175bn, according to research company BMRB International's TGI Gold survey. Their average weekly expenditure per person is pounds 118, compared with pounds 101 for the under-50s. Forty-seven per cent are classified as ABC1 - marketing speak for middle-class and "upmarket"; five in six of them are not wholly dependent on a state pension.

Yet despite the statistics, attitudes to "vintage" people, as Mrs Weston prefers to call them - "as the years pass, we acquire value", she explains - are worse here than in many countries. "We have such a negative image: it's all Zimmer frames and incontinence pads." Brits don't share their Mediterranean cousins' close cross-generational family ties. Nor do we have the North Americans' deference to their elders. "It seems deep-rooted in the national psyche."

Green goddess Diana Moran, chef Anton Mosimann and a 74-year-old aqua- fit instructor will help launch Age Power (motto: "Giving you a future, as well as a past") with an inaugural event at the University of Sunderland this weekend. The organisation will follow the Weight Watchers model closely, with trained staff leading grassroots meetings. No casual wrinklies here. "Our workers will all be aged over 50," Mrs Weston pledges. "With Weight Watchers we tolerated no part-time slimmers - every member of staff had at least 10lbs to lose."

Unlike Weight Watchers, Age Power will pursue a range of objectives. Forget Earl Grey and bridge nights. The emphasis is on activity and learning, to broaden leisure interests and skills, notably in computing. There will be practical advice tackling problems as diverse as how to live with past mistakes or tell if your partner's having a stroke, as well as tips on returning to work and, where necessary, counselling. Members will also enjoy discounted products and services. And they will be encouraged to campaign on consumer issues.

"Eighty per cent of personal wealth is held by the over-50s, but they just can't get the products and services they want," Mrs Weston claims. "Marketers just won't acknowledge our spending power: they won't sell to us - instead, they're obsessed with youth." Advertisers and the media have force-fed society with youthful images since the Sixties, she believes. Recent ad campaigns for Levi's, which used male models aged 60 and over, and for Nike, whose "Just do it" posters featured women athletes aged 65, 74 and 80, remain the exception not the norm. "We feel we're dinosaurs and are thought of as such. And that other people are not prepared to think beyond that. It's a conspiracy we must work together to overthrow."

But there is a broader social agenda behind the Weston business plan. Business must be persuaded to abandon its obsession with youth or risk triggering "inter-generational warfare", she warns. "Marketing to people without money creates anger and resentment." Meanwhile, as those younger people in employment work harder than ever with less time for themselves, a growing number of older people have no work at all and all the time in the world. "Soon, more people will spend more time out of work than in - in 2000 years there's never been a revolution like it."

The Age Power route to correcting these imbalances begins with "acceptance, self-confidence, empowerment". "It's something we must do amongst ourselves, in private. In any new relationship you must be at one within your own skin before you feel comfortable taking your clothes off in front of someone else."

This sort of drive helped make Brooklyn-born Mrs Weston a millionaire. Having beaten the bulge with Weight Watchers while visiting family in the States, she and her husband Richard started the UK organisation in Datchett village hall back in 1967. Eleven years later, they sold out to Heinz. Today, Weight Watchers has more than 200,000 members and runs 5,500 meetings a week; the Weight Watchers food brand is worth pounds 100m a year in retail sales.

Mrs Weston has no doubt she can work the same magic again. "Way back, I remember receiving a letter from a professor at London's Tavistock Clinic who said: 'If you think you're in the diet business, you're wrong; you're in the business of transitional energy - harnessing energies to exert change and motivate." Subsequent conversations with Weight Watchers counsellors revealed a common theme: "The most persistent crisis mentioned was ageing."

The revelation spurred her on to write a book, How to Die Young as Late as Possible, which is surely destined to become the Age Power bible when published next year. It all sounds very American; to some, frighteningly so. But in fact, there's no comparable organisation for the over-50s in the US. The nearest equivalent is the American Association of Retired Persons. "With 37 million members, the AARP is the second-largest lobby group after the Roman Catholic Church ... and maybe the gun lobby," she says. In 1987, the success of the AARP prompted the launch of a UK organisation, the Association of Retired Persons over 50 - ARP 050 (motto: "A force for the over-50s"). Yet while both campaign and offer members discounted products and services, neither places an emphasis on local activities - which is where Mrs Weston hopes Age Power will make a tangible difference.

Computing and information technology skills will be a priority. A recent pilot study in Newcastle offered older shoppers the chance to learn new skills at a 'Learning Centre' in the Metro shopping centre. "The greatest demand was for computing skills," she says. "These are people eager to communicate, especially with their grandchildren. But they are people who new technology has passed by. There just aren't places where they can go to learn. Their big fear is that they will be laughed at."

There are already businesses that specifically address the older age group, most notably Saga, the holidays and financial services specialist which has made a business out of marketing to the over-50s. But Bernice Weston believes that Saga, for one, has reinforced many negative images. "Their image is still of two grey-haired people sitting on a beach, staring into the distance. It's static." By contrast, Age Power intends to run an adventure holiday club called the Over the Hill Gang (motto: "When you're over the hill you pick up speed"); on its trips, members might be encouraged to build bridges in Africa or help charity workers in China.

Mrs Weston makes no bones about the type of membership Age Power will attract: "active and upmarket". But she dismisses any suggestion that it will be elitist. Annual membership will cost pounds 20 and each meeting pounds 6 - "little more than the cost of a night out at the cinema".

"Almost everything else done for older people is through charities, or for the indolent," she says. "Surely our image must be helped by robust people saying 'I'm capable of taking hold of my life - managing it and making it work'?"

Mrs Weston will shortly launch pilot groups throughout the South-east, and Age Power will become national in 1997. She aims to establish 1,500 classes in 10 regional centres and an 800,000-strong membership within five years. Although funding the launch herself, she is already considering offers of sponsorship from a range of financial services, travel and pharmaceuticals companies. By 2001, she says, Age Power could be worth pounds 25m.

Whether Bernice Weston can realise this dream - and make a return on her investment - depends on motivating a section of the population not known for being "joiners". David Denyer, managing director of ARP 050, describes his own organisation's 100,000 membership as a "drop in the ocean" but believes there is evidence of increased interest in the cause. "Undoubtedly ageism is moving up the agenda, albeit for selfish reasons," he says. "Its effects are spreading to younger and younger people. In information technology, for example, you can be over the hill as young as 30."