Opinion: Old Is the New Young

Planners, account directors and researchers are typically busy people. Under a barrage of internal and client demands, it’s hard for us not to fall into shorthand approaches sometimes. For instance, when targeting different age groups. But it’s time for a wake-up call. Standard age-related targeting can’t be relied on any more, thanks to a new social trend: flip-flop generations. Many adolescents today are acting in ways we might expect middle-age Americans to do, while older consumers are maintaining their “adolescent” interests, outlooks and behaviors into middle age.

Adolescence is traditionally viewed as a time of hedonism, risk taking, iconoclasm and a refusal to “settle down.” But the times they are a changing — and not the way Dylan described.

For today’s teenagers, it’s less about breaking down barriers than retreating behind them. Anxiety levels are rising among the young, thanks perhaps to a mix of political events and “paranoid parenting.” Recent surveys suggest as many as one in five teens now suffers from clinical depression. A typical teenager today exhibits more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did in the 1950s, according to the American Psychological Association. This is driving a trend for more conservative behaviors.

Although there are many teenagers today who are hedonistic and liberal, I’m seeing a growing trend away from these traits. According to government figures, recent youth rates for illicit drugs have “declined significantly,” falling 25 percent in the last six years. Drinking and smoking rates are also down. Today’s conserva-teens are also more concerned about their financial future — an attitude accelerated by recent economic events. In a recent BBDO survey, U.S. teens chose financial security as their No. 1 life goal.

Teenagers are also proving more cautious in their purchase patterns. They are no longer the unanimously excitable “early adopters” of youth marketing studies. In a global Microsoft survey last year called “Young Adults Revealed,” just 10 percent of teens said they “like to be ahead of everybody else and try to buy the latest technology as soon as it becomes available,” whereas 40 percent “like to wait and see what other people make of new technology before I buy it.” As for their values, there is a growing emphasis on morality and family. Three-quarters of those in the Microsoft survey identified family as the most important thing in their lives — a far cry from the generation gap of the 1960s and ’70s. In the BBDO poll more than half list “living by high moral standards” as their top life expectation, almost half believe it best to remain a virgin as long as possible, and 83 percent expect to get married.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age divide, something very different is occurring. Middle and old age are traditionally seen as times of conformity, responsibility, risk aversion and settling down. Yet instead of retiring with pipe and slippers to listen to the classics, many of the new old are still pursuing the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of their youth. The National Council on Aging claims 61 percent of all 60-somethings today are still sexually active. And singles 55 and older are the fastest growing group of online daters. Meanwhile, the rate of 50-somethings’ illicit drug use rose more than 70 percent during 2002-08; marijuana is now more prevalent with them than with any other age group. Four million Americans age 50 or older are estimated to have used at least one drug illicitly in the past year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s “National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2009.”

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