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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK
Live fast, die old
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

With a good chunk of the nation's wealth in their grasp and more political clout than any other group, pensioners are a force to be reckoned with. The rest of us, it seems, are going to be hearing a lot more from them.

Flick through the pages of Saga Magazine or the Oldie and you'll find adverts for some things pensioners might need - stair lifts, heated car seat covers, trekking holidays in Borneo and top of the range stereos.

That such incongruous products are advertised side by side may seem odd, but it says a lot about the tremendous changes taking place among Britain's ageing population.

For every pensioner struggling with poor health or a paltry income there are others who are not only fit, but who have a good looking bank balance and few qualms about forgetting the kids' inheritance to buy themselves a good time.

The market offered by the grey pound is one of the fastest growing sectors and one which companies are slowly learning to cater to.

When the general election predicted for next year is held it will be the first in which the majority of those who cast their votes are pensioners - offering another chance to shape the UK's future.

Society may have grown used to bowing to the whims of the young, but the future could well belong to the old.

Racing cars

In Buckinghamshire, 65-year-old Len Selby is putting the finishing touches to the three bedroom house he has built from scratch himself.

They favour living experiences over saving it and leaving it to their children
James Harkin - Demos

After three months in a caravan, he and his wife are enjoying the change of scene - but Len has few plans to rest. For a start, there's his classic Formula One racing car business to attend to, the dogs to walk and sport to be played.

"I will go out in the garage and build another car and continue with the squash and take a holiday - perhaps in Greece or Turkey. Perhaps in India or the Middle East," says the former Ford worker.

He travels frequently, choosing to go student style. "If I go abroad, I like to book a flight and then find my own way once I land," he says. "I don't do package holidays, or book hotels in advance."

Far-flung destinations

While Mr Selby's plans to enjoy his retirement in style may be at odds with any notion that old age is supposed to be dull, grey and impoverished, he is not at all unusual.

Old man using earphones
The elderly often have the money for luxuries

"They have their children off their hands, a high level of disposable income and all the ambitions they had when they were younger," says Paul Green of over-50s specialists Saga.

More are taking exotic holidays that simply weren't available when they were young, with Saga one company finding a market eager for trips to such far-flung destinations as Antarctica, Cambodia and Namibia.

Others are spending a lifetime's savings and equity from their homes on cars, state-of-the-art electronics and any other consumer goods you care to mention.

The phrase "young at heart" comes up time and again, Saga reporting that its customers often say they feel 10 years younger than their actual age.

Those with money are happy to spend it, says James Harkin, author of "Eternal Youth", a report by the independent think tank Demos.

"They favour living experiences over saving it and leaving it to their children," he says. "They would prefer to have a good holiday and to, perhaps, take their family with them."

Ageing knees

The lure of the grey pound is slowly influencing the way goods are made and sold, says Lara Colenso of strategic consultants Headlight Vision.

Live fast, sure, live too bloody fast sometimes, but die young? Die old. That's the way - not orthodox.
David Brent

Climb into the 400,000 Ferrari Enzo and the last thing you would notice is that it has been designed with the needs of the elderly men who are increasingly likely to buy one in mind.

But it has indeed got wider seats to accommodate bigger behinds and has had its door height adjusted to spare ageing knees. Other car firms are making similar changes, with boots raised and gadgets brought closer to the steering wheel.

The important thing is such "inclusive design" should not even be noticed, as nobody wants to be reminded that they are old.

Over the next few years the type on products will grow larger, washing powder will come in smaller packs and will be easier to open and pour, says Ms Colenso by way of example.

But many companies are still failing to realise the importance of a market which is set to grow from 9.5 million to 15 million by 2040. Among this group will be the baby boomers, who currently hold 80% of the UK's wealth and buy 80% of all top of the range cars, 80% of cruises and 50% of skincare products.

Most companies fail to realise who is buying their products and don't dream of looking past 35-year-olds says Ms Colenso.

"There's a tendency to think we should always look to the young consumers rather than the older groups, which is where all the growth is going to be," she says.

Block voting

Such demographic changes have not escaped the notice of politicians, who have realised pensioners could make or break them.

Earlier this week Labour MP Frank Field told the Commons that at the next election 80% of voters would either be pensioners, or within "striking distance" of retirement.

Old men play a computer game
Product design is slowly changing to meet the needs of the old

The Liberal Democrats launched plans to give over 75s an extra 25 a week, and Tory leader Michael Howard outlined how he would protect old people from using all savings on residential care.

But while debate on pensions and helping those without a comfortable retirement to look forward to continues, it may not be enough to woo those who are better off.

"I'm sceptical of arguments that old people are going to be a coherent block voting along party political lines," says Mr Harkin.

Whereas elderly people in the US often form a coherent group, their British counterparts are weakened by society's fear of, and disregard for, the elderly.

It is this which baby boomers will have to come to terms with if they are to wield the influence their numbers merit, says Mr Harkin. So far, their vanity means that's not happening.

"They fear being part of a club called 'the old," he says. "They frankly don't want to be around their peers."

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