Whilst marketers get excited about artificial intelligence, there’s a quiet revolution taking place that will change the face of media and advertising, writes Phil Rowley, Head of Futures at Omnicom Media Group.

The Demographic Disruption is a shake-up in the make-up of populations and will force a rethink in the way businesses trade, governments legislate, and marketers communicate with their customers. Put simply, the world’s population is getting older, faster. Birth rates are falling, whilst life expectancy is increasing. The numbers are as clear as they are stark:

In the UK, the birth rate is 1.58, below replacement level, with the ONS revealing record numbers of childless women. Meanwhile, the inexorable advance of health care is supercharging our longevity; we are staying healthier longer and active longer.

Our populations are evolving. Historically, demography has been represented by a pyramid, with a wide base of people being born at the bottom, before tapering to a point towards the top as citizens die of old age. But the future points towards a pyramid, with more older people at the top than younger people at the bottom. This societal top-heaviness is now so much of a concern that a recent report by a UK think-tank recommended raising the pension age to 75 by 2035, to help the younger tax-paying generation to be more able to support the burgeoning older one.

This is not uniquely a UK phenomenon. Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Russia have the same issue, and publicly so. China too. Its one-child-policy cuts coincided with a natural decline in birth rate driven by increased living standards. In effect, China inadvertently cut the birth rate twice. Meanwhile Stateside, Elon Musk is openly lobbying people to have more children, declaring underpopulation as much of a threat as climate change. Elsewhere, in the US, in the run up to the 2024 US election, there’s concern over the flip side: that the two main candidates, Trump and Biden, are 77 and 80 respectively, meaning whoever wins, they will be the oldest president in history.

The upshot is this: we will soon be a planet with more grandparents than grandchildren.

How does this change the role of marketers?

Marketing must grow up

Advertising and marketing is an industry focused on progression and youth. Neophile in its culture, it’s long-been obsessed with what comes ‘next’ as a way of building resonance with the next generation of consumers.

But whilst youth will always have a place in a media strategy, we may have to redress its disproportionate focus. If the Demographic Disruption does occur, it’s likely that older generations will have more cultural influence and more spending power than at any time in recent history.

Predictions foretell by 2040, older people will be responsible for driving consumerism, by spending 63p in every pound, up from 54p in 2018. Likewise, they are already more tech-savvy than we might imagine, with the biggest increase in smartphone penetration among older generations. Crucially, the data shows they are more likely to be conservative, with a different value-set from the much-prized Gen Z. We have already seen the effects of this: Active older voters disproportionately delivered Brexit. The same goes for Trump’s election in 2016.

In effect, the ‘grey market’ is becoming ‘the market’. We ignore this at our peril, and need to think about a shift in mindset by doing two things:

First, we should learn from those brands already alive to this quiet revolution. For instance, Airbnb’s ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ ad also depicted a hip-hop fuelled septuagenarian couple tearing it up on holiday, demonstrating age was no barrier to fun and hi-jinks. In short, the future of ads targeting the 55-plus cohort is so much more than meals-on-wheels and walk-in baths.

Second, we need to look at the demographics of our industry. We seem keen to recruit Gen Zs to demonstrate how to use TikTok, but do we recruit, or indeed retain, enough advertising veterans? Shouldn’t we be seeking out marketers that will be able to give us an insight into what it will be like to be 60 in 2030? If so, we are currently lagging. The IPA suggests that the average age of a marketer is 34, and only 6% are over the age of 50.

Ultimately, the marketer of the future will always be fascinated with technology and the way it will transform consumer behaviour. But they also need to be equally fascinated with the consumers themselves – their changing demography, biology and philosophy.

Media agencies should be mindful of balancing a love of the new, the youthful, the progressive, with that of an equally powerful cohort that will wield more influence through their longevity, vitality and spending power.

Can we make the necessary shift? Only time will tell.