Tomorrow's pensioners

Tomorrow's pensioners

By 2050 one in three of the UK population will be over 65 – an age cohort that will have grown by almost 20% since 2022. Life expectancy will extend by five years over the next two decades. People now aged 50-64 are looking at joining this growing army for a more significant chunk of their lives than ever before. How do they feel about this and how ready for retirement are they?

At BritainThinks we recently partnered with Age UK to conduct research to help marketers to really understand this group, so often portrayed by the media in a narrow polarisation between very affluent or very poor. Age UK had analysed data provided by the English Longitudinal Study in Ageing (ELSA) to identify seven distinctive ‘clusters’ within this wider group. We conducted follow-up qualitative research – ethnographic interviews and focus groups to develop a detailed picture of each group and their take on life.

The report found some overarching themes. ‘Savvy’ is how 50-64 year olds describe themselves, defined by their work ethic and their attitude to saving which they believe is smarter than that of their less worldly parents – or that of their kids who are more comfortable with spending beyond their means than they could ever be. They see home ownership as the key to future financial security and judge their own and others’ success by this marker.

They also see themselves as ‘sensible’. This relates to money but also to their health. A healthier upbringing than their children’s generation in terms of diet and exercise belies a fatalistic attitude about what the future holds and a belief that there is little you can do to safeguard against ill health in old age. Dementia and cancer are discussed as a kind of Russian roulette striking at random and without warning.

They pride themselves on their scepticism, too. Trust in many organisations, including government and financial institutions, has been badly dented. This is partly about the recent past, but many reference the 1990s recession, when interest rates rose to 15%, as the moment of truth when trust broke down. This mistrust in financial services connects to a deep anxiety about care in older age, with some concluding that it may be better not to save at all and let the state provide.

Another shared point of view revealed a strong resistance to being described as ‘tomorrow’s pensioners’. Age UK characterised the group as ‘Generation R’ – highlighting the complex relationship between their attitudes towards risk, their resilience, and how ready they are for later life.

Resilience was a strong differentiator between the seven clusters. At one end of the spectrum was Cluster One – very wealthy, recently retired men enjoying active older years with the only cloud on the horizon being the possibility of future challenges. At the other extreme was Cluster Seven who report poor health and precarious finances.

Clusters One and Two are the marketer’s dream. Confident, assured and in control, while they no longer trust financial institutions, they do trust their own judgment. Mainly male, these groups are well off and ‘sorted’. The younger ones are still in work and defined by their careers. The ‘lottery’ of poor health is their only concern.

Cluster Three are younger women (50-60). Mainly still working but exhausted with the pressure of caring responsibilities, often responsible for teenage or young adult kids and elderly parents. Self-effacing and diffident, they are reliant on their networks and feel a tension between trying to enjoy life today and saving for the future.

Their male counterparts in Cluster Four are more worried about money. They are often disappointed to find that they have fewer assets than they expected to have at this stage and their current coping strategy is to work as long as they are able to.

Clusters Five and Six are also predominantly female. The older ones feel a keen sense of nostalgia for the past and both share the disappointment that the men in Cluster Four feel: life has not delivered to its promise, especially financially. Some feel badly let down by the downturn in the property market. They are worse off than they expected to be and also hope to work for as long as possible without a real ‘plan B’.

Cluster Seven is the least resilient and least prepared for what lies ahead: 55-60 year olds of both genders often living in poverty and with ill health and frequently with mental health issues. The women are more willing to articulate their problems than the men – both groups feel a sense of isolation. The future is to be feared, not looked forward to. Their sense of disappointment – felt more strongly by this group than any other – is palpable.


Deborah Mattinson is founder director of BritainThinks and this article was taken from the March 2014 issue of Market Leader. Browse the archive here.