Stereotyping or labeling the aging population is something that many of us probably don’t think about…until someone says it to us. We see it everyday from how marketers position their products – everything from food, travel, clothing, beauty products, and beyond. We hear labels like mature, senior, elderly, aged, and yes, to be honest, we sometimes even catch ourselves using the words.

When you’re caught in the blurred area between boomer and millennial it’s a strange place to be. We’re at the age where people say “age is just a number”. We’re at an age where we sometimes can’t even relate…on both ends.

But let’s be real, every age category gets its share of labels. There’s no denying that millennials are described with all sorts of stereotypes from being entitled and self-absorbed. Step up one generation to the Boomers and what do we hear? Selfish, helpless, frail and wasteful. Fair or not?

So, how do these labels impact us? A recent IPSOS survey (November 2018) confirmed stereotypical labels used to describe older adults are out of line with how Boomers see themselves and found that nearly 80 per cent of older Canadians 55+ don’t want to be called ‘seniors’. In fact, nearly 30 per cent preferred no label at all.

It is true that companies and brands are pushing boundaries and facing complex social issues head-on to connect with consumers. But while Canadian marketers are making important progress in reducing gender and ethnicity biases, age stereotypes are stubbornly pervasive.

How can we, and businesses, help bust the unconscious age bias and deepen the connection with this  often forgotten about older generation?

In partnership with HomeEquity Bank and Zulu Alpha Kilo, Brainsights analyzed the unconscious brain activity of more than 300 Canadians in their new report “Exposing the Unconscious AGE BIAS in Media”.

Among the insights revealed is that Boomers are increasingly alienated by old-age stereotypes. Today’s Boomers see themselves as adventurous and capable – important themes that counter the stereotypes prevalent in media. In addition, Boomers respond well to nostalgia tailored to their generation. Personal legacy has emerged as another central theme for today’s Boomers, as is the act of sharing and imparting knowledge to other generations. Like all consumers, today’s Boomers appreciate information that is easy to comprehend and delivered in digestible amounts.

“Sixty-year-olds see themselves the way forty-year-olds did in the past. They have the attitude, the ability, and the money, to be major players in the marketplace for decades to come. Marketers who don’t ‘get’ this – and who don’t reflect this in their messaging — are leaving literally billions of dollars on the table,” shared David Cravit, Vice President of Zoomer Media, in the news release.

According to StatsCan, there are 11 million people in Canada who are 55 years of age or older, and 42 per cent of all homeowners in Canada are 55+. That amounts to about $1 trillion in home equity wealth alone.

The research shows that Canadians 55+ are responding positively to HomeEquity Bank’s approach that empowers older adults who need help funding their retirement. An example is a current spot from HomeEquity Bank called Sprinkler that depicts a home-owning couple deterring the visit of a persistent realtor through remote lawn sprinkler activation, a cheeky and mischievous story that elicits huge emotional responses from Boomers (+26 per cent connection) alongside strong lifts in attention and encoding (+11 per cent for both).

We checked in with Kevin Keane, founder and CEO of Brainsights, to help us understand how we can all do better.

What are some of the most common stereotypes/labels used today to describe the older generation?

Kevin: The most common depictions and representations of older Canadians are frail, ‘stuck in their ways’, and seemingly helpless. Canadians 55 plus are commonly labeled as seniors and elderly, which carry with them these connotations, and our research says these labels are not at all welcome and are very disengaging.

What was the most surprising result in the research findings?

Kevin: The most surprising result for Brainsights was the emotional resonance of selective parenthood memories. Specifically, there was a deep resonance with moments where a transfer of knowledge was happening across generations. This suggests a desire to leave the world in a better place, to improve the outcome of future generations. Yet Boomers as a whole are commonly vilified as the generation that brought us climate change, devastating the planet. This is far too simplistic, and if what we’re seeing is a deep emotional resonance with a desire to improve future generations’ well being, it doesn’t square with a generation that deliberately destroyed the earth. Instead of attacking, we should empower Boomers to leave the legacy they clearly wish to for future generations – one that’s inherently positive.

Current labels that describe the aging population are out of line with how Boomers see themselves, what would be some better ones?

Kevin: Our advice is to enable, don’t label.

Labels are ways that society can give framework on a targeted audience, what’s wrong with that?

Kevin: Words shape mindsets. Labels imprint meanings, and we have to be careful and more mindful with the language we use to ensure we’re not painting everyone with the same brush.

Do you think that all age-labels get negative attention? Millennials get their fair share as well.

Kevin: There seems to be a pitting of generations against one another – Millennials versus Boomers – that’s not constructive. It would be much more productive to forge a deeper understanding and empathy across generations to forge a way forward, no?

How do marketers, like HomeEquity Bank, try and reduce age stereotypes?

Kevin: Progressive marketers understand the need to communicate with purpose, and find the intersection between business and social needs, and HomeEquity Bank is doing that very well. Connecting with Boomers in a way that tackles classic age-based stereotypes helps them communicate meaningfully with their core audience, while at the same time representing Boomers in a refreshing, positive and constructive way.

Why is it important to address this generation that seems to be forgotten about?

Kevin: At Brainsights we think there’s both a moral imperative, and an economic opportunity. If we want to build an inclusive society, we should seek to address our age biases, and use language that helps to move away from classic tropes and stereotypes – this is important for Boomers, but also youth. And from an economic opportunity – Boomers are a generation that has huge economic clout. They’re also living and working longer. Why wouldn’t marketers seek to engage them in more productive and respectful ways?

What else should we all keep in mind?

Kevin: Only by measuring the unconscious mind will we understand the unconscious mind, and that’s why the Brainsights research is so powerful – we measured the unconscious brain activity of hundreds of Canadians across more than a hundred different stimuli to piece together what grabs peoples’ attention, resonates with them deeply, and encodes to memory. It’s important that we dig below the surface to understand people better, surface biases and work to tackle these as marketers to improve our communications and our society.

Thanks to Kevin for giving us more insight and hopefully this morsel of information will help us be more aware of how labelling affects us all.