Opinion

Why marketers should stop neglecting China’s silver generation

As brands continue to pump money into targeting Chinese Millennials, Sinclair's Eleanor Porter laments the missed opportunity to reach China's biggest and fastest-growing population – the over-60s

Millennial diagnostics have taken West by storm, and in China this categorisation of the young is even more microscopic.

The nation’s social and economic development has progressed at such a rapid rate that casting a net as wide as 18 to 34 simply doesn’t serve the vast behavioural differences between China’s generations.

Here, generation isn’t even by decade but by five-year age groups, such as 九零后 (Jiǔ líng hòu – Generation 90s) and 九五 后(Jiǔwǔ hòu – Generation 95 and beyond).

While millennial obsession in the US is justified when you consider they make up the largest generational group, the same can’t be said for China. Here, the fastest growing generational sector is the elderly, defined as the over-60s.

The China National Committee on Ageing projected in February that by 2050, almost 35 per cent of the country will be over the age of 60, which will make China home to one-quarter of the world’s elderly population.

Given the rise of the elderly in China, it seems strange then that we don’t afford them the same degree of consumer segmentation as we do the young. They are largely considered to be a homogenous mass of people. 

There is however compelling, if sparse, research that shows behaviour across the over-60s is just as diverse and as highly fragmented as in the young.

Perhaps somewhat predictably, those over the age of 70 (who predominantly grew up rurally, uneducated and poor) as well as the slightly younger Lost Generation (those who experienced famine in childhood and whose education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution) are far less likely to spend owing to life experiences, regular upheaval, and an emphasis on frugality.

Those just within or about to enter the elderly age bracket are however better educated, less conservative, more open-minded to foreign labels and have the purchasing power to become higher-end consumers.  Specifically, the spending power of the over 60s is currently estimated at one third of the entire country, a statistic on the rise.

Herein lies huge opportunity for brands.  One can presume that elderly care provision will be a key market opportunity as 36 years of the One Child Policy leaves the largest segment of the population burdened on the smallest.

Openings are also abundant in the fields of health supplements, or health-promoting products, entertainment and most notably travel, a sector that seems to be growing rapidly. For example, Ctrip has quickly capitalised on this trend by offering specialised domestic and foreign travel options for seniors that centre around food excursions and wine tastings.

Once we develop more targeted behaviour analysis of the over 60s, we can begin to think about the appropriate channels to reach them. On the one hand, traditional offline channels remain highly important because much of the age group is heavily community-based and relies on word-of-mouth through peer-organised dance and exercise societies, as well as a burgeoning number of elderly community centres the government is spending on.

On the other hand, China’s unwillingness to accept the concept of the credit card meant that it jumped ahead to e-commerce and because of this its seniors are some of the most digitally savvy in the world. We need look no further than Taobao for an example of how to capitalise on this: the e-marketplace giant has just begun recruiting employees over 60 to help develop its latest initiative, an elderly friendly version of Taobao that features basic functions such as enlarged text and shortcuts, but also clever tools that allow users to easily share or converse over products with their family.

Certainly placing emphasis on younger generations is still key and often crucial to most brands’ strategies. However, China’s ageing population is developing faster than anywhere else in the world, and while a few select industry leaders are showing the way, the rest of us should be wary of neglecting silver consumers, the obvious and subtler behavioural differences that lie within the age bracket, and the largely untapped opportunities for growth.

Eleanor Porter is a senior account manager at Sinclair Shanghai 

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