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Elderly People Show the Way

July 7, 1999

The conventional wisdom of young people setting consumer trends appears to be overturning. In a reversal of generational roles, these days it is often the elderly who take the lead and the young who follow. Behind this phenomenon is not only the fact that people are living longer, but also the recent tendency of older people to spend more of their money on themselves rather than leaving it to their children. According to some economists, the fact that suppliers of goods and services have been slow to recognize this trend is one cause of Japan's current consumption slump.

Elderly Set Trends, Young Follow
In the past few years several consumer trends have been ignited by the elderly before spreading to the young. For example, take the walking shoes that are now popular among people in their twenties and thirties. Originally these shoes caught on among middle-aged and elderly people for hiking, which has become something of a fad among them in recent years, and for longer walks around town. These light, comfortable shoes have now attracted attention as everyday wear among young people.

Meanwhile, a growing number of young people can be seen carrying cameras that appear from a distance like to be Leicas, a famous German brand. A closer look, however, shows them to be cheap cameras outfitted with black-and-silver snap-on shells. Again, the impetus for this trend came from the elderly, who remember the cachet Leicas had when they were younger, and still use them today. Nowadays secondhand Leica are in great demand, and they cost from 150,000 to 300,000 yen (1,250 to 2,500 dollars at 120 yen to the dollar). This price is beyond the reach of younger people, who therefore satisfy their appetite for retro designs with the plastic imitations.

Other products first made popular by middle-aged and elderly consumers and then picked up by the younger generation include Swiss-made mechanical wristwatches, top-of-the-line guitars and ukuleles, and collapsible travel bicycles. The list of such products, which elderly people either longed to possess in their youth or are attracted to for health reasons, is endless. A lifestyle magazine founded 10 years ago for older readers is now attracting a younger readership as well.

Staying Active and Spending More
Usually the term "elderly" refers to someone aged 65 or over who is receiving a pension. However, the older consumers who are now assuming a leading role in the marketplace are people aged 50 or older who have finished raising and providing for the education of their children and are now shifting their attention to their own married and individual lifestyles. This year, the last of Japan's postwar baby boomers will enter their fifties. This rapidly expanding segment of the population now accounts for nearly 40% of the total population and in 2005 is forecast to account for more than 40%, making it even larger than the 20-49 age group.

Not only are these older consumers growing more numerous, they also have more money. According to a 1998 survey by the Management and Coordination Agency, while average net savings (savings minus liabilities) are less than 10 million yen (83,000 dollars) for people in their forties, they total more than 10 million yen for people in their fifties and shoot up to over 20 million yen (167,000 dollars) for people in their sixties.

Spending power is not the only reason why older people have taken a leading role in consumption, however. Another reason is their simple desire to lead fuller lives. In the fall of 1998 a private survey organization polled 600 older people (aged 50-79) in the Tokyo metropolitan area and found that 30% of respondents are sensitive to trends and want to enjoy life actively by traveling, attending the theater, and so on. This "new breed" of older people prefer to devote their money to their own hobbies and interests rather than use it to provide their children with financial support or an inheritance.

According to a marketing expert, the younger people who are following consumer trends set by their elders are the baby-boom juniors--that is, the children of Japan's baby boomers. This group of parents and their offspring tend to share many of the same values. So the key expressions for describing consumer trends in Japan today might well be "generation reversal" and "baby-boom parents and kids."

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.