The Grey Pound


The impact on the industry of an ageing population which has never been more youthful

By Simon Lamb, Group Marketing Manager

A priest suggests to a 47-year-old nun that she should try going for a jog on the beach. That isn’t the start of a forgettable Christmas cracker joke but rather the beginning of a most astounding journey.
Sister Madonna Buder previously had no interest in running however after a throw-a-way comment from her priest she discovered her second purpose in life. Now aged 86, the ‘Iron Nun’, who is the face of Nike’s ‘Unlimited Youth’ campaign, has completed 360 Triathlons and 45 Ironmans – forcing the Ironman Organisation to create 75 to 79 and 80 to 84 age groups.
Add to Sister Madonna, a 78-year-old Crossfitter, an 83-year-old alpinist, an 86-year-old world record rower and a 98-year-old Yoga teacher and you start to think Nike might be onto something. In this brave new world there appears to be no age limit to so-called ‘youth’.

We, the global population that is, are getting older. The number of people aged 60+ has tripled over the the last 50 years and is predicted to triple again over the next 50. By 2020, 50% of the UK population will be over 50. This 50+ segment also happens to control 89% of the total disposable income – hence the proverbial ‘grey pound’.
What we’re left with is an ageing population with pockets deep enough to jump on the bandwagon of any fad or trend which takes their fancy. Cue a boom for cruise ships and retirement homes, surely? Think again. Think the ‘Iron Nun’.
This ‘forever young’ generation is seeking to keep active, maintain a healthy lifestyle and pays attention to their mental wellbeing. What then does this mean for the sport industry?


The appetite to participate is there. Last year, one in eight finishers at the London marathon was over 50. The secret for brands, rights holders and governing bodies is to reduce the barriers to entry and present the opportunity. With this ‘can-do’ generation flourishing, age-based marketing should be confined to the archives, with the product becoming the hero and consumers targeted based on interest not demographic.
Sport England looks to kick such stereotypes into touch with its ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, which showed for the first-time “real women being active” as Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson remarked at our Summer of Sport event last week.  By showing women ‘sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox’ the gender disparity in sport was being tackled head-on. Next barrier to be smashed down; preventative life stages. The new campaign, launched this February, features ads with a pregnant woman, a new mother and, pertinent to this article, a woman in her sixties. Sport England is refusing to exclude and it is working.

Data from our Global Sports Fan Survey indicates that lower impact sports resonate more with the 50+ audience; cricket, tennis and golf particular favourites. However, is this preference or prejudice? Not everyone can be expected to be like John Goldman, Hendon Rugby Football Club’s 75-year-old prop forward who has beaten cancer twice, had heart bypass surgery and tackles trees to prepare for matches. For most mere mortals, weekly collisions with a fresh-faced 25-year-old whose second home is the gymnasium loses its appeal after a while. Should this however spell the end for your rugby, or football, days? The RFU and FA clearly think not as they’re investing in alternate formats; touch rugby and walking football. Refusing to exclude by evolving to include. Expect growth in participation numbers to follow.
The ‘holy grail’ for many brand marketers, the pass or fail on their KPIs, is reaching the elusive Gen-Z or mythical Millennials. The recipe thus far has been; target the parent and you’ll influence the younger generation. However, this shake-up to the structure of the consumer pool is reversing this traditional marketing model. Influence the younger generation and the parents, even the grandparents, will engage their ‘why not’ attitude and copy them.


This open-minded audience has all the characteristics that make them a rights holder’s or brand’s dream. They are cash-rich, time-rich and less distracted than their younger counterparts. The key to fandom, as with participation, is reducing the barriers to entry. Swedish football team, AIK, recognise this and puts on free shuttles to home matches from local care homes. Last season, they even made their oldest fans mascots for a game. A heart-warming gesture that made global headlines.
It isn’t just the live experience which rights holders can open-up, tailoring the stories around these events is another route to this market. Use the heroes of previous years to provide context to the stars of today. Think Allan Border discussing the evolution of Steve Smith’s shot-making or Martina Navratilova spotlighting the women to watch at Roland Garros.

This relevant audience, which is growing at pace, are not only a key to the next generation of viewers but can also open up the property to a new sector of brands. Airlines, travel, health insurance and financial services come to mind.
No punchline to the Christmas cracker joke but rather an exciting and inspiring trend which is rendering age-based marketing redundant. If the ‘Iron Nun’ can force her way into Ironman’s target audience, then ‘youth’ really is unlimited.

Written by Simon Lamb:  
Research by Jessica Kenny:
Insight from David Sim: