Recently, I came across two reports from Alive Ventures that caught my eye. “Growing Older Better: Insights and Opportunities” and “State of the Market 2022” describe how the “older adult” market is being overlooked by marketers. Both reports describe how this customer group—defined as spanning Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation, and the Greatest Generation—is vastly under-represented in the marketing world: For example, while this group represents 46% of the U.S. population, it represents only 15% of online marketing imagery, and of the ads that we see, 28% represent this demographic in a negative light.

At first, as I was reading these reports, I was thinking about the points being made. That’s right—based on the under-representation of imagery and ads focused on this demographic, it was under-represented, and under-represented translates into untapped opportunity. Then I began to become uncomfortable, and it dawned on me. Sometimes the reports defined “older adults” as Boomers and up. Other times, they defined them as 50+. When they were talking about 50+, they were talking about me.

The reports, likely written by people in their 30s, discussed “older adults” (a group into which I had now been informed that was lumped) as breaking stereotypes. “Older adults” are online more than traditionally understood. “Older adults” are expected to invest $84 billion into technology by 2030, as if this is a surprise. “Older adults” have interests that mimic those of younger Americans, such as pursuing higher education and dating, as if that is something strange. Even as discussing how this demographic is under-represented and often misrepresented, the text reverberated with the very stereotypes it said were being broken. I thought about my business and personal peer groups. How accurately would it describe—both overtly and subtly—those I know in the 50+ age bracket? Or even myself?

First, I’m on my phone so much that my husband and still-at-home daughter once staged an intervention. Second, it’s true that my 50+ peer group may not be online as much as Gen Z, but it’s not because we can’t. We grew up in a world that valued personal interaction—as in, valuing looking your friends or family in the eye while having a conversation over dinner rather than sitting across from one another texting and scrolling through Instagram. But this is a value system, not discomfort or aversion to technology as is, if subtly, implied.

Cultural, medical, and technological changes have stripped the dividing lines between many simple demographic groups, including younger and older generations. Someone in their 60s is as likely to shed an old career and launch a new venture as someone in their 40s. I’ve run my share of half-marathons, and the starting line is noticeably greyer and more grizzled than the 10K starts. 10K starts are weighted towards 30-somethings with strollers. Halfs are dominated by seasoned runners who can’t be bothered with shorter distances.

In other words, the idea of what an “older adult” is has completely changed.

It has led me to wonder the extent to which demographic data has become obsolete. Not totally, of course, but certainly more unreliable than it used to be.

  • Two 40-year-olds can be as different from one another, including being at two entirely different life stages, than two people 10 or 20 years apart.
  • Someone working at a company headquartered in San Francisco can actually be living in Atlanta.
  • What is a traditional gender role anyway? I may make most of the meals, but my husband is more likely to be out doing the grocery shopping than I am.
  • How about a traditional family? Husband and wife, 1.8 kids, with a minivan in the driveway has become the exception.
  • Even “retirement” can be meaningless these days. One 60-something may retire into traveling or a life of golf or gardening, while another reinvents and launches a completely new career.

Simple variables mean little anymore. In terms of priorities, values, and lifestyles, a 50-something in Colorado making $100,000 per year may look more like a 30-something in Connecticut making $50,000 per year.

Granted, this isn’t always true, especially when you look at age brackets refined by household income and education level. In lower income and lower education households, more traditional dividing lines apply. Not because of age, specifically, but because of other factors. But the point is, when it comes to the 50+ market (or any simple demographic bracket), a single variable can be misleading at best.

So what role do demographic data play anymore? This is where, as put by Troy Van Dyke, CEO of Darwill, responding to my post in the LinkedIn Direct Mail Group, customer personas/avatars, data science, and AI are so critical, and creating profiles based on modeling and the weighting of known attributes have become necessary. Not to mention the role of social media. Can you create an accurate profile without knowing what someone likes and clicks on these days? If you’re working with small to mid-sized clients, the whole thing can seem daunting.

So what’s the answer? External partnerships with data analytics companies or more sophisticated direct marketing agencies? Third-party solutions like DirectMail 2.0? Whatever your approach, one thing is clear: demographics are an important starting point for targeting, but they are just that—a starting point.