Some of Britain’s most respected companies have recently shifted their hiring policy away from the graduate pool by about 40 years.
Barclays, Boots, Aviva, the Co-op and numerous others unveiled plans to increase the number of over-50s in their workforce by 12 percent by 2022. They also called on other businesses to do the same, with one CEO implying this shift should be government mandated.
Fashion is often seen as a young person’s game. Under-40s are generally more susceptible to trends and therefore boost the rapid turnover of collections needed to keep the industry afloat. However, as the power of the silver dollar—or grey pound, as it is less glamorously called in the U.K.—rises, brands are having to take a second look at their target audience.
They’re calling it a ‘graynaissance.’ The number of older models fronting fashion campaigns and walking in shows has increased so rapidly over the last two years that the trend has warranted a name of its own. Column inches and consultancy fees have been dedicated to exploring the untapped opportunities of the older market—a demographic that in many countries is now holding the consumer-spending purse strings.
According to McKinsey, the 50-plus customer already accounts for 47 percent of non-essential spending in the U.K. This is largely due to the fact that older consumers no longer need to spend a significant slice of their income on rent in one of the most expensive housing markets in the world, as they own property and have often paid off their mortgages.
“Not only are today’s over-55s wealthier, they are also healthier and have more time to spend their money before and during retirement,” said Ina Mitskavets, senior consumer and lifestyles analyst at Mintel, in an article for The Guardian. “All these factors are contributing to a rise in a mature demographic of shoppers eager to explore all the options available to them.”
But in order to attract this now desirable market, brands are realizing they need to hire older designers, marketing managers and PR teams who know how to appeal to their own demographic, rather than rely on twenty-somethings to do so. Boots and Barclays know it—but does the fashion industry?
“A 60-year-old who has spent his or her life in fashion should certainly know better what their peers want over a 30-year-old,” said Caroline Burstein, the co-founder of Molton Brown and the managing director of Browns Bride, who is herself past retirement age. “I believe a person of 60 who has been successful in their business would be invaluable were they given the opportunity to be on a board or to come into a business to give their insights, experience and training to the next generation.”
“In Browns today there are four from the sales team who are approaching or have possibly hit 60,” she continued. “Older people have a wealth of experience and can be among the best assets a business can have.”
Browns, however, currently stands alone as major employers like John Lewis and Marks & Spencer shift their focus to a younger demographic—though it may be damaging their sales.
“The high street is obsessed with youth and it’s bringing them down,” said Phyllis Walters, a retired fashion PR person in London. “We travel more and have far more fashion influences than people of our age ever used to. We are all more aware of our bodies, and this idea that we just want to cover up at all costs no longer exists. Seventy is definitely the new 50 even—forget 60. We also spend more online than any other age group, and yet none of the brands know how to appeal to us. It’s mad.”
There is also a government incentive to push this policy, as a move such as this would help narrow the skills gap in the economy, which is emerging as the population ages. Between 2012 and 2022, 15 million people are projected to leave the British workforce as they retire, while only seven million are set to enter it. And Brexit will undoubtedly widen the gap, as the roles previously filled by qualified EU immigrants will now have to go to Britons—of whom there are simply not enough.
In the U.K., the Equalities Act has made it unlawful to advertise employment to a specific age group, but even just a shift in mindset away from this laser focus on youth could help the fashion industry battle through what will no doubt be difficult years as we adapt to a future outside the EU.