Special Session Summary Re-Conceptualizing Age and Consumption

Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University
Miriam Catterall, The Queen=s University of Belfast
[ to cite ]:
Pauline Maclaran and Miriam Catterall (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Re-Conceptualizing Age and Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 539-541.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 539-541



Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University

Miriam Catterall, The Queen=s University of Belfast


Marketers have long used age as a category for segmentation. Typically this use has involved the use of broad categories such as young, middle-aged and elderly or been related to life cycle stages such as empty nesters and so forth. Age seems to have remained one of the more stable bases for segmentation whilst, by contrast, many varied lifestyle groupings (for example, "yuppies") have come and gone. However, just as researchers have begun to destabilize seemingly stable categories such as race, class and gender, so too has the appropriateness of the use of chronological age been questioned, primarily by the concept of cognitive age (the age a person feels). Proponents of cognitive age argue that subjective measures of age can provide rich psychographic information about consumers’ self-perceptions and aspirations (Barak and Schiffman 1981; Barak and Gould 1985; Barak 1998).

This session sought to question the current assumptions that marketers make about how a person’s age may influence their consumption patterns and consider new ways of conceptualizing this relationship.

The three papers in the session linked together to provide different perspectives on the relationship between age and consumption. Together the authors illustrated how age and consumption can be linked in surprising and often counter-intuitive ways. The unifying theme was that the assumptions in chronological and cognitive age do not necessarily represent all the diversities of the postmodern consumer.

Rob McLeod, the discussion leader, highlighted the dilemmas facing consumers as they move through their lifecycle and highlighted the contradictory forces that are currently to be found: whether to accept their age (Andrews 1999) or strive for continued youthfulness (Barak 1998). The concept of the body as text means that it is not only young who can afford the luxury of choosing vicarious nostalgic consumption, but also the aging consumer who now has many choices. However, while those consumers holding the economic capital may have a greater influence on how society constructs them, there will also remain many who are marginalized as a function of their age. Increasingly we may see resistance to the traditional social costraints of age. While some may respond through distinguishing themselves through visible forms of self-expression, others, and in particular the old, may reject the primacy of the body/mind split in defining themselves. The challenge that marketers face is how to identify and adapt to the new consumption opportunities that such diversities offer.



Miriam Catterall, The Queen’s University of Belfast

Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University

Traditionally marketers have pursued the more youthful segments in many markets, particularly for age-sensitive products and services such as banking, cars, cosmetics, fashion, fitness, food, health-care, travel and real-estate (Barak 1998). These products and services have often been used in the battle against the aging process, to help maintain a youthful appearance and fend off old age for as long as possible. Whilst marketers have contributed to and reinforced the valorization of youth and the concomitant denigration of aging that are so pervasive in Western societies, they have also reflected contemporary attitudes to age and aging. As the baby boom generation matures, however, there is some evidence to suggest that these attitudes are changing and that we are moving towards a society where agelessness becomes a possibilityBwhere a person’s age becomes less constuitive of identity and self-concept.

The poststructuralist literature marked a shift in emphasis from a largely cognitive understanding of self-concept to one that stressed the importance of the body as constuitive of self-concept. Traditional views on self-concept assume an essence at the heart of the individual that is fixed and coherent, and which constitutes the self. By contrast, poststructuralists argue that subjectivity is precarious and contradictory, and constantly in process of re-construction (Weedon 1997). Importantly this literature also provides new insights to the relationship between the body, self-concept and aging. There are two contradictory perspectives arising out of these many debates. First, individuals are more conscious of and more actively concerned with the management, maintenance and appearance of their bodies (Shilling 1993). This increased emphasis on the body as constuitive of the self is a feature of postmodern consumer culture with its emphasis on body images, pleasure, desire and playfulness (Turner 1996). The surface of the body is seen as a text that carries 'the signs of one’s inner moral condition’ (Turner 1995, p. 257). Developments in areas such as transplant surgery, genetic engineering and plastic surgery mean that the body is increasingly plastic and subject to range of choices. In other words we have a greater degree of control over our bodies that at any time in history. The second perspective focuses on the implications of this ageless, plastic body. It argues that in valorizing a youthful and able-bodied 'text’ it further marginalizes deep old age, an age where the choices in maintaining such a body text may be limited both for social and physical reasons.

Whilst descriptions of 'silver surfing’ baby boomers (Brayfield 2000) who refuse to move acquiescently into compulsory retirement and its associated state of dependency reinforce the former perspective there is also evidence of the latter. Women, who currently form the largest proportion of the elderly, are resisting and even rejecting the symbolic value of youthful and slim bodies (Oberg and Tornstam 1999; Tulle-Winton 1999; Tunaley, Walsh, and Nicholson 1999). The only certainty to emerge from these contradictions is that the baby boomers will continue to be tpically untypical, that meanings ascribed to the aging process are shifting radically and that marketers need to rethink their traditional assumptions about age.



Christina Goulding, University of Wolverhampton

Nostalgia is an emotional reaction most frequently associated with individuals of a 'certain’ age; namely the baby boomers, now in their forties and fifties, and senior citizens (Havlena & Holak 1991). However, this paper questions the age/nostalgia relationship by focusing on the nostalgic behavior of a group of consumers not normally associated with the emotion; namely young adults between the ages twenty to forty. It looks at preference for aesthetic objects from earlier periods, normally just outside of living memory, and how these are used as a means of self-expression and creativity. It further considers the underlying factors for the enduring appeal of images and objects from a vicariously admired past.

According to Davis (1979), nostalgia is an emotion that must draw from the well of lived experience. We have all felt nostalgia at some time while looking through photographs that capture special, happy moments. Even the taste of a particular food may be enough to transport us back in time. Similarly the sound of music (Holbrook & Schindler 1989, 1991) can evoke nostalgic feelings, as can the unexpected trace of a perfume associated with a person from the past. In effect, idealized past times become imprinted onto sounds, smells, and tastes associated with positive experiences (Hirsch, 1992). In the consumer behavior literature, nostalgia is conceptualized as part of preference in the consumption of goods and experiences (Holbrook 1993). Consequently, nostalgia requires a stimulus, or the presence of artifacts, images, or narratives that have a positive association with a particular period. In keeping with this evaluation, Holbrook (1993) defines nostalgia as:

"a preference (general liking, positive attitude, or favorable affect) towards objects (people, places, or things) that were more common (popular, fashionable, or widely circulated) when one was younger (in early adulthood, in adolescence, in childhood, or even before birth). p104

It is the last few words of this definition, "or even before birth", that is of most interest to this research. Today, it is argued, we no longer need to have lived a past in order to feel nostalgic for it (Chase & Shaw 1989). Baker and Kennedy (1994) draw a distinction between 'real’ nostalgia, nostalgia for some remembered past time, and 'stimulated’ nostalgia, a form of vicarious nostalgia evoked from stories, images, and possessions (Belk 1988; Stern 1992). It is suggested that in contemporary society, the proliferation of nostalgic images and experiences, for example in film (Croft 1989; Wollen 1991; Lee 1993), music (Holbrook and Schindler 1989; 1991; Holbrook 1993), advertising (Unger et al 1991; Howell 1991; Stern 1992; Holbrook 1998), retailing (Norman 1990), political imagery (Allen et al 1995; Tannock 1995), and hstorical reconstructions (Hewison 1987; Goulding 1999), means that nostalgia need not necessarily be for an individually experienced past, nor is it an emotion exclusive to mature consumers.

It is the notion of vicarious nostalgia which forms the basis of this paper and a preference for objects associated with a period typically ten to fifteen years before the birth of the informant. The study focuses on objects of aesthetic consumption such as clothes, make-up, music, furniture and even transport, but rather than age related aesthetic objects, the focus is on how nostalgic consumption permeates many aspects of the lives of the informants, all of whom were self proclaimed 'nostalgics’. Qualitative data, aimed at addressing the question, what are the key influencing factors on the development of vicarious nostalgia, were collected through the use of self reported stories, in-depth interviews and the analysis of informant’s photographs. Analysis of this data revealed four emergent themes; exposure to nostalgic stimuli from an early age, socialization into nostalgia, nostalgia as a means of self expression, and nostalgia as the basis for peer group membership.



Isabelle Szmigin, The University of Birmingham

Marylyn Carrigan, The University of Birmingham

Rob Mcleod, The University of Birmingham

A review of the sociology and consumer studies literature reveals a current polarization in thought with regard to age and aging. The debate revolves around issues of whether we are witnessing the development of an ageless society and if so what are the implications for individuals and society. A key argument in the debate is that age is socially constructed (Turner 1996); studies present so called 'grown-up’ activities being undertaken by children in other cultures (Hockey & James 1993) while old people in the West are removed from the labor market at defined ages regardless of their ability or desire to continue to work (Walker 1980). This 'age or agelessness’ question has largely revolved around the body, appearance and the visible signs of aging (Turner, 1996), we would like to extend the discussion to consumption with a view to developing our conceptualizations of consuming throughout life. While much research has dealt with the cultural position of old people in the social organization we should also be concerned about the choices of old people within a consumption situation and how this affects their identity and social connections. The starting point for this research was presented by Gilleard (1996) who recognized that increasingly older people were more likely to remain within contemporary culture and partake of it, at least those relatively well-off often described as 'new-age’ elderly (Schiffman & Sherman 1991, Featherstone 1983). If we are more able to exercise choice across all periods of lifespan then existing structures and processes are in jeopardy. We have to ask at the very least if typical criteria of age, gender along with class lose their relevance what might they be replaced with and how might this affect existing market structures.

To this end we focus on alternative ways of structuring identity through consumption and for this research have looked at a uses and gratification perspective (Lin 1999; Korgaonkar & Wolin 1999) as a route to understanding people’s motivations in one area of consumption, the Internet. Relatively new and in the process of developing and changing, it is often perceived as having a young bias, although there are many sites now available to older people ( e.g. Babybomer Bistro, Vavo, Saga). The paper discusses some conceptual issues around older people’s use of 'new’ products and services. It examines existing research in this area and reports the results of interpretive in-depth interviews with users and non-users over the age of 50. The study identifies a range of psychological motives for using the Internet including communication, socialization and information. While escapism was valued, generally these time scarce individuals incorporated the Internet as a functional tool into their lives. Despite some initial perceptions of complexity, the nine respondents aged between 51 and 84 displayed highly focused use and involvement with the technology. The research study showed that these older people were gaining most use and gratification from the Internet for acquiring information and communicating to friends and relatives. They were not using it widely for shopping. A key aspect in using the Internet for the older consumer was the empowerment it gave them both in managing their communications with others and also in enabling them to gain economic or other advantages. We suggest that older consumers often fear the initial complexity of using a computer to access the Internet but once they have invested in the equipment their adoption of the Internet is rapid.

In the past uses and gratifications research has been applied to people’s use of different media. An interesting theme running through the interviews was people’s feelings of being marginalized from main stream TV consumption and finding the Internet more informative, entertaining and rewarding. They also revealed a consumption-led move away from a youth focused medium. Thus, the paper will present an alternative view to the 'age or agelessness’ polarization by indicating the beginnings of a movement away from stereotypical forms of consumption into new and potentially powerful consumption alliances.


Andrews, Molly (1999), "The Seductiveness of Agelessness," Ageing and Society, 19, 301-318.

Barak, Benny (1998), "Inner-Ages of Middle-Aged Prime-Lifers," International Journal of Ageing and Human Development, 46 (3), 189-228.

Benson, John (1997), Prime Time: A History of the Middle Aged in Twentieth Century Britain, Longman

Blytheway, Bill (1995), Ageism, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Featherstone, Michael (1983), "Consumer Culture: An Introduction," Theory, Culture and Society, 1 (3), 4-9.

Gilleard, Chris (1996), "Consumption and Identity in Later Life: Toward a Cultural Gerontology," Ageing and Society, 16, 489-498.

Hockey, Jenny & Allison James (1993), Growing Up and Growing Old: Ageing and Dependency in the Life Course, London: Sage.

Korgaonkar, Pradeep K. & Lori D. Wolin (1999), "A Multivariate Analysis of Web Usage," Journal of Advertising Research, 39 (2), 53-68.

Laslett, Peter (1989), A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age, London: Weidenfield and Nicolson.

Levy, Sidney J. (1959), "Symbols for Sale," Harvard Business Review, 37 (4), 117-124

Lin, Carolyn A. (1999), "Online-Service Adoption Likelihood," Journal of Advertising Research, 3 ( 2), 79-89.

Schiffman, Leon G. & Elaine Sherman (1991), "Value Orientations of new-Age Elderly: The coming of an Ageless Market," Journal of Business Research, 22, March, 187-194.

Tulle-Winton, Emmanuelle (1999), "Growing Old and Resistance: Towards a New Cultural Economy of Old Age?," Ageing and Society, 19, 281-299.

Tunaley, Jillian R, Susan Walsh, and Paula Nicolson (1999), " 'I’m Not Bad For My Age’: The Meaning of Body Size and Eating in the Lives of Older Women," Ageing and Society, 19, 741-759.