Youth culture is dying a death, but industry won’t help the aged

The best potato peeler we’ve ever had in our household was acquired last autumn. All the others made your hands hurt by the fourth spud. This one doesn’t, thanks to a great thick handle of soft, matt black rubber, with special ribs at the business end to improve the grip and stop thumb and forefinger slipping.

This chunky triumph of the product designer’s art is marketed in the US, where it was invented, under the brand name “Oxo”. For obvious reasons it sells in the UK under a different name, Goodgrips. It’s part of a range of improved kitchen equipment which was originally designed by a kitchenware dealer called Sam Farber for his wife, who suffered badly from arthritis.

Ironically, had we known as much we probably wouldn’t have bought our peeler. Labelling a product as “suitable for the elderly or the disabled” is a sure-fire way to stigmatise it and persuade most consumers that it’s not for them.

Yet Goodgrips products offer clear benefits to all cooks, not just arthritis sufferers, and the British distributors of the range have wisely chosen to market it accordingly.

Roger Coleman, co-director of the new Helen Hamlyn Research Centre at London’s Royal College of Art, thinks that’s something which all designers and marketers whose products are aimed at older consumers could learn. He speaks with some authority. For the past ten years he’s run the Design Age project at the RCA, trying to persuade often reluctant students and industrial companies to design with the grey market in mind.

Now he’s got 1m over the next three years to take the project further. His benefactor, Helen Hamlyn was herself a fashion student at the RCA in the Fifties. Now she’s the wife of Lord (Paul) Hamlyn, who made not one but two fortunes by building up and then selling successful publishing companies – first Hamlyn and then Octopus.

The centre will concentrate on what the college rather coyly calls “design for our future selves”. By that, it partly means older people, and partly people of any age living in a world transformed by technological and social changes – a world with many more homeworkers, more people living alone, more people using inadequate transport infrastructures and so on.

Building practical links between designers and the society they serve is the kind of work the RCA’s rector, Christopher Frayling, admits has often been a neglected part of the College’s brief (although it did design the standard NHS hospital bed in the Sixties).

The new centre, according to Roger Coleman’s co-director Jeremy Myerson (a former editor of this magazine’s sister publication, Creative Review), will tackle broad issues like designing for those working at home.

That means not just affluent, educated, middle-class teleworkers but those doing repetitive, low-paid tasks like making clothes. The centre will seek solutions to practical problems, like how to make PCs blend into the Victorian and early 20th century homes many people live in, and where poorly-paid homeworkers can store their work in progress.

But the elderly are still important, and here there are lessons not just for designers and marketers but for the media as well.

By the year 2020, it’s estimated, fully half of Europe’s adult population will be aged over 50. We are a rapidly ageing society in which people live longer, and in which the old are often well-off, with sizeable assets and comfortable pensions.

Yet marketers and the media persist in treating the old as an embarrassment or an irrelevance. That’s partly because many of those who work in these industries are themselves young. Frayling at the RCA laments the difficulty of getting his young designers to design for anyone other than their own peer group. It’s the same, with some exceptions, in marketing, advertising, broadcasting and publishing.

Media owners are especially frightened of an ageing audience or readership profile, fearful that their customers will die off, never to be replaced. So Melody Radio in London, which once appealed unashamedly to the over-50s among the capital’s cab-drivers, is to be rebranded “Magic” and aimed at listeners two decades younger. And BBC Radio Two, which once prided itself on playing music with its roots in the days before rock ‘n’ roll to an audience which was out of step with the times, has reinvented itself as the Radio One it once affected to despise.

And yet there is a huge and growing audience of wrinklies out there. Industries and media organisations which ignore that do so at their peril. Like Goodgrips, they don’t have to boast that they’re doing something as uncool as targeting the over-50s. But they might find a more circumspect attitude pays off in the end. The alternative is the uncomfortable realisation that, instead of their audiences and readers, it is they who are dying.

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