Are older shoppers wiser amid the pandemic?

Photo: Getty Images/NikolaBarbutov
Sep 18, 2020

Many older consumers — albeit for safety reasons — are at last discovering and helping drive the shift to online spending, digital engagement and omnichannel adventures. They’re also believed to have entered the pandemic in better shape financially and are adapting better mentally than their younger counterparts, despite facing higher risks to contract the virus.

An extensive study from Edward Jones and Age Wave revealed that, in the U.S., 37 percent of Gen Z and 27 percent of Millennials have suffered mental health declines since the pandemic began, while only 15 percent of Baby Boomers and eight percent of Silent Generation respondents (75 and older) said the same.

“COVID-19’s impact forever changed the reality of many Americans, yet we’ve observed a resilience among U.S. retirees in contrast to younger generations,” said Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., psychologist/gerontologist and founder and CEO of Age Wave,  a consultancy studying the cultural and economic impacts of aging, in a statement. “Older Americans tend to recognize the value of a long-term view, and so as they think about their lives, longevity and legacy, they’re able to pull from an array of experiences that help them weather current storms, feel gratitude about many aspects of their lives and still plan for the future.”

Similarly, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found only 9.2 percent of those over 65 experiencing pandemic-related “anxiety and stress disorder” versus 17.2 for 45-to-64 year-olds, 36 percent for 25-to-44-year-olds and 46 percent for 18-to-24-year-olds.

A recent Washington Post article concluded that older generations placed a higher value on connecting with friends (via Zoom) and spending time outdoors or exercising to help recharge. Working from home and taking care of kids during a pandemic were found to be major stressors for younger individuals.

“Anxiety often finds its fuel in uncertainty and this is very true during these uncertain times,” Erin Berman, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, told the Post. “It may be possible that older adults are more accustomed to dealing with uncertainty, and getting used to uncertainty does help people learn how to cope.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do the findings cited in the article match your experience of how various generations are coping with COVID-19?  Should retailers and brands selling to a wide range of consumers consider separate generational messaging campaigns amid the pandemic?

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11 Comments on "Are older shoppers wiser amid the pandemic?"

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David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
1 year 7 days ago

Customizing marketing messaging to consumer segments is always a smart strategy, especially when the mindsets are significantly different. The finding that only 9.2 percent of those over 65 experience pandemic-related “anxiety and stress disorder,” which is lower than all other age groups, is kind of surprising, as they are the most vulnerable group from a pandemic perspective. However older generations typically have more savings, have been through more stressful experiences during their lives and are not worried about losing their jobs.

Dr. Stephen Needel

It may be that we Boomers just killed off more brain cells in days past than the younger generation – we may not have the capacity to worry as much anymore :). And yes, Toni and I are much mellower about this than my Millennial kid and nephews. But then, we can afford better bourbon too. Tough to tease this apart.

Bob Amster

Let’s start with a laugh. This statement “Older Americans tend to recognize the value of a long-term view…” is ironic considering that older people have a much shorter term remaining to live than younger people (who do not have a longer-term view). This a question of adaptability and adaptability is a character trait. As a Baby Boomer, but an engineer and technologist, I adapted quickly (I don’t even know if I really had to adapt) to all of the technology-based options for guarding against the pandemic. Others in the same age group are less flexible (stuck in their ways?) and haven’t adapted at all, but are dependent on others for support. There is not pat answer and retailers will have to segment their clientele differently than just by age groups.

Ben Ball

Older consumers may be more accustomed to dealing with anxiety, but they were also more accustomed to a “stay at home” lifestyle than the 45-64 year olds when COVID-19 hit. As for messaging campaigns amid the pandemic, most consumers are facing the same basic challenges — safety, accessibility and availability. Address those and retailers will do well.

Dick Seesel

I’m also skeptical of the low “anxiety and stress” experienced by those over 65 (myself included). They may be better settled financially and without careers or kids at home to worry about, but they are the most vulnerable population in terms of health. The only explanation may be that accumulated life experience gives them some perspective on this crisis, or that they are more willing to trust the advice of medical experts. As consumers, they have become more astute and tech-savvy because of COVID-19 — without becoming reckless in their behavior.

Steve Montgomery

The short answer is yes. In many ways we boomers are better prepared to handle the impact of COVID-19. Most of the financial worries younger generations have are in our past, not our present or future. Many of us are empty-nesters and may have been so for some years so we don’t have the added stress of parents who find themselves with their children at home when they were planning for them to be at school, or trying to adapt to the changes remote learning requires.

While I and many of my friends are fortunate to be able to continue to work from home as we did before the pandemic, other friends in our age group are retired and have developed routines that keep them busy. I do agree, I found there was some irony in the statement about older Americans and their longer view, but I took it to mean that we have seen more and learned that we can adapt to our circumstances.

Georganne Bender

Bob Amster got it right: Baby Boomers have had to adapt our entire lives to changes and technologies that are native to younger generations. But we also have enjoyed many of the things in life that have been interrupted for younger generations — firsts like high school and college graduations. This kind of loss and uncertainty is rattling, and it’s likely why we see so many Gen Zs out partying on the nightly news. They are missing out on things that should have been guaranteed touchstones.

Of course every generation handles stress differently. It hasn’t been easy for any of us. We all saw unbelievable changes in business when COVID-19 hit. All this pivoting is exhausting but we’re doing it. Maybe Boomers are just more pragmatic because we have lived through more and we were raised by parents who thrived through worse. And those of us with kids and grandkids have been able to help them understand that we will get through this. Even when that has to happen over Zoom.

Natalie Walkley

The results from the study are fascinating — but it is a rather broad conclusion to claim that it is their viewpoint that dictates their proclivity to stress/anxiety. Other factors to consider:

  1. Young people are generally more social than older people, therefore social restrictions would impact them more severely. (Think of all the college experiences, proms, baby showers, kids’ birthday parties, weddings, etc. that have been canceled.)
  2. Many Millennials (average age of 25-40) have young kids at this point, which adds additional stress and anxiety to life, even when we are not in a pandemic. 😉 Throw in a lack of childcare and online school for many, and it’s a stress cocktail.

As an “elder Millennial” (as one comedian coined it) I have seen these factors first hand— while for our parents, life hasn’t changed very much other than not getting to see their grandbabies as often. No data point is a one-size-fits-all, but these are certainly noteworthy to the increase in anxiety and stress.

Ralph Jacobson

One size never fits all so, yes, targeted marketing is always appropriate.

Craig Sundstrom

I find the findings remarkable in that they contradict the (all too often portrayed) stereotype of younger persons — under 21-25, sometimes 40 — as “feeling invincible”. That having been said, the findings themselves are discouraging. I don’t know that older people — and by this I mean middle-aged, as opposed to elderly — are “coping” better, I think they’ve simply been affected less. Less likely to lose their jobs, less likely to have a need to establish/maintain social networks, less likely to exhaust savings.

As far as messaging: I’m sure that’s always been age-specific, though the differences between the various generations have likely grown.

Kim DeCarlis

The first rule of marketing is “know your audience.” At no time has this tenet been more important. Given the generational differences in reactions and stressors seen during the pandemic, brands must differentiate their messages — and even their product offerings and channels. Messages that connect with the realities and the emotion of the audience tend to have more impact. And note, this is ALWAYS the case … not just as a result of the pandemic.

"Most consumers are facing the same basic challenges — safety, accessibility and availability. Address those and retailers will do well."

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