The wit and wisdom of George Smith: instead of Help the Aged, let the aged help

Originally written in the mid to late 1990s, this challenge from the curmudgeonly Smith is still highly apposite – maybe even more so in these dark days. We’ve left in references to fax machines and camcorders to signify the pace of social change, but the gist remains as uncannily prophetic as it was when George first suggested that, perhaps, not all experts are worth listening to.

Written by
George Smith
Added
February 25, 2021

It looks like there are ten million old people in this country. Ten million and rising (that’s the UK he’s talking about, and now it’s actually past 12 million – Ed). The percentage of the population now aged 60 or more is approaching 21 per cent and you’ll have seen the projections for the growth of that percentage in the coming decades. One in four of the entire population will soon be old.  

The extent to which this known phenomenon is ignored by fundraisers is fascinating. For it is not ignored by other marketers. The railway stations and airports are thronged by beaming, vigorous travellers who have been targeted by Saga (for those not based in the UK, Saga is a holiday company popular with the over-50s – Ed.). These people spend millions weekly in garden centres and keep large chunks of the West End in lights. 

For the central point about old people is that they are astonishingly rich. I have pointed out elsewhere that they are historically rich, the richest people who have ever lived. They are arguably the last generation to profit from a lifetime career, from secure pension provision and by startling fortune in the property market. You do not have to have done anything remarkable to have assembled a seven-figure asset situation by the time you stop working; six figures is utterly conventional. It is sadly unlikely that future generations will enjoy these components of wealth creation. For the current concentration of wealth in the upper age groups is a finite phenomenon, only very recently visible and likely to disappear below the horizon like the Hale Bopp comet. 

We know all this. We have heard all about it at seminars, read about it in the press. If we have been exposed to the social demographers, we will have learned the characteristics of this new fundraising market. They are active, these people – physically active, sexually active, socially active and culturally active. They are so active it’s sodding unfair - here are all these rich people poncing around, doing what they want, never having to go to meetings, living on their savings, rarely touching their capital, lying in bed all morning and growing world-class Swiss chard. I stayed at a five-star hotel recently. The noisy splashing in the pool came not from the traditional Germans forming pyramids but from dozens of white-haired folk with figures like Brad Pitt. Well, the chaps anyway. 

Let us be keen-eyed about this. A good proportion of one fifth of the population is loaded and leisured. It is financially secure and has quality time on its hands. It is having all the fun that the rest of us deserve. And what is the conventional depiction of this gilded generation by fundraisers? We think of them as legacy prospects. Oh, and as shop assistants if they are female. For the fundraising mindset is that old people are poor and frail, not to be disturbed by us lest they tumble from their Zimmer frames. If we categorised millions of young people or black people or female people with such blandness we would offend liberal opinion. But liberal opinion goes totally untroubled by the startling caricature that is Victor Meldrew (from the hilarious BBC TV comedy series ‘One foot in the Grave’, which pokes fun at our increasingly irascible older citizens – Ed). Don’t get me wrong - I think you should laugh at everything. But the basic joke in that show is about being old and therefore silly. 

So, in ignoring the potential of this market we are at once patronising and incompetent. We have all the science and the statistics with which to reach this market. We should have the wit to develop products and messages unusually appropriate to it. We should have the skills to overcome its known problems. For the problems exist all right - these people have probably never been charity donors on any scale; they think of a donation as something placed in a tin; they are likely to be politically reactionary. But they are real people. They grieve over suffering and love their grandchildren. They may even suffer the odd twinge of guilt as they see the interest on their deposit accounts making them richer every passing month (well, back in the day they did, when interest rates were worth having – Ed). And they might be happy to be confronted with the opportunity to devote some of that marginal income to doing good. 

It is a sad truth that this extraordinary opportunity is going begging because most fundraisers are young and see their natural audience as themselves. Thus, the continued quest to recruit ‘young professionals’ or (and I quote from a client brief) ‘the critical 25-44 generation’. I tell you two things about this age group. First, it hasn’t got as much money as its elders. Second, it will inexorably get older itself. 

So, let’s stop deferring to conventional wisdom. It’s rotting our brains and corrupting our politics. This New World Order of ours is revealed as a parlour game in which all the participants are blindfolded, stumbling around the room saying silly things to each other. 

Pessimists may be missing an untapped source of funds, advises George Smith.

Recessions, for example, are not cyclical anymore. The next one’s more likely to be terminal. We are not buying things anymore and only partly because we haven’t got the money. We are buying less because there is less that we want to buy. The old aspirational hooks that made us big consumers are rusting. Our hi-fi systems are as good as our ears can cope with; our iPhone cameras take perfect pictures; our dishwashers last for decades; we have even discovered that cars can last for more than two years; our children clothe themselves in Oxfam shops and street markets; the fax machines, the personal computers, the mobile telephones, the camcorders and the dimmer switches are mostly in place now. And mostly under-used. (OK, this was written a few decades back – Ed)

This is deathly news to retailers, large corporations, fashion houses and car manufacturers. It is already a headstone on the freshly-dug graves of multinational computer companies. But it could be paradoxically good news for fundraisers. 

Think about it. There’s still an awful lot of money around, increasingly held by older people and increasingly being shoved into savings where it confers no benefit on society other than making the oldsters feel a little more comfortable. Some of this wealth may be occasionally unlocked to pay for a Saga Holidays wingding or a new fruit cage, but Mr and Mrs Middle England are never now going to spark off a new consumer revival. Their annual five thousand miles of motoring can safely be conducted in their current model whatever its age, their sensible tweeds make them unlikely to he found beating down the doors at Versace or even Austin Reed. Of all the people who’ve got enough, these people have an excess of enough. 

In summary, then. We’ve got a newly impoverished society, we’ve got a younger generation who are going to have to build their lives via totally new economic mores, we’ve got an apparently endless recession and we can begin to talk about the end of growth-through-consumer-spending. And, in the middle of this apparently apocalyptic state of affairs, we have millions of rich people getting richer. Many of them married our mothers. Or fathers. 

Is this a case for specifically-targeted fundraising, or isn’t it? Hit the pause button and think. These observations are guaranteed LSE, Cambridge University, Bank of England and thinktank free. I’m no expert. Sure, I’m an Old Fart myself. But just for the record, I’m not in the age group described above. Not for... oooh ... months.

The first edition of George Smith’s classic book Asking Properly is still available from White Lion Press, at www.whitelionpress.com

About the author: George Smith

George Smith

A legendary marketing/fundraising guru and curmudgeon.

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