Get ready for the big boom as Canada’s seniors shape society

“If you replaced the word ‘old’ with a word describing any ethnic or religious group, people would go insane. You’d have people picketing the store. When I brought it to the clerk’s attention, she said, ‘We’ve sold a lot of those. I don’t see anything wrong with it.’”

Even Dove’s celebrated Campaign for Real Beauty, which included a photo of an old woman with the caption “Withered or wonderful?” only worked because of the widespread ageist attitudes it questioned, says Colin Milner, CEO of the Vancouver-based International Council on Active Aging.

“With a lot of the anti-aging products, we have literally medicalized aging and made it a bad thing, a disease, you need to fight it — even though the moment you are born, you’re aging,” he says.

Matt Thornhill worked in mainstream marketing before launching The Boomer Project, a Virginia-based market research firm, in 2003. The young guns who populate many ad agencies view anyone over 55 as “pretty much dead,” he says, and when they do address them, it’s usually with commercials hawking pharmaceutical solutions for the problems that apparently consume what remains of their lives.

“None of it is aspirational, none of it is positive,” Thornhill says. “It’s all, ‘You’ve got issues, we’ve got answers.’ It’s enough to depress you if you’re 65 and older.”

That’s starting to shift, he says, and celebrities such as Harrison Ford, Bruce Springsteen, Sigourney Weaver and 72-year-old Jonathan Goldsmith, “the most interesting man in the world” from the Dos Equis beer commercials, are helping make age alluring.

“Boomers have made 60 the new 60. You’re not old at 60 — it used to be you were,” he says. “Thanks to the longevity revolution, old age doesn’t kick in until you’re 75 or 80 years old, so that means we’re still in middle age at 60 or 65.”

David Foot, a University of Toronto economist and author of the bestseller Boom, Bust & Echo, says average life expectancy in Canada rises by two years every decade and it’s that astonishing growth in longevity and the sheer size of the boomer generation that will change society’s thinking about aging — not anything special about the boomers themselves.

At 65, a baby boomer’s grandfather could have looked forward to seven more years of life and his father to 12 more years on average, Foot says — but a male boomer at that age today can expect another 17 years.

“The 65-year-old can’t believe they’re turning 65. They think they’re more like 50,” he says. “So the rising life expectancy is stretching out the difference between physical reality and emotional reality.”

This gap can cause real conflict, he says, and woe to the pharmacist who makes a boomer feel “old” — even if they really do need the arthritis medication offered.

Andrew Wister, professor and chair of the gerontology program at Simon Fraser University, says much of the discussion about aging has focused on “apocalyptic demography” predicting that greying boomers will collapse the pension and health-care systems and cause an explosion of dementia.