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Let Your Old Age Freak Flag Fly

There are four things I’m pretty certain about for 2013. First, I will run the New York half-marathon on the third Sunday in March, passing through Central Park and Times Square, then down the west side to the Battery. Next, a month later, I’ll do the Leatherman’s Loop, a 10K adventure run in Westchester County that cuts across meadows, through woods, up-and-down hills, and across three streams up to waist deep (good fun).

Then, in early November, I’ll run the New York City Marathon, doing a 4-mile-long high-five through Brooklyn (the crowds are so deep you just need to hold out your hand), before settling in to enjoy the sights and sounds of Autumn in the city.

And fourth?  I’ll wonder where all my peers went.

We are a shrinking band of brothers. In 1991, the year of my first New York marathon, my age group accounted for 19% of finishers; 4,827 of the 25,801 finishers were 35-39 years old. Twenty years later, we’re down to 5% (2,392 of 47,763 finishers in 2011 were 55-59).

Every year I tell myself the same thing, that I should slow down and join my former running buddies in more joint-friendly pursuits like biking, swimming, hiking, or yoga. But the more others drop out, the more I look at the grizzled, grinning guys in their 70s streaming down the street on Marathon Sunday, long, white manes blowing in the wind…and think, yeah, that looks cool.

Identity may not be the first trend that comes to mind when you think about aging. It’s certainly not what you see in marketing and media. But what ads and content don’t show – and should – is that aging is a time of definition.

According to GfK Roper TrendKey, the trend of Identity – being your own person, living your life accordingly, and expecting brands to respect your individuality – rises steadily from midlife through old age. The age group most likely to index high on Identity is people 65 and older. The affluent , who currently get the lion’s share of marketers’ “bespoke,” “customized,” “unique” attentions, put only a slightly higher priority on Identity than older consumers.

With the graying of the Baby Boom, there will be a growing focus on aging as a time of idiosyncrasy (a word that, at its root, means to “mix it yourself”). After all, the Boomers are the folks who, back in their do-your-own-thing youth, popularized “letting your freak flag fly.”

We’re already seeing effects in our research. Asked when old age begins, more than 1 in 5 consumers globally say you “can’t pick an age, it varies too much.” Older consumers are particularly likely to agree. And older people in the US are especially likely to.

Growing numbers globally say they “don’t feel constrained” by social expectations of what’s appropriate for people of their age or gender. Older consumers, again, point the way. Agreement has risen 7 points to 46% globally among people 50-59 years old since 2011 and is up 5 points to 44% among those 60 and older (vs. gains of 2 points or less for those under 40).

As the world ages – the fastest growth globally in the coming decade will be in the older population – it seems inevitable that there will be growing respect for the uniqueness inherent in aging.

This is not a new idea, just a forgotten one. In ancient cultures, old age was a time to go off and reflect on your life and values. In some cultures, that meant literally going into nature and becoming a “forest dweller.” Today that self-defining “forest” could be anything from a geographic move to an online journey, new passion, new line of work, or run in the park.

Marketers would do well to get ahead of the trend. And if you happen to be in Central Park on Marathon Sunday in 2033 …

Jon Berry is Vice President in GfK’s Consumer Trends division, based in the New York City office. Follow Jon Berry on Twitter: @Trendsmonk.

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