The relationships between cultural consumption, identity and holidays for the over 50s
Identity formation, consumption and the mature holidaymaker: Representations of the over 50s in travel brochures
Hausarbeit 2007 14 Seiten
Travel and Identity
Picturing practices – brochure vs ‘souvenir’ photographs
For several decades now there has been a trend towards a declining birth rate and therefore rapid ageing of the British population. With good medical supplies, older people stay healthy and live longer: in the past twenty years life expectancy has risen from 70 years in 1981 to 75 years in 2001 for men, and from 76 to 80 years for women (Soule et al. 2005). When retiring in their 50 or 60s, people can expect to live twenty more years or longer. Soon people over 50, the post-war baby boomer generation born between 1946 and 1965, will constitute the majority of the population.
In contrast to people retiring in the 20th century, 21st century retirees are active and try to enjoy their leisure time. Although ‘consumer society creates negative […] images of later life, by implication, if not directly, by valuing and emphasizing youthful body image’ (Morris 1998 in Bradley & Longino 2001, p.18), ‘old’ people immerse themselves in sports and other social activities, living life to the full. Holidays play an important part in this lifestyle as they are important for the ‘individual and social improvement and development, the resultant benefit of the self, including social self, being transportable back into the everyday environment as part of an ongoing life experience’ (McIntyre 2007, p.121).
With disposable income from salaries, pensions and investments and without children to support, the empty nesters become a desirable target group (Kotler & Armstrong 2006), also for travel operators. People over 50 may travel less, but they spend more on average than their younger counterparts and stay longer (Office for National Statistics 2006).
In the past decades, several travel operators have tried to buy into the mature market. They established brands for the over 50s, featuring names like First Choice’s 'Leisurely Times', Thomson’s ‘Young at Heart’, Cosmos’ ‘Golden Times’ and Airtours’ 'Golden Years' (Ylänne-McEwen 2000), all off which basically offered beach holidays around Europe. Now their brochures have vanished from the market. They either have been replaced by updated concepts or been incorporated into the ‘mainstream’ summer and winter brochures.
In this essay, I would like to explore why these travel programmes have been rejected by the young at heart and what kind of holidays has replaced them. I will have a critical look at the representation of the over 50s in the new brochures. I will deconstruct the mature holidaymaker, considering what they want and need of their holiday and which identity they derive from their activities and destination choice.
Travel and Identity
Identity formation is a constant progress and never concluded. In the fast-moving age of communication technologies, sociologists have come to believe that everyone has more than one identity. These identities become more and more liquid, as race, gender and class lose importance while mediation by consumption is growing (Shilling 2003, Bauman 2001). With identities evolving from ‘self-discovery, personal growth and lifestyle choice’ (Morgan & Pritchard 2005, p. 32), old people are said to
derive their sense of identity in later life from the achievements of the past and what remains to be accomplished in the future rather than from a set of stereotypical—usually negative—attributes of old age. Unless they are ill or depressed, older people do not feel “old.”
(Biggs 1999, in Bradley & Longino 2001, p.18, also see Mansvelt 1997)
This leads me to an important concept at the heart of the revolution of holidays for the elderly: the idea of subjective age (Muller & O'Cass 2001). Subjective age can be seen as the self-perceived age, basically meaning: how old a person feels. Research has shown that the subjective age of the ‘new-age elderly’ (Schiffman & Sherman 1991, quoted in Mathur et al. 1998, p.265) is considerably lower than their chronological (actual) age: many feel up to 20 years younger and prefer activities for an even younger target group (Mathur et al. 1998). The older they are, the wider is the gap between subjective and chronological age.
It is questionable though if these new-age elderly actually feel younger, or if they simply would like to be perceived as younger as they are striving for the ideal of youth promoted by the media and in advertisements. Research has shown that new-age elderly women feel a higher need to stay young than traditional elderly women (Sherman et al. 2001). Yet disregarding the apparent positive self-image of today’s over 50s, society keeps a hegemonic view of ‘old’ people as frail, passive and dependent (Thornton 2002), and therefore in need of support and security.
This hegemonic view conjures up a stereotypical idea of the elderly holidaymaker: a bus load of pensioners is dropped off at a cultural heritage site and they move about slowly, supported by walking aids. Their guide tells them all about the place in very simple words and in a louder voice than necessary - to make sure he is understood by the hard of hearing.
A survey of travel motivations of the over 50s however has shown a very different consumer: the teenage rebels of the 1950s and 60s consciously challenge the hegemonic discourse of old age by leading an active life (Mansvelt 1997), especially when on holiday. They seize the opportunity to create a youthful image by being more active than at home in their everyday lives. They like trying out new sports, from scuba diving to rock climbing, and travel to experience exciting new places and adventures (Saga Travel 2005). Especially men seem to be set on proving themselves: unlike their female counterparts who prefer more leisurely (or hegemonically ‘older’) activities like walking and hiking, men are said to ‘identify with sports like white-water rafting, glacier-hiking, rock climbing, caving or hot-air ballooning’ (Muller & O'Cass 2001, p.295).
Succeeding in these activities, which represent what is ‘still to be accomplished’ (see p.3), can be considered the key to creating their (holiday) identities. They are aware that they have achieved something, and - possibly - become an object of admiration and regard to their fellow travellers, who do not know them outside of the holiday context (Todd 2001). Their achievements are also sure to impress those who stayed behind (Muller & O'Cass 2001).
By taking part in activities aimed at a younger target group – consuming their ‘product’ and therefore lifestyle (Morgan & Pritchard 2005) -, older holidaymakers create a representation of themselves which is very youthful (Todd 2001). They might maintain this holiday image by picking the activity up as a hobby after they have returned home, but the novelty is likely to wear off fast.
An interesting angle of consideration is looking at seniors’ new holiday preferences from Simmel’s perspective. Simmel claims that, in a context of consumption, subordinate groups always imitate their superordinate group, as the superordinate group holds the hegemonic power in society (see Storey 1999). Based on this idea the question arises if the baby boomer generation initiates their pursuit of activity themselves, or if they feel that being active is a marker for youthfulness and therefore imitate the hegemonic group of younger people and their leisure preferences. It should be interesting to observe the development of this tendency over the next decades: with growing numbers, the over 50s are on the way of becoming the hegemonic group and, if we believe Simmel, the trendsetters of the future.
This idea also appears in Plog’s traveller typology (2001), according to which, on the one hand, psychocentric ‘Dependables’ (p.15) require pre-packaged holidays in typical tourist accommodation at a familiar destination where they can enjoy familiar activities at a generally low level of activity; on the other hand, there are allocentric ‘Venturers’ (p.16) who like unconventional, individualistic travel that gives them the opportunity to explore a new destination. Of course, there lies a scale between these two extremes, but – as many typologies – Plog’s model can be criticized for showing a highly generalizing picture.
The stereotypical notion of young and old age fits well into the context of Plog’s model: young people are said to be innovators and most likely to experiment with new products – or destinations in this case -, while older people tend to hold on to the familiar and are unlikely or even unable to change (Thornton 2002). Young backpackers, as Venturers, are usually the innovators that start travelling off the beaten track to exotic destinations. Then Dependable older people follow into their footsteps: they take part in escorted tours of these countries, hoping to find the same unspoilt landscapes and native cultures. By doing this, they move across the scale closer towards the allocentric pole, but cannot reach it, as they are unlikely to be the first to explore a destination.