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Celebrate the elderly when they stop saving

by Philip Brasor

On Sept. 15, the country “celebrated” Respect for the Aged Day, when we honor our elders, who pass their wisdom and experience down to us so that our lives and those of our children will be happier and more fulfilling. Of course, nothing is farther from the truth. We in the industrialized world seem to be allergic to the elderly. We talk about how we have to take care of them and how they are a wasted resource but, generally speaking, we would prefer they stay at home knitting or playing checkers and not remind us of our own impending mortality.

It’s difficult to say whether the media’s aversion to old people is a reflection of this tendency or the cause of it. Everything is aimed at youth and boomers, supposedly because that is where the money is, but actually that isn’t where the money is. One of the few genuine uses of Respect for the Aged Day is that every year on Sept. 15 the government releases scads of statistics about our “rapidly aging society.” Presently, we just learned, 54 percent of Japan’s huge reserve of personal savings is held by people 60 years of age and older.

It has become a broken-record theme of this column that the recession would have been over as soon as it started if both the public and private sectors had figured out a way of easing the citizenry’s grip on this socked-away money. Last week, a commentator on TV Asahi’s “Sunday Project” said that corporate facilities investments have improved impressively, but without a concomitant increase in consumer spending “it’s like flying an airplane with only one engine.”

Japan’s savings rate soars while growth hovers around zero. At the same time, America’s record-breaking period of growth continues unabated while savings have slumped to their lowest point since statistics were first collected in 1957. Why aren’t these rich old skinflints being wrestled to the ground and forced to buy something? Why is everyone pursuing high-school girls whose disposable income is provided by their already strapped parents, or thirtysomething couples who would love to buy that new Windom except that they just mortgaged their first-born male child to put a down payment on a 2LDK in Hiyoshi?

The main reason is that current seniors haven’t lived their entire lives within the so-called information revolution. The great marketing story of the past five years was cellular telephones and their progeny, products that the industry and the media think older people look upon with dread and confusion. Likewise, when NEC and Fujitsu pitched personal computers at middle-aged men several years ago, they implied that there was nothing to be afraid of (since many older salarymen equate computers with downsizing), a strategy that was cute but condescending.

The death of the Japanese department store can be blamed in part on the industry ignoring its traditional constituency. Marketing surveys all show that young people aren’t interested in department stores, where shopping is a social activity. Kids are expert consumers. They know exactly what they want and where to go to get it. Older people, who don’t surf the Net or pore over “trend” magazines, still make their purchase decisions on the spot.

Even department stores think they have to cater to young people. The newspaper fliers for Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya and other dinosaurs invariably feature attractive twentysomething models (mostly white) wearing fashions that a self-respecting contemporary twentysomething wouldn’t be caught dead in, but a self-respecting sixtysomething might.

Older people do have their own “trendy” magazines; it’s just that you can’t buy them in bookstores because older people don’t hang out in bookstores. Two such publications, Iki Iki and Mainichi ga Hakken, have become big sellers through subscription and phone orders.

Iki Iki, which means “lively” and is a term often used to describe elderly people whom you would otherwise expect to be vegetating in bed, is a self-described “catalog” magazine that goes beyond the health products pitched at seniors in the overground media to encompass fashion, cars and restaurants.

The latest issue of Mainichi ga Hakken (literally, “everyday is a discovery”) includes articles about the charms of San Francisco, the excitement of owning a Cadillac Deville and interviews with prominent older celebrities.

The older people who control this huge slab of savings respond best to a personal approach. These are people who were born before or during the war, experienced abject poverty firsthand, worked hard to make Japan the powerhouse it is, and now live in modest but secure comfort. Faxes, e-mail and cell phones are impressive conveniences, but these people value civility over convenience. They like bargains as much as young people do, but they also like salespeople.

In this sense, it is the elderly you can blame for the rise of telemarketing in Japan. I can’t get off the phone fast enough when yet another salesperson calls, but older people are too polite to cut them off. They listen right through to the end of the pitch, and, of course, that’s how they get hooked. In this increasingly impersonal world, the personal touch still has its uses — at least until the boomers turn 60.

Correction: In my last column I stated that American Family Life Assurance, which sells health-related insurance in Japan, originated the telephone-call hand gesture in its advertisements. The insurance company that popularized the gesture is actually American Home Direct. I apologize for the error.