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'Grey is the New Black'

25 April 2005

This was the title given to a session at the recent UK Booksellers' Association conference in Glasgow which focused attention on the growing importance of grey readers. Steve Bohme of Book Marketing Limited showed the increasing importance of this market, as the baby boom generation hits retirement. He said they represent ‘a huge opportunity, particularly for independent booksellers’. Henley Centre research already shows that in the past five years the value of UK book sales to 55 to 74 year olds has risen by 31%.

The increasing size of the grey market is a worldwide trend, shared by the US and by northern European countries where the population is ageing fast and living longer. US figures show that no less than 75 million live births were recorded between the years 1946 and 1965. The oldest cohort in this baby boom generation is just hitting retirement.

Henley figures show that spending by the over-fifties in Western Europe has increased three times faster than for any other group. In the past the baby boomers have crashed through each age group, imposing their own view of what that age represents. Now they are approaching retirement age with an unprecedented amount of money and the determination that they will enjoy their retirement.

In the UK the Saga organisation has made a huge success out of selling a wide range of services to the growing market of over-fifties. Emma Soames, the influential editor of Saga magazine, identified two core parts of this older market. There’s the ‘war old and the new old. The war old are probably the last generation who would prefer to borrow rather than buy. The new old have been consumers all their lives, baby boomers who have been buying since the days of the Beatles and Biba. They are much more like their children than their parents and many of them will go on saying they are middle-aged long into their seventies.’ But 95% of marketing spend in the UK is aimed at under fifties, according to the Henley Centre, and business seems terrified of openly approaching this huge market which is rapidly presenting itself.

As regards the book business, Richard Samson of Chrysalis cautioned against clinging to long-held assumptions of what this older market might like to read: ‘The 55 to 74s are buying less romance, cookery, health, business and DIY, and more crime, travel, sport, fitness and diet, humour and entertainment books.’ In short, the new greys are carrying their interests and reading tastes with them as they get older and have more time to devote to reading. Unlike the generations before them, many of them will have the money and lengthy retirement to indulge their interests. They are already starting to redefine retirement and it looks like this powerful group will present a completely different set of older readers, many of whom are keen book buyers.