In need of a confidence boost. A slave to domesticity. Helpless victims of that dreaded enemy, ageing.
As soon as a woman starts nearing the big 5-0, society remoulds her using tired and dated stereotypes. Advertisers are perhaps the worst culprits of all. Patronising ads, masquerading as empowerment, created by under 40’s men and women, often using younger women to represent their older counterparts. They paint an inaccurate and irrelevant picture but worst of all, encourage the idea that growing old is a terrible problem that needs to be combatted, and unforgivably, render the older woman – despite her accounting for almost half the nation’s consumer spending – irrelevant.
At Human Theory we set out to debunk the stereotypes and truly understand this under-represented demographic. Using natural language processing and other data science techniques, we delved into the life of the over 50-year-old woman in the UK. Our data sources were rich and varied, from comments on blog posts and news articles about ageing, to Facebook communities, forum threads, and NHS support groups for the menopause. It’s safe to say that these women are talking a lot and about a wide variety of things. From the effect of menopause on their bodies and minds, to their grown-up children’s new jobs. In our search for data we became witness to a community of exceptional women that defied stereotypes without even trying.
“Hibernation would be wonderful right now, providing I had Wi-Fi, Netflix, and my iPad” – just one of many quotes we found that signalled how comfortable this generation are with technology and wider cultural trends. Their malleability and adoption of new things was shown to go further than technology too. They’re trying new things – from red lippy and 5k park runs, to dating apps and vegetarianism. They’re also dressing and styling themselves in a way that rejects what society typically deems suitable for their age. Using a probability model based on over three thousand comments on Marks and Spencer’s clothing products, we could predict with 90% accuracy if a female commenter would be over the age of 50 if they used the word “daughter”. This was because so many of our older women were leaving comments that described how their daughter has the same clothing product, or how they saw their daughter in it first. Their appetite for newness and the blurring of generations they promote came out in the minute details of their language too, with the most commonly used adjectives being “first” and “new”.
But to be malleable and move with new tides requires confidence. Something these women also have in abundance. When analysing their language, we looked specifically at the verbs they were using, which gave us an insight into a mindset of determination and strong-will: “can”, “will”, “have”, and “do” presented themselves consistently as the top verbs used by these women, compared to the weaker, more passive alternatives of “should” and “might”. These older women are resolute enough to try new things in the first place.
Their confidence forms a huge part of who they are and how they project themselves in society too. After running language analysis on a group of younger women and comparing it to our over 50’s, we saw that younger women are more likely to use “we” over the “I” that the over 50’s are using. Independent and individualistic, they’re finally coming into their own and revealing how they “want to be more relaxed and carefree. I want to be able to say ‘no’ when extended family and friends demands too much of my time.” This is their life and they’re going to live it, without hiding behind the “we” their younger selves might have used.
But that’s not to say they’re self-centred. In fact, across all the data sources we analysed, “lovely” was the most commonly used adjective by this group – a generous and compassionate word that suggests these women are ready and willing to give support. With friends separating from husbands, adult children moving back into the family home to save money, and ageing parents that need looking after, these women are still depended upon more than ever. But rather than being shoulders to cry on, they are the linchpins. Unblushing and unafraid pillars of support who are curious, malleable, and avid absorbers of new trends.
Through their language these women showed us how multi-faceted and bold they are, and advertisers and brands need to do better to reflect that. They deserve to be empowered, but to do that, they first need to be understood.
Written by Casey Wright