Industry must give much more attention to the grey market ­ half Europe's population and with massive spending power in numerous lucrative fields says Sarah Dowding By 2020, half of Europe's population will be over 50. We are a rapidly ageing society in which people live longer, and in which the old are often well off with sizeable assets and comfortable pensions. But what is old? Old used to be over 50, but they no longer see themselves as old. They welcome early retirement to gain control over their lives. Middle age is not the beginning of the end but, for some, the beginning of a 30 year period of personal enjoyment and self indulgence. Perceptions of old age need to change as lifestyles traditionally associated with different age categories will evaporate. What criteria should determine the relevant lifestyle' differences within an ageing population? An ageing population has major social and economic implications. Over 80% of women over 65 live alone, compared with 25% of men. Single households will account for 40% of all households by 2010. Older people are also more concerned with nutrition and health implications of food and they expect products to meet these needs. All in all they are very demanding consumers. The over 50s (50-64) are the richest of all age groups and they are healthier and more active than ever before. Older people's disposable income increases as they are more inclined than younger people to travel (80% of luxury travel is by the over 55s), eat out, and buy more convenience foods and functional foods. For those people of older age (70+), there may other problems to address. Taste and smell are less sensitive, and other problems associated with old age such as loss of teeth, dementia and strokes, as well as less money, affect food choice. In one study a third of normal, healthy, elderly women were on a diet. As a result many of the elderly are malnourished. Those under 40 spend their discretionary income on acquiring possessions. The 40 to 60 age group spend their discretionary income on "catered experiences" such as sports, travel and culture, and the over 60s spend money on "being experiences" which highlight the sense of wellbeing, identity and intelligence. Thousands of silver surfers' are also taking to the internet for the first time, opening up a new world of information and opportunity. Yet the media and marketers alike persist in treating the elderly as an embarrassment or as irrelevant. This is in part because many of those who work in marketing, advertising, broadcasting and publishing are young. The media is especially wary of targeting an ageing audience. Where's the investment if your target audience is about to die off? The Design Age project at the Royal College of Art persuades often reluctant students and industrial companies to design with the grey market in mind. The project focuses on a diplomatically named, "design for our future selves". This partly means older people and partly people of any age living in a world transformed by technological and social change. Most adverts are, at present, targeted to under 35s. But future growth opportunities arise from the lifestyle and spending preferences of the middle aged. Industries that ignore the growing army of over 50s do so at their peril. The alternative is the uncomfortable realisation that it is not their customers but they who are on the way out. {{LEADING EDGE }}