you are here: home > research projects > passive to active consumers

go to cultures of consumption home page
go to the about us page
go to news
go to page about projects
go to events page
go to publications page

click to go to links page




project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

From Passive to Active Consumers in Britain 1963-1998

This project charts the engagement of older people with Britain’s consumer society in the last four decades of the 20th century. Our research demonstrates that the consumption patterns of retired households are converging with those of working age households. This marks a transition from the situation when pensioners’ consumption patterns differed significantly from those of the rest of the adult population. Those retiring at the turn of the 21st century have lived through the expansion of mass consumer society. While there is variation based on income and wealth within the retired population, the retired have consumption patterns that more closely reflect those of the working population.  

visit this project's own web pages>>

image illustrating findings

click to view this project's findings summary sheet>>

Project team
Paul Higgs award holder
Maria Evandrou
Chris Gilleard
Martin Hyde
Ian Rees Jones
Xanthippe Tzimoula
Christina Victor
Richard Wiggins

Paul Higgs
Reader in Medical Sociology
Centre for Behavioural and Social Sciences in Medicine
University College London
Wolfson Building
Riding House St
London W1W 7EY

+44 (0)207 679 9466

Publications include:

Higgs P., Evandrou M., Gilleard C., Hyde M., Jones I.R., Victor C. and Wiggins D. ‘Ageing and Consumption Patterns in Britain 1968–2001’, in Generations Review 17 (2007) newsletter2/research14.asp

From Passive to Active Consumers? Trends in Ownership of Key Goods in Retired and Non-retired Households in the UK from 1968-2001
Paul Higgs et al., June 2006, Cultures of Consumption Working Paper.
Download as a Word document [339KB]

Hyde M and Jones I.R. ‘The Long Shadow of Work – Does Time since Labour Market Exit Affect the Association between Socioeconomic Position and Health in a Post-Working Population’, Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health61(6)(2007) pp.532–38.



Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal


The implications of the UK's ageing populatin for consumption has been relatively neglected. The trend to earlier retirement as well as the relative affluence of many retired people presents new challenges for the commercial world as much as it does to policy makers. The cohorts of people retiring now are those who participated in the creation of post war consumer culture. These consumers have grown older but have not stopped consuming; their choices and behaviour are products of the collective histories of both cohort and generation. This project aims to chart the engagement of different age cohorts with consumer culture and to show how retired people continue to contribute to consumer culture.

return to outline menu


People approaching retirement, entering retirement or currently living in retirement will have very different experiences of later life to their predecessors. With increasing affluence and the growth of a consumer society the social nature of ageing has become more differentiated. A single category of old age or old age pensioner can no longer encapsulate the range of experiences in later life. Paradoxically, as later life becomes more internally differentiated, it has also become less distinct from other parts of the lifecourse. Age specific (or appropriate) consumption and activities have diminished as retired people buy the same products and engage in many of the same activities as those in the rest of the population. Little empirical research however has been undertaken into the development of consumption patterns of retired people over the past few decades in the context of progressively earlier retirement, improved health and greater longevity. These changing circumstances have combined with the cultural developments that were brought about by the emergence of consumer society and its emphases on lifestyle and leisure.

Consumption has become important in the study of social life because it is increasingly an arena for the construction of identity. As the cultural ascriptions of a production-based class society have less and less personal significance, what people consume has a symbolic value as well as a utility value. This is as true of older people as it is for those at younger ages. The idea of consumer culture therefore is important in helping us understand how people make sense of their own lives even at older ages. Consumer culture at the beginning of the 21st century has also become generationally dependent. Not only are the current cohorts of retirees bringing into retirement their experiences and attitudes developed over their lives (pop music, more adventurous food and holidays), they are also changing the nature and expectations of post-working life. While many 20th century retirees moved to British seaside towns to retire because that is where they spent their holidays when younger, increasing numbers of British retirees today choose to retire to the Mediterranean coastline that they first experienced as the package holiday took off in the 1960s and 1970s. Expectations of later life are conditioned by the growing engagement with consumer culture that all are forced to face, whether positively or negatively.

The cultures of consumption related to later life are ones that change to keep pace with rising affluence but also change as different generations retire. What is central to these changes is the idea of lifestyle, because it through lifestyle that consumer choices are crystallised and provide an important basis for identity. How people spend their money is important in showing us how they live their lives and how they develop their lifestyles. Lifestyle emerged out of post-war youth culture and its engagement with consumer culture. It is these same cohorts who created the ‘generational field’ of the sixties who are now either retired or retiring. Studies on generational patterns of consumption in modern society have tended to neglect the changing cultural context of older people's consumption patterns. This is a major weakness for studying changing consumption patterns as the choices made by successive cohorts are rooted in their cultural experiences. Those who came to adulthood in the 1960s will have very different expectations and experiences than those born ten years earlier. Crucial to understanding ageing today therefore is an awareness of the differences in consumption patterns between and within generations.

return to outline menu


TThis project seeks to answer the following questions:

  • What were the patterns of consumption, leisure and work amongst people aged 50+ from 1963–1998?
  • Does the growing affluence of the UK retired population lead to members of successive retirement cohorts having more participation in consumer society?
  • Do older cohorts engage less with consumer society, both in absolute terms and in contrast with cohorts that they share retirement with?Will there be greater social differentiation within each successive cohort and cross-sectionally over time in terms of consumption patterns?

return to outline menu


This study will conduct a cross-sectional historical comparison of people at different ages utilising secondary analysis of large data sets such as the Family Expenditure Survey. By undertaking a quasi-cohort analysis, we will examine survey data on people aged 50, 60 and 70 over ten year time spans. Using indicators such as levels of income and ownership of particular goods, we will be able to look at levels of affluence in each cohort and consumption patterns. We will undertake a similar exploration of General Household Survey data between 1973 and 1993 to validate and triangulate our results. Our quasi-cohort analysis will be contextualised by a review of historical data relevant to generations and cohorts in the UK over the 20th century. This will allow us to develop a historical narrative of changing patterns of consumption over the last 40 years so that our analysis of FES data can act as a reference point for developing a hermeneutic understanding of changing patterns of consumption among older people in British Society. Our analysis will allow us to interrogate such changes with respect to specific consumption patterns among cohorts of older people and in relation to changing patterns of consumption in society as a whole.

Our aim will be to identify key moments of transition in consumption patterns in old age and key areas of consumption activity in old age and use these as points of entry for historical contextualisation. An important example of such key areas of activity is the changes in the value of and ownership of pensions. By the mid 1990s the value of the UK state pension had been eroded to exceptionally low levels but at the same time increasing numbers of retired people were fit and healthy and held private pensions (an increase from 12 million to 30 million between 1975 and 1995). The last stage of analysis will involve development and revision of the theoretical work on cultures of consumption in old age.

return to outline menu


This project is concerned with demonstrating the importance of generational differences in the experience of consumption. In an ageing society, academics, voluntary organisations, and policy makers often overlook the dimension of consumption. Commercial organisations, on the other hand, may well be aware of the opportunities presented by older consumers but do not see the wider issues posed by generational consumption. We will present our findings in a number of ways relevant to these different audiences. In addition to a research monograph and other publications we will organise a specialist seminar programme on ‘generation and cohort’ with a view to producing an edited collection from key-note speakers. We also intend to hold an international conference on intergenerational consumption. We will actively engage industry, voluntary organisations and policy makers with our work through a number of focussed events where the emphasis will be on understanding the differences between and within cohorts entering retirement. We will involve the general news media in our approach and findings.



TOP | home | ABOUT US | NEWS | PROJECTS | events | PUblications | CONTact US


ahrc logoesrc logobirkbeck college logo