September 18, 2013

Hey, senior discount, you look so young

Like millions of Americans, Greg Petty got sucked into the time warp on his 50th birthday.

Like millions of Americans, Greg Petty got sucked into the time warp on his 50th birthday.

Fit and forward-looking, he was confused by an unexpected present: an invitation to join AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons. Thinking it couldn’t be for him, Petty, a magazine publisher who lives in Cary, N.C., crumpled it up and threw it in the trash.

Time stops for no man and neither does AARP. When he was greeted with another membership card on his 51st birthday, he read the material and found that aging had its privileges. “I’ve used it to save on car rentals, hotel stays and lots of other things,” Petty said. “After paying full fare for my entire life, it seems fair to get a discount.”

Welcome to the flexible and often generous world of senior discounts, where prime of life can be considered old and even the wealthy are entitled to special deals. Look at it one way and you see that many people are living longer, healthier, more active lives than ever before. From this angle, 70 is the new 60.

Another view suggests that 50 is the new 65, as businesses continue to lower the bar on deals for older Americans. Plenty of restaurants still offer the early-bird specials favored by blue-haired women and men in oversize windbreakers, but they are being joined by ski resorts and sky diving outfits, high-tech companies, rock concert promoters, dating services and wedding planners.

Many Americans may recoil at the senior label, but most are happy to enjoy the discounts. AARP reports that 80 percent of its 37 million members say they take advantage of its discounts or deals each year. The website lists more than 270,000 offers pegged to people 50 and older, double the number from years ago.

Yet as more enjoy such benefits, critics are questioning not only the business sense but the morality of age-dependent discounts.

“When the population of older Americans is growing and those people claim a greater share of the country’s wealth, offering someone a discount just because they have reached a certain birthday is on the edge of shameful,” said Ken Dychtwald, president and chief executive of Age Wave, a research and consulting firm that focuses on aging.

A debate about senior discounts has taken off since the Pew Research Center reported that older Americans had achieved greater economic gains than other groups. Combing census data, it found that the median income for households headed by Americans 65 and older had increased more than twice as much between 1967 and 2010 as the gains enjoyed by households headed by adults 44 and younger.

Don Campbell, a member of USA Today’s board of contributors, used these and similar statistics in a widely discussed 2012 column, “Why We Should Kill Senior Discounts.” He recalled snickering to his wife, who had just turned 55, that she could now save $3 on a $9.50 movie ticket. “But then I felt guilty - well, almost - when I noticed the family behind us with teenagers who were getting no break at all as they laid out upwards of $50 before they even got to the popcorn stand.”

The discounts for older people, which became popular in the 1960s and ‘70s, had a solid business purpose. Companies were looking for new ways to nudge a relatively small and frugal population that had weathered two world wars and a depression to spend some money. Other strategies, like early-bird dinner specials and off-peak travel discounts, sought to entice customers with flexible schedules.

Today, the old rationale is being turned on its head as the thrifty elderly of old give way to spendthrift boomers. “Boomers have the most and they spend the most,” said a 2012 Nielsen report, “Introducing Boomers: Marketing’s Most Valuable Generation.” It said their buying power would only increase. In four years, “close to 50 percent of the adult population will be 50 and older and they will control 70 percent of the country’s disposable income.”

Nevertheless, the discounts aren’t likely to disappear any time soon.

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