The Importance of Social Relations When Considering Older Consumers

Scholars in marketing and sociology have examined how the consumption of goods and services is a factor in how people construct their social identity. This area of research has examined how categories such as gender, “youth,” or ethnic identity are expressed by consumers, but has yet to examine how consumption practices influence identities in older adulthood. How does the experience of consumption affect how individuals experience old age? Do older adults continue to maintain a consumer identity even when they no longer live independently?

 The authors argue that the consumer behavior of older adults who receive some form of formal caregiving is best understood by considering the older adult as part of a larger group of family, friends, and paid care providers, which the authors term the elderly consumption ensemble (ECE). The authors explored the ECE concept through questions about consumers and aging in an interview study involving a sample of eight ECEs, with a total of 20 individual participants.

 This framework leads the authors to observe how older adults in ECEs use consumer practices to enact identities with a wide range of cultural meanings, incorporating both positive and negative attitudes toward aging. Through changing patterns of consumption—such as hiring assistance for specific tasks—older consumers are able to position themselves as “aging but not becoming dependent.” The study suggests that some of the assumptions of existing research—such as a focus on consumers as solitary individuals rather than as people embedded within social networks—may be inadequate for studying consumer practice among older adults.


Barnhart M, Peñaloza L. Who are you calling old? Negotiating old age identity in the elderly consumption ensemble. Journal of Consumer Research (2013). E-pub ahead of print:

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