Demographics is often described as “either a slow boat or a fast train”. Over the next ten years, the demographic change in Latin America can safely be characterized as transformative, both in speed and make-up. Considering that most consumer products take 5-10 years to develop, bring to market and achieve sustainable profit, rapid demographic change matters.
A fact that many marketers still struggle to grasp is that Latin America is the fastest aging region in the world. By 2040, the median age in Brazil will be older than USA. The reasons for Latin America’s accelerating aging are two-fold. Most importantly, the fertility rate in Latin America plummeted from four children per child-bearing age women to two children in barely thirty years versus a sixty year path in the US and Europe. Secondarily is the role of immigration. While there is significant cross-border migration within Latin America (Bolivians and Paraguayans moving to Argentina; Haitians moving to the Dominican Republic; Venezuelans moving everywhere, especially Colombia), Latin America as a whole still loses more migrants than attracts new immigrants from other parts of the world. Immigration is the key to keeping countries like Canada, USA, Germany and Britain young, even while their fertility rates drop.
Declining fertility will bring new challenges in future but in the short term has brought significant benefits to Latin America. With fewer children, many more Latin American women have joined the labor force, driving GDP growth and economically empowering women, creating more gender-equitable societies. Fewer children frees-up household monies that were earmarked for the basics: food, clothing, medicine, education and housing. Since the fertility rate dropped below three in the mid-1990s, Latin America began a consumption boom (aided by free trade) that continues today.
The demographic sweet-spot (few children & few elderly) is characterized by a high percentage of the population that is of working age. Latin America is roughly 2/3 through this 40 year stretch when households can indulge in discretionary spending and governments still don’t bear the significant costs of caring for the elderly. A reckoning of household and government balance sheets awaits Latin America 15 years from now, but for now, the consumer-centered fiesta continues.
What promises to radically change over the next decade is who is doing the spending and what they are buying. Latin America’s child population (<19 years of age) will shrink by c. 14 million while the number of retirement age Latin Americans (>65 years old) will grow by c. 26 million people. Elementary schools will close, or better yet be transformed into old age homes. Baby diaper production lines will be replaced with geriatric diaper products. The largest population growth (+40 million consumers) will be adults ages 51-80. At such ages, people tend to buy fewer physical goods and focus their spending on services: travel, university education (of their kids and grandchildren), wellness, financial planning & investing, hobbies, and healthcare – c. 80% of our lifetime spend on healthcare takes place in the last two years of our life.
As Latin America ages, its social mores are changing. Most Latin Americans still consider themselves Catholic but church attendance has been in freefall for a generation. The economic emancipation of women has changed the power dynamics of marriage in Latin America and encouraged women to postpone their first pregnancy as well as plan for fewer children. Young men and women who wait until their late twenties or thirties to marry are less willing to stay living with their parents until they tie the knot, as was the custom not long ago across the region. If they can afford it, they move out on their own. Untethered from the sometimes stifling supervision of family and church, today’s generation of Latin American young adults are far more confident and vocal about expressing their individualism. As a result, Latin American society is far more accepting of homosexuality, abortion, feminism and other social issues and movements that were loudly forbidden only a generation ago.
Latin American marketers often look to the US and Europe for guidance on consumption trends. Not surprisingly, global product releases often start in those markets before reaching Latin America. However, the demographic changes underway in Latin America will not be adequately served by ideas imported from Western Europe and the US. Though both Europe and North America (US & Canada) have all experienced declining birth rates, their child and youth populations are sustained by immigration. Instead of youth marketing declining in those markets, it has transformed into the driving force of global diversity marketing. Latin American populations are racially diverse but it is a stagnant diversity, constructed decades, even centuries ago. As a result, the messaging designed for an ethnically diverse youth population in Los Angeles, Toronto or London may not resonate in a seemingly diverse Sao Paulo, Panama, or Lima.
Similarly, marketing to Latin America’s burgeoning elderly population will require a home grown approach with little help from traditional marketing innovators in the US and Europe. Latin America’s elderly are more financially independent than their predecessors thanks to the success of privatized pension systems but they are not as independently wealthy as American baby-boomers who have benefited from consistently appreciating investment portfolios. What is more, Latin American societies still cherish traditions that bind together three generations, like Sunday lunch at Grandma’s, holidaying with grandparents in tow and even living together under one roof. The modern North American elderly messaging of ‘empty nesters breaking free of family duties in order to find themselves and explore their individuality’ has some but limited appeal in Latin America. A better source of ideas for marketing to the elderly may be found in Korea and Japan, whose strong traditions of family are quickly evolving from a similar starting point as Latin America.
The pace and substance of societal change in Latin America requires new thinking from its marketers, ideas that will increasingly originate at home, not overseas. That is an exciting, though daunting challenge that brands, agencies and others are only now coming to terms with.