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Seniors Are a Recreation Powerhouse – But Do They Deserve a Discount?

 By John L. Crompton.

 Dr. Crompton is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University and a former city councilman of College Station, Texas. This blog post is an excerpt from an article published in the December, 2013 issue of Parks and Recreation Magazine.

There are several reasons for recreation and park departments to consider moving seniors to the center of their service efforts – most significantly because of their rapidly increasing numbers. In 2011, there were 41.4 million U.S. citizens aged 65 or older. They accounted for 13.3 percent of the U.S. population. The number is projected to increase dramatically to 56 million by 2020 and to 80 million by 2040, at which time they will comprise 21 percent of the population.

In addition to the growth in numbers, there are other factors: extension of active retirement time; contributions to economic development; enhanced leisure literacy; disproportionate political influence; and enhanced discretionary income. In this excerpt, we will look only at the last: enhanced discretionary income.
The remarkable changes in seniors’ financial status has been one of this country’s great national achievements in the past half century. The federal government’s traditional poverty measure reports that 15 percent of U.S. citizens lived in poverty in 2012, but this dropped to 9.1 percent among those over 65. (In 1959 when the federal government first published this measure, 35.2 percent of seniors were below it.)

While seniors’ household income remains relatively low, many argue this is deceptive because elderly households are much smaller than typical American households. On a per capita basis, the median income of those in the 65-74 cohort exceeds the national average by 11 percent. Seniors’ costs of living are generally lower than those of non-seniors, which reinforces their income and net asset gains. A large majority have neither child-rearing expenses nor work-related expenses such as commuting costs. Over 80 percent of them are homeowners and most are likely to have paid-off their mortgage by age 65, so their accommodation expenses are limited to taxes and maintenance. Further, an increasing number of local jurisdictions now freeze the property taxes paid by seniors when they reach age 65.

The dramatic shift in seniors’ status  suggests the tradition of giving price discounts to this group should be reviewed.

Senior discounts became part of the marketing lexicon in the 1950s. They made both commercial sense in the private sector and equity sense in the public sector, because at that time one-third of all seniors were below the federal poverty level. However, today seniors’ standard of living and their economic well-being is better than that of the non-elderly.

The great majority of elderly persons are not poor. The U.S. still has a poverty problem, but it is pervasive across all age groups and is not selectively concentrated among seniors. Hence, the ultimate goal of park and recreation agencies should be to end discounts defined by age and offer them only to those who are economically disadvantaged irrespective of age. To offer price discounts to the non-poor elderly is unfair to the poor non-elderly. It requires the non-elderly to reach into their wallets in order that seniors may save money, when there is no economic rationale to support this requirement.

Traditionally 65 was the age when people were defined as senior citizens. This was the age at which full Social Security payments could be obtained. This suggests that when the Social Security age for full payment was raised to 66 in 2009, agencies’ definition of seniors would also be raised, but no such linkage has occurred.

The per capita median income of those aged 65-74 is above the national average. It declines below the national average for those 75 and over. This suggests that if senior discounts are to be retained the eligibility age should be 75.

In fact, agencies have not done this. Rather, the problem has been widely exacerbated. In some instances 62 has been adopted. Some other definition ages are 60, 55 (a common retirement age from the military); and even 50 (the definition for membership in the American Association of Retired People).

Airlines, cable television companies, resorts, movie theatres and other private sector service providers of leisure services that used to give senior discounts have recognized the changed status of seniors and no longer do so. Those that are still available tend to be relatively small, typically 10 percent, so they meet the expectation by patrons of there being a discount, but only at a minimum level. Further, many businesses (e.g. hotels) do not advertise such discounts and give them only if they are requested. General acceptance by seniors to the private leisure sector’s actions suggests it is time for recreation and park departments to similarly change their policies towards senior discounts.

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