''This is an extraordinary group of women'' … Wendy Harmer. Photo: Domino Postiglione
They are the in-betweeners, women 45 and over who are doing things all over again - careers, relationships and education. Known as "the wedgers", these women - 2.2 million of them in Australia - are making marketers and online publishers sit up and take notice of their economic power.
"For the first time in history they are embarking on very similar things to an 18-year-old … and that hasn't happened before," says Jane Waterhouse, a marketing expert and co-founder of The Hoopla website with radio broadcaster and writer Wendy Harmer.
Websites that target a female audience, such as Mamamia (run by Mia Freedman) and the newly launched Daily Life (owned by Fairfax Media, publisher of this newspaper) have generally attracted younger audiences. The Hoopla site, however, is not only tapping into the female audience but also specifically targeting women over 45 and tech-savvy. Almost 6 million women between 18 and 54 in Australia go online every month and 48 per cent of them buy something while they are there.
Harmer said advertisers were ''galloping'' towards these women at ''a million miles an hour''. The former morning radio host and children's author felt disillusioned by the representation of women her age in mainstream media. She also saw a gap in the market in internet publishing for older, intelligent women.
Sites such as The Hoopla, which started last year, are not only changing the way such women internet users are being perceived by marketers but showing a different side to womanhood. "We can probably be defined by what we don't do," says Harmer of the content on her site. The Hoopla avoided traditional topics - baby advice, beauty tips and fashion - for stories that better target issues wedgers are concerned with.
''We're really talking to that sandwich generation that has teenagers and they have elderly parents and often they're going through menopause - I mean, what an unholy trinity that is," Harmer says. "But this is an extraordinary group of women - they're really looking for that connection with other women online."
Her colleague Waterhouse, a former marketing manager at magazines including The Australian Women's Weekly, says wedgers have been transformed by social media. "Plenty of these women have 18- or 19-year-old daughters, but the gap has narrowed so much between the two,'' she says. ''She [the wedger] is probably more like a Gen Y than she is a Gen X. She's closer to being a Gen Y in her attitudes about life."
Women in this age group have previously been classified as "Generation Jones" by the American researcher Jonathan Pontell. But in Australian advertising circles, particularly in relation to internet advertising, the wedger has become the leading moniker.
"Forty-five is the bullseye," Waterhouse says. "In terms of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the biggest bubble is 45 to 49. That's where you find the majority of women [in Australia]. They are the main contributors to social media. [And] social media has given a voice to the voiceless. Traditionally in buying cars or computers or white goods, women got intimidated by salesmen. Now social media allows them to do their research online, compare all the prices, so when they go in they're actually really well informed and can negotiate. It's empowering a generation."
The marketing industry's interest in older women, a group previously ignored by a traditional focus on youth and glamour, appears to be growing because this group has a special currency that teenagers do not - money. ''They hold all the purse strings, as we know women make or influence 85 per cent of all consumer purchases,'' Waterhouse says. ''When it comes to personal income, this is the person that controls not just their own income but the household income as well. So they're controlling millions - billions - of dollars as a group."
While some women between 45 and 49 have felt estranged from the usual generational classifications, they have some powerful role models with enormous clout. "Prime Minister Julia Gillard is a wedger," Waterhouse says.
A growing sense of community and camaraderie among older women online has provided an increasingly lucrative market for advertisers, who previously took a broad-brush approach to older women. Some marketing experts, however, say there is still a way to go. Women over 50 are the last major untapped market in Australia, according to advertising expert Jane Caro, a freelance copywriter, lecturer and author who also appears on the ABC's The Gruen Transfer.
"They are the first group of women of that age in the history of the world who have worked all their lives and been paid for that work and are independently minded and are interested in spending money on themselves," she says. Convincing young men who work in advertising that they need to take notice of this age group remains ''a tough job'' because they prefer youth and beauty over income status, Caro says.
The numbers, however, tell a story that cannot be ignored and make good business sense. More women than ever are logging on to the web - more than 8.3 million (across all ages) went online in one month, according to a Roy Morgan Research study last December.
For Caro, the involvement in an "indie" web revolution of high-profile women such as Harmer and Caroline Roessler, the former editor of Notebook magazine who is The Hoopla's editor, was evidence of a fightback of sorts. "They're going out and starting things for themselves, and - you know what? - they're finding a constituency. They're finding it with a whole lot of women who've been ignored out there for a very long time.''
Women are tired of the old-fashioned attitudes towards growing older, Caro says, because their lives are completely different to their mothers' and grandmothers'. "You can't empower these women and then say to them, 'Oh, you've turned 50 - can you just be grandmothers and shut up?''' Caro says.
''It's not going to happen. Who in their dreams thought that was going to happen?''