Confessions of an Aging Baby Boomer

I’m a leading edge Baby Boomer, born at a time when life was simple and filled with optimism and possibilities. Now, that time is past and the world around us has changed. And, of course, we are getting older. We do not think of the next life stage as ‘old.’ Aging, yes. Old, no! But we will continue to be an important consumer segment in the coming decades, and will not “go gentle into that good night.”

I belong to the largest and most important economic cohort in U.S. history. I’ve accounted for the greatest share of U.S. consumption and earnings since 1980. My era of economic dominance is projected to last until 2019. I’ve benefited from more education than any previous generation. As a woman, my increased education and participation in the labor force along with the rise in technology and globalization led to a strong positive economic environment throughout much of my life.

The Robin Report BabyBoomer

I’ve been a big spender, accounting for 78% of GDP from 1995 to 2005. The relative prosperity which characterized most of my life, along with the complete dominance of my cohort in every life stage, served to increase my innate generational optimism and feelings of entitlement. I grew up believing I both earned and deserved “the good life.”

I am better off than those younger than I, the Trailing Edge boomers born between 1956 and 1964, and the Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1984, who are now in their 30s and 40s, who will have to pay the price for the revision of the social contract which will now, by necessity, be inevitable. Still, I do not yet feel ready to make compromises. And, although I feel that I will have to compromise in the future, I do not feel like the future is now.

When asked how he felt about his place in Rock and Roll now that he is entering his 70s, Keith Richards said recently in an NPR interview that he plans to live to 120 and continue to make records, play music, and do great shows. Boomer icons Paul McCartney and Paul Simon, both 69, Bob Dylan, 70, and Elton John, 64, all continue to pursue their art and to imprint our culture significantly and in new ways even as another generation of Lady Gagas, Taylor Swifts and Justin Biebers, young enough to be their children or even grandchildren, perform beside them. The message here, other than that of effective promotion by both aging and young rock stars: we are still and will continue to be a relevant and influential part of the culture.

And, like the aging rock stars who are still actively performing, boomers are not going to simply retire at 65, the age that one of us is turning every 10 seconds. We will work longer both because we want to and because we have to. A recent AARP study indicated that 40% of working boomers never expect to retire. Work is a fulfilling part of our lives which keeps us active, vital and connected. And, frankly we need the money. We lost trillions in the collapse of the housing bubble. As a generation, we did not save very much, and counted the appreciation of our homes as wealth. The financial crises have devoured our 401ks.

Not surprisingly, like most boomers, I still feel young. I am active and fit. I don’t consider myself beyond mid-life even though actuarially I am. (Unlike Keith Richards, I’m not expecting to live another 60 years!) People tell me I look at least a decade younger than I do, and, research confirms this: consumers relate to a younger version of themselves at every age. While I don’t necessarily love what I see in the mirror every day, I am doing everything I can to remain healthy, vibrant and relevant. I’m in the lucky half of my cohort who does not already suffer from long term chronic health problems – and have not curtailed my purchases of products and services.

What is a great mystery to me as both a professional marketer and a consumer, is why marketers are not doing everything they can to reach me more effectively.

I see the effect of good brand marketing all around me. I also see products and services whose brands don’t even know I exist. Is this because I am too old to be in their target demographic? Is it because they can’t relate to me, don’t understand me or know how to talk to me? Trust me, playing I Heard it Through the Grapevine or Jumpin Jack Flash in an ad is not enough to get me to buy your product.

Over the next decade, experts and analysts agree, several key product categories will benefit from our demand. Among these are: consumer electronics and technology; apparel, accessories and footwear; health and beauty aids; healthcare and pharmaceuticals; and financial services. In these categories it is estimated that half or more of total sales will come from continued boomer spending.

With the exception of those specialty and fashion-driven brands and retailers who focus exclusively on teens and twenty-somethings – and you know who you are – pretty much all of the major retailers have an opportunity to do a better job with my generation. Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Penney, Kohl’s and Walmart will all continue to derive a significant percent of their sales from aging baby boomers. But, because they view themselves as being in the fashion business, they tend to be focused on youth, youth culture and “young families.”

These retailers might note that while young families do buy lots of basics for their multiple needs, we boomers buy significantly for our smaller households, for our children’s households, and for our grandchildren, on whom we overspend and indulge like crazy.

There is no doubt that those of us who are fashion aware will stay fashion aware into our 60s and beyond. As long as we can, and as long as there is product we want and an environment that welcomes us and serves us, we will buy. We represent a continuing opportunity for you. Give us style and product that is exceptional in design, quality and image. If we liked it when we were 30 and 40, we will still like it and even pay a premium for it if it fits our needs. Designers like Michael Kors, Donna Karen, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren – most leading edge Baby Boomers themselves – seem to grasp this instinctively. So does JC Penney, with their acquisition of the boomer staple Liz Claiborne brand.

Even those of us who are less fashion forward and/or less affluent buy clothing, shoes and accessories. Recognize this. If you meet our needs effectively for the next several years we can become your competitive advantage.

So, to all you fashion and consumer product retailers and manufacturers: Don’t ignore us. Don’t think that because we are older we want to look dowdy. Or that we don’t care about how we look or care about new products and technology and culture.

If you are going to market your products to us, first, know us. If you are not one of us, learn about us. We may be your parents and grandparents, but these are not our only roles. Learn to see us as we see ourselves, as accomplished, vibrant people with many interests, abilities, and talents. Learn by listening to us. Don’t talk down to us. Talk to us in a voice that is relevant and meaningful and respectful. Know that we are still a majority or near majority, wielding lots of economic power over the next several years. Even when we no longer dominate the economy we will still account for significant spending across consumer categories, and we will still need and want stuff.

It is your job to make us want your stuff.

Jane Singer About Jane Singer

Jane Singer is a consumer product marketing consultant specializing in branding and marketing strategy. She began her career at Grey Advertising, has held senior executive positions at BBDO, Bozell Worldwide, and Marc USA, and has worked with clients including Kmart, Neiman-Marcus, Rite Aid Drug Stores, Office Depot, The Sports Authority, Visa, Liz Claiborne, VF Corporation, Gold Toe, and others.