Boomers in Denial

Discussion
Jan 12, 2011
Bernice Hurst

On New Year’s Day,
the oldest members of the Baby Boom Generation turned 65.  Many people look
at Boomers and think, “No generation ever had it
so good.” Yet this group still consider themselves “middle-aged,” implying
a life expectancy of 100 years or more. Adjusting to having passed the middle
of their (our) lives is a challenge, which may be characterised by Denial (with
a deliberately capital D).

Susan Jacoby, author of Never Say Die: The Myth
and Marketing of the New Old Age,
recently explained her views in The
New York Times
. “People
my age and younger still pretend that old age will yield to what has long been
our generational credo — that we can transform ourselves endlessly, even
undo reality, if only we live right.”

Referring to the “forever
young” generation who “prefer
to think about aging as a controllable experience,” Ms. Jacoby explained
gerontologist Robert Butler’s opinion that “the trouble with expecting
90 to become the new 50 is it can stop rational discussion — on a societal
as well as individual level — about how to make 90 a better 90. This
fantasy is a lot like waiting for Prince Charming, in that it doesn’t
distinguish between hope and reasonable expectation.”

Columnist Dan Barry,
also in the Times, added his views that many Boomers, “whether
through exercise or Botox, have no intention of ceding to others what they
consider rightfully theirs: youth.” He then describes author Steven Gillon’s
conclusion that one way the “largest and richest generation ever” changed
America was by having “a sense of entitlement that had not existed before …
expecting, even demanding, freedom of choice; options in life.”

Across the Atlantic
in Britain, Philip Inman maintained in The Guardian that
Boomers are blocking opportunities for younger people, not least because of
their wealth-protecting activities and demands for welfare-related services
as they continue to age in spite of themselves.

None of these articles specifically
addresses the changing impact on retail. But the implications are clear. “Age-defying”
products, whether aimed at appearance or well-being, will be much in demand
as more and more pass their 65th birthdays. Achieving a balance between supplying
and stimulating demand will be evermore challenging as Dr. Butler’s Prince
Charming analogy indicates.

How will aging Baby Boomers affect all aspects of retailing in the years to come? Will retailers really need to change their approach to merchandising and store design for example vs. how they’ve done it for previous generations of elderly?

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13 Comments on "Boomers in Denial"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

According to the Deloitte Consumer 2020 Reading the signs report presented at NRF, “by 2015 US Baby Boomers are forecast to own 60% of the nation’s wealth and account for 40% of spending.” I would suggest that with all the excitement over mobile it would be good to remember the power of this one generation will still depend on trust and relationships with actual people in stores rather than trying to train us to shop on a machine. We’re spending more than our parents ever did on ourselves and the retailers who understand this will do well; those that don’t will be like TV, chasing the young who may not have the resources that the boomers do. Just sayin….

J. Peter Deeb
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

I am one of the first boomers to turn 65 this year and I certainly don’t have any intention of not keeping up for another 20 years! Is this denial or the reality that we will be productive and flexible longer than previous generations?

The retailers who figure out that we do have a disproportionate amount of wealth and still want to utilize it on toys, trips, etc, will win the battles for those dollars. This is not just my personal view but those of most people of my age and older. I have friends buying iPads and iPhones and shopping online who are in their late ’70s. This is a trend that will continue as the youngest boomers are even more optimistic than those of us just entering Medicare and Social Security. (Ouch!)

Ian Percy
Guest
10 years 3 months ago
My comments may cause some people to capitalize all the letters in “DENIAL”…and so be it. That said, let’s elevate the discussion far above Botox and 79 year olds marrying 28 year olds. Come on–who hasn’t fantasized about that! ALL of what we call “reality” is created out of the subconscious mind. Reality isn’t done to us, we make it and remake it. That’s why Einstein described reality as an illusion–though a persistent one. There is absolutely no universal law that says one stops creating their reality at a certain age. Those of us implicated in this piece, however, have to exponentially raise the bar in what we’re creating. Think of it this way: which of us wouldn’t be a better parent today? Which of us wouldn’t have written a better thesis in graduate school? Which of us wouldn’t have been a lot smarter in starting a business? So the idea that the old are blocking the young from realizing their highest possibilities (while that may be true for some old grouch) is simply a… Read more »
W. Frank Dell II
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

I have said for years the Baby Boomers will force changes in retail. To start with, they will be less like prior generations and use shopping as time filler; they have other things to do. They will not want to shop a massive store as it takes too long and requires too much energy. Many are realizing they have too much stuff and don’t need more. They will buy more replacement products and less collection of stuff. They will adjust to fixed income by further adjusting wants and needs.

If retailers cater too much to Baby Boomers, they could turn off other consumers and this is the greatest risk.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
10 years 3 months ago
Without a doubt, there is a “Peter Pan” element in the collective self-image of the Boomers. As one myself, I can attest to this. The numbers, however, are daunting. As I covered in a post titled “The Disappearing Boomers”, the math is daunting. The key metric to look at is the daily spend–average daily spending by Generation. In the latest statistics from Gallup, Boomer spending dropped from $98/day in 2008 to $64/day in 2009. The simple fact is that, as generations age, they spend less. Our parents (the Silent Generation) spent $50 and their parents (the Great Generation) spent $35. Looking forward, at $71, Gen X outspent the Boomers, but they’re a third smaller in numbers. Gen Y, a third larger in numbers than the Boomers and almost twice as large as Gen X, spent $110. OK, what’s the point of all these numbers? Here’s a reductionist view:– Boomers will become steadily less important (with a couple of exceptions, like pharmacists) to aggregate retail success.– Gen X does not have the population size to replace… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
Guest
10 years 3 months ago
A couple of mistakes here. First of all Boomers (I hate to generalize, by the way, but that seems to be an implicit flaw in the discussion so I’ll go with it) don’t want to stay young–as they were–they are chasing an idealized vision of youth. It isn’t that they want to be the way THEY were when they were 18 but rather that they want to be the way they WISHED they were when they were 18. Trying to stay young is one problem, chasing perfection is quite another. The next issue is the notion that Boomers have some logical life stage to move on to. We are so fond about talking about Boomers being the richest generation that we forget that a large number of them can’t afford to stop working–or at least can’t stop working without significant negative economic consequences. There’s also a little issue called Social Security. If the government succeeds in continuing to push the benefit age up, Boomers will have little choice but to continue working. The retirement model… Read more »
Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
10 years 3 months ago

The reality is this: people are consumers at every stage of their lives. It’s a matter of giving what they need, in the quantities they need it when and how they want it. To indicate that age is a barrier to consumerism is narrow thinking.

Basically, my attitude is you can have my credit card when you pry it from my cold dead hand!

Anne Bieler
Guest
Anne Bieler
10 years 3 months ago

Boomers will continue to be a significant force at retail for the next 20 years. Many are healthy, working and are active participants in family and community life. They have more time, more money, and a wide range of interests that will be of importance to retailers in coming decades.

Boomers have more brand loyalty, and have well documented shopping preferences. Their interest in healthy eating, wellness, and anti-aging will continue to help grow new categories.

Yes, they want larger type on packaging, easier to understand directions for phones, computers and electronics, elimination of hard-to-open plastic clamshell packages, and appliances that last. They understand the value of things and what they are prepared to spend. Less impulse buying; “fast fashion” and disposable hard goods are not part of their vocabulary.

Opportunities, yes and challenges, yes–but they can be loyal shoppers when expectations are met for product, value and service.

Liz Crawford
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

Wow! So many comments! I wonder what age bracket the BrainTrust falls into? (Me too, BTW 🙂 ).

Nonetheless, the expectation that Boomers will live to 100 is not unrealistic for many. Just the other day, genetic scientists announced that they reversed aging in rats. I didn’t say arrested. I said “reversed”!

This boggles the mind. What other generation has faced this kind of bio-technology? None. So, can we blame the Boomers for wild expectations?

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
10 years 3 months ago

Let me be the outlier in this conversation. Boomers may have a disproportionate share of the wealth, and a significant share of spending, but my sense is that as boomers get older a smaller and smaller proportion of that spending is spent at retail.

For many of us (and I’m one of the middle-of-the-pack boomers), we’ve got all the stuff we need. We no longer collect stuff like we used to. We certainly don’t turn over our wardrobe like we once did. We spend more on experiences–travel, restaurants, theater, whatever interests us. I see this trend continuing.

I think retail recognizes this. Walk through any mall. Who’s the target customer? Certainly not boomers. Who’s the target at Best Buy? Younger early-adopters. And so on.

Which isn’t to say that boomers don’t shop. But they are more selective, discriminating and deliberate. Hardly the cutting edge of retail going forward.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
10 years 3 months ago

I believe that older people make better purchase decisions. They know what they like, and they like stuff with which they have a history. They trust certain brands. But, the brands they trust may perform so well over time that they will never repurchase. At a certain age we say to ourselves, “This is the last car I will ever buy.” “I will never replace these shoes.” A testimony to great products.

When marketing to U.S. boomers, retailers must understand their affinity for permanence. Good, durable stuff to be passed along to grateful “others” while not denigrating their value. Respected stuff. Real, bedrock stuff. No collections of shot glasses from all fifty states. Nothing that has to be dusted regularly.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
10 years 3 months ago
I’m in line with Ryan on this. There’s a lot of mythology about Baby Boomers that gets cited as though it’s fact. First, regardless of what anyone thinks or feels, the statistics are that we simply buy less stuff after the age of 50–period. And it makes sense because we NEED less stuff. This isn’t a hunch, it’s a statistical reality. Secondly, as Ryan points out, the majority of Baby Boomers are either knowingly or unknowingly ill prepared for retirement. They will have to continue to work, not to buy yachts but rather to survive and continue to squirrel away money for the day when they simply can’t work any longer. This too isn’t an assumption, it’s a certainty and it’s happening now. Any way you cut it, the largest generation in history has moved into a new era marked by saving and down-scaling. It’s something that would have happened anyway but it’s been escalated and exacerbated by the economic downturn. It doesn’t mean they won’t spend money. It does mean that the spend will… Read more »
Kai Clarke
Guest
10 years 3 months ago

Perception is reality. Boomers are no more guilty of this than any other target audience. Great marketing is a dynamic force that appeals to a differentiated audience who is changing and in continual flux. Combine this with the desire to always be younger/older, and you have a full demand for products and marketing to all ages. This hasn’t changed in over a century and will continue to become more refined as we become better retailers using better marketing to target our markets and define our segments.

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