In 2010, an interesting demographic symmetry arrived. Americans born between 1946 and 1964—the birth years traditionally used by pundits to delineate the Baby Boomer Generation—celebrated birthdays somewhere between 46 and 64.
For the first time in this generation’s history, millions of Boomers may have considered a rhetorical question posed by Beatle Paul McCartney in his 1967 hit, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Will you still need me?
Family and friends will continue to need them, whether now between 48 or 66. And businesses will need Boomer customers. The generation is hardly finished propelling profits. The nonprofit world will need them also as this generation turns more from careers toward contributions. Even nations aging demographically will need the generation to remain engaged.
Although it’s worthwhile to explore the worth and value of this generation from social and cultural perspectives, my primary focus has been on economic questions circulating in business circles.
What is a generation from a marketing and advertising perspective?
How can we effectively market to the Boomer generational segment?
What opportunities are developing to target Boomer men?
It can be complicated to condense a generation into a neat package; generations do not have obvious beginnings and endings, nor do individual cohort members possess universal characteristics. Nevertheless, diverse and distributed as they may be, Boomers are bound together by a compelling sense of their generational reference group. Many remain enamored of a rambunctious twentieth century history and “collective mentalities” springing from their sometimes-impetuous formative years.
Critics of this generation’s abundant sense of identity may perceive navel gazing. This in-your-face generation has stirred up impatience and derision. Even some outspoken Boomers express a bitter distaste of their peers, further fomenting stereotypes and critical caricatures.
Are Boomers a generation of self-absorbed egoists, or did a distinctive convergence of historical, demographic, sociological, and technological forces cause the Boomer generation to incorporate a robust sense of identity somewhat akin to a social class?
Steve Gillon, author of Boomer Nation and an acclaimed academic and historian, observed that not all generations possess a common identity that can be as widely understood and addressed: “While past generations have shared common experiences, they developed only a loose sense of generational identity. Largely because of their size and the emergence of mass media, especially television, Boomers are the first generation to have a defined sense of themselves as a single entity.”
With 30+ years of experience marketing to Boomers, I concur with Steve Gillon.
Arguably, Boomers belong to a cohort that has been more examined, evaluated, and explained than all other generations combined. Whether this is fair is not my place to conclude. I prefer to pursue a more pragmatic course: to shape understanding about this generation from a commercial perspective, and to articulate how this cohort can be addressed today by businesses and nonprofits for the development of mutually beneficial relationships.
This generation of Americans has long been the nation’s dominant consumer segment. Boomers today constitute about 40 to 50 percent of all consumer spending, and the generation also controls roughly 70 percent of the nation’s assets. Part of this economic capacity can be attributed to the generation’s commanding size: Boomers represent over 26 percent of the entire U.S. population, and roughly one in three American adults.
As Gillon also reminds us, Boomers became the first generation raised with broadcast television providing a ubiquitous media vehicle for shared experiences, collective value formation, self-awareness, and powerful marketing fads. Boomers first started learning about and creating demand for products advertised on small black and white television sets during Saturday morning cartoons and special programming developed to appeal to their evolving and collective sense of self, whether the Mickey Mouse Club, Leave It to Beaver or The Brady Bunch. More cohort-sensitive media programming and marketing campaigns followed through the decades.
Thus, two powerful forces—dominant demographics and the first generation raised with broadcast television—bestowed upon Boomers a layered and complex sense of identity, the values of which continue to propel them into the future. As the generation persists in reflecting upon its own aging, relevance, and future, I believe that this Boomer-sense-of-collective-self will grow new dimensions and business opportunities. Boomers will keep inspiring sophisticated new advertising and business solutions that address not only their shared history, but also their shared conceptions of the aging process and sense of who they are becoming as mature adults.
So, what’s the point of examining marketing from a generational perspective?
This is about commerce intersecting with meaning.
To be continued next time ...
The above essay is an edited excerpt from Generation Reinvention: How Boomers Today Are Changing Business, Marketing, Aging and the Future. This 279-page book explores a growing body of research, arguments, insights, and speculation over how Boomers are impacting aging and commerce. Implications from my book are monetary and personal, local and international, intergenerational and multicultural. To learn why these conclusions are significant for your work and future, you can get a copy from online book retailers, including Amazon. Thank you for following my blog and, of course, your interest in Generation Reinvention.