Baby Boomers in the U.S. and Europe are changing aging as profoundly as they changed youth. Their demographic might, coupled with a revolutionary spirit, guarantees radical changes ahead for institutions and businesses worldwide.
Over 45 years ago this generation chose rock music as its preferred form of entertainment and a force for social change. And the soundtrack of their lives is still influencing who they are today, even as they age.
And I'm running down the street of life
And I'm never gonna let you die
And I'm never ever gonna get old
It is a thread connecting disparate members of a generation; it ties New Yorkers to Californians and the Dutch to Brits. That rainbow-colored thread is rock ‘n’ roll, the album of tens of millions of European and American lives: an audio collage of incense and peppermint; of jungle green, Agent Orange and blood red; of young and mature love; of peace signs and pro-life placards.
It is memories and money, idealism and capitalism.
And rock ‘n’ roll is today ushering Baby Boomers into their third age: For many, the beginning of an adventurous new life stage; for others, a long, slow slide downhill. But whichever view of a rapidly-aging Western society dominates, optimistic or pessimistic, Boomers mean money — lots of it.
By 2015, Boomers on both sides of the Atlantic will have a combined net worth of €17 trillion, the one-year gross domestic product for the US and the eurozone, combined.
In recent years, consumers have heard a succession of former hit rock songs become embedded in advertising.
Apple Computers began selling multihued iMacs with The Rolling Stones’ She’s a Rainbow. Wrangler Jeans drafted Fortunate Son, Credence Clearwater Revival’s anti-Vietnam War anthem. The Who’s Roger Daltry once sang, “The things they do look awful cold, (talking ’bout my generation), I hope I die before I get old.” And Boomers could only let out a collective gasp three decades after the song’s introduction when they heard Won’t Get Fooled Again in Nissan commercials.
Rod Stewart sells Pampers. Queen urges consumers to buy Aiwa stereos. Steppenwolf showcases Chevy’s ‘American Revolution’ with Magic Carpet Ride. Paul McCartney sells Fidelity Investments. Multi-millionaire Steve Winwood sells investment advice for Ameriprise. Bono, the charismatic lead singer for U2, sings hit song Vertigo to proffer greater profit margins upon Apple’s iPod.
Foreigner’s 1977 debut song, Feels Like the First Time, became the soundtrack for a television ad sponsored by NJOY King, an electronic cigarette company that advertised its product during the 2013 Academy Awards. (Feels like the first time an ad for a product that looks and acts like a cigarette has been advertised on national television since 1971!)
Instant Karma: We All Shine On
The future of business with this insatiable generation is a set of possibilities, full of speculation and spin.
Earnest executives around the globe are strategizing in corporate boardrooms; entrepreneurs are dreaming up best-case and worst-case scenarios. Idealistic change agents propose halcyon visions of social evolution, an Age of Aquarius in gray tones. Disagreement abounds over which developmental pathways this fickle generation will follow.
Some critics view this generation’s alleged degeneration into materialism during the 1980s and 1990s as a presage of the future. Debt-ridden Boomers — purportedly over 25 million in the U.S. with net assets of $10,000 or less — will continue to tap into materialism, from Wal-Mart to Harrods, purchasing more and more and more, beyond necessity or practicality.
Boomer advocates, a less aggressive lot, see the future with the generation investing prudently in co-housing retirement communities, educational travel expeditions, grandchildren, and wellness pharmacopoeias.
A generation of wise mentors, attracted to learning, continuous self-development and social activism, will change the character of nations, making them wiser and kinder. Boomers will invest their social capital; Western countries will become much better places to grow old.
The one thing not being debated is demographic destiny. In 2010, about one-third of the U.S. population was officially over age 50. When 2020 rolls around, one in five American adults will be over 65. Half of Holland was over 50 in 2012. Half of Norway and Italy have been accustomed to this demographic reality for much longer.
The Boomer “age wave” will also have colossal impact in Europe, which already has 19 of the world’s 20 oldest countries. Over one-fourth of Europeans will be 65 or older in 2030.
Just as economists are predicting trouble ahead for Social Security and Medicare in the U.S., the Boomer aging trend will mean increased strain on European healthcare and pension systems.
Lookin’ Out My Back Door
Contrary to popular myth, Boomers have not been the only generation to challenge older generations and compel large-scale change. Young adults in the 1920s set many new standards for sexual liberation, obsessed about materialism, popularized self-improvement, and revered spiritual self-discovery and personal autonomy.
However, the Boomer generation is a byproduct of enormous population size connecting with art and technology at exactly the right moment in history.
Although the Baby Boom Generation is typically defined as those born after World War II and between 1946 and 1964, baby booms also occurred in Europe. The inclusive birth years of this generation in European countries are:
• France 1946-1974
• United Kingdom 1946-1971
• Finland 1945-1951
• Sweden 1946-1952
• Denmark 1946-1950
• Netherlands 1946-1972
• Ireland 1946-1982
• Iceland 1946-1969
A nearly universal and unexpected population explosion in the Western world dovetailed emergence of another phenomenon: broadcast television, reflecting and enlarging a generation’s unique sense of shared experiences.
Boomer children in the U.S. received steady doses of encouragement from the Howdy Doody Show and the My Three Sons. Many adult programs showcased idealized images of family life with Boomer kids as the centerpiece.
But the power of television to create generational consciousness around a continent and across the Atlantic found its true momentum on February 9, 1964.
By the time The Beatles debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show, six of their songs were playing continuously on the radio; two albums were running up the charts; and I Want to Hold Your Hand, a wistful ballad about puppy love, was one month into its dominance as Billboard Magazine’s No. 1 song.
The Beatles not only stimulated collective Boomer consciousness with messages of young love and social optimism; the Four Lads changed conceptions of everything from fashion to swagger.
Flaunting a thoroughly European sense of style, their mop-top hair looked weirdly out of place next to their crew-cut elders, and their lean legs finished defiantly in pointed boots. They boogied on Sullivan’s stage that night with focused exhilaration, as if to ease the mass hysteria overwhelming the television studio full of adulating teenage girls.
It was an incomparable moment of youthful celebrity uncorrupted, where rock ‘n’ roll became fully a generation’s chosen art form and a looking glass into the forthcoming countercultural years.
And 73-million Americans were watching all at once. The largest TV audience ever in the U.S. included the next generation of Boomer rock stars, most barely in puberty, sitting cross-legged in front of their TV sets — from Billy Joel to Gene Simmons of Kiss. Bruce Springsteen went shopping the following day and bought a guitar amp. “Most of us guys were screaming on the inside,” said Steve Van Zandt, guitarist for Springsteen’s E Street Band. “It was absolutely life-changing. There was no Plan B. There was no choice.”
Rock ‘n’ roll led the cultural bandwagon, and Boomers grew up confident, brash, independent and avid about owning things. They still are.
Never Get Old
David Robert Jones, a.k.a. David Bowie, personifies the dynamic changes guiding business today, a collective refocus on aging markets.
Bowie once tried to deny the reality of his possible irrelevance as an over-the-hill idol. But he is a chameleon who has adapted to change, continuously reinventing himself and updating an impressive catalogue — a 2003 addition to which is appropriately called, Reality.
Today he is comfortable with his musical shadow, with the person he is at heart: song-writer, performer, musician … Boomer. Now qualified for full Social Security benefits, this 66-year-old post-modernist rock legend isn’t finished rocking — not just yet — and neither is the generation that made him a star.