In a Boomer’s head, old age is 30 years older than they are, wherever they are.
With life spans extending and people staying healthier for longer, people of all ages are taking a more positive view of growing older and reassessing their ideas about “old age”—one of our 10 Trends for 2012. We discussed new views on aging with Lori Bitter, an advertising veteran who runs both Continuum Crew, a marketing consultancy focused on consumers age 40-plus, and Crew Media. An expert on the Boomer market (and a Boomer herself), Bitter talked to us about how this generation is redefining the second half of life.
We believe people are taking a more positive approach to aging. Is this true?
Some of what we’re starting to see, like young models wearing gray hair and all this stuff, that’s the tip of what you’re talking about. Boomers are overwhelmingly optimistic. That has been one of the hallmarks of the generation, a sense of optimism. All the research that we have done since 2008, even with everything that’s gone so terribly wrong with the economy, Boomers remain pretty optimistic.
As Boomers retire and also grapple with the physical aspects of aging, how do you think this is affecting their sense of optimism?
Part of that optimism has a little bit to do with denial. It’s a tricky thing because, in a Boomer’s head, old age is 30 years older than they are, wherever they are. So if they’re 60, it’s 90. If they’re 50, it’s 80. They’ve got old age pushed way, way, way, way out there.
How do you think this dynamic has changed over time?
We make a lot of comparisons about what our parents looked like at this age, and people did look older at 50 than they do now. There’s this weird age thing from 35 to 65 where it’s getting harder and harder to tell how old people really are. You can’t really figure it out unless you listen to their cultural references, and then you go, “Wow, he’s old. He wasn’t just at Woodstock, he was 25 at Woodstock.”
My parents are only 22, 23 years older than I am, and they don’t look old to me. They still look pretty hip and young compared to what old people used to look like. So that’s allowed us some denial. It’s a generalization, but the Boomer generation hasn’t been very smart about financial planning. It has been a conundrum for the financial services industry for a long time. Again, there’s this denial about getting older, denial about what they’re going to need, putting all that off.
They may have gotten kids or grandchildren back, which is kind of a depressing trend, and so all of a sudden, they’re having to think multi-generationally again, where they’ve had maybe 25 years of nobody under their roof except themselves, and so now they are forced into planning.
Health care systems, financial planners, all kind of industries are going to reap the benefit of [Boomers] slamming up against this 65-year-old marker.
Another thing that seems to be changing is cross-generational relationships.
Boomers are the first multicultural and multi-generational generation, because the generations that came before were all very much what we call a “Birds of a feather flock together” sort of a generation. They preferred to be with people their own age, their own ethnicity, and it was the sort of thing that made retirement communities such a popular and lucrative business model, because that’s how older people were.
That’s why those sorts of institutions are not going to resonate for Boomers because they are very, very comfortable in their own skin. No one thinks anything about a 50-year-old and a 20-year-old working together or hanging out together and going to lunch together anymore. I think it’s because we have this weird blend of ages where people don’t look their age anymore. Younger people look older. Older people are looking younger, and so there’s just this big pot of people.
And that’s the way we’ve lived our lives. Some of that is about the generations before Boomers being less accepting and really wanting to be elevated as elders and revered in some way, where Boomers are, you know, it’s that “Never trust anyone over 30” thing, right?
We often hear that people should “act their age.” Do you think Boomers are challenging that maxim?
Yeah, I don’t think Boomers are buying that for a minute. Women in particular are very, especially after 50, much more self-possessed and so much more confident. We’re wearing whatever we want to wear, wherever we want to wear it, and we’re rocking it. And I think men have the freedom to do that, too. Ten years ago, other than inside a creative company like an ad agency, you really didn’t see men wearing jeans and a sport coat to work. Now you see it everywhere—law offices, accounting offices.
[Boomers] have always challenged whatever convention is, whatever life stage they were walking through. Look at some of the senior athletes who are running marathons and doing things like, when their parents were that old, they were walking with a cane. And so they’re definitely challenging the conventions that are supposed to come with what not to do after 50 and 60 and 70.
If you think about how much longer life spans will likely be, it’s silly. It’s silly to put a line on the ground and say, “This is the expiration date on the miniskirt. This is the expiration date on coloring your hair.” Who cares? It’s interesting that we’re not adding years to the end of our lives so much as we’re expanding the middle years and blowing out those middle years.
I’m 52. It’s like, I look down the road and go, “Why would I retire at 65?” I’m hitting my stride. I don’t see retiring at 70. So we’re creating these new middle years that are going to be radically different than ever, which is another big challenge against conventional wisdom.
If we’re going to address the swell of the Baby Boom, we’ve got to get that 65 [retirement age] number out of people’s heads. It has to be based on something different, either need or some actuarial table. I mean, people are going to work till they’re 80. What sense does 65 make?
As people live healthier for longer, it’s been suggested that they’ll enter a third stage in their lives, in between adulthood and old age, described by some as “middlescence.” Do you think people approach this stage with optimism?
We do a lot of research around the topic. It’s interesting, because for women, it seems to be embraced with a lot of excitement and it’s sort of a rebirthing thing. Fifteen years ago, menopause was this awful thing that women were terrified of, and now women are like, “Thank God that part of my life is over.” And there’s this freedom about it now. You’re out of your childbearing years; it’s all about possibilities. The world is sort of their oyster.
Some of that has come about to the detriment of men. I think a lot of women wake up after the kids are gone and say, “I got all this in front of me. Do I really want to drag him around?”
Men see it a bit differently. Men go through this “Have I done everything I should’ve done with my life; is this where I thought I was going to be at 50 or at 60?” It is sort of a midlife crisis for them. They start to see friends getting sick and men seem to internalize it in a different way. They do still have this sense of optimism, but there’s also this very traditional sense of “I have to be the breadwinner. I need to stay in this job. I don’t get to do that cool opportunistic kind of stuff.”
We hear people talk about wanting to leave what they’re currently doing. They don’t want to quit working, but they want to do something that feels more purposeful, and we hear that word a lot. There are a lot of books being written about the purpose of life, and we’ve started to see a lot of—where we used to talk about religion, now we talk about spirituality. [Boomers] are not religious, but they’re spiritual. They take a little bit from Buddhism and a little bit from Christianity and a little bit here, a little bit there, and they’re rewriting what it means to be a spiritual person. And being an enlightened person. There’s a lot of stuff in popular culture right now that’s around that.
It’s one of the things that’s making the grandparent life stage so interesting for Boomers, because it’s nothing like what grandparenting used to look like. Where you used to have two parents and visiting grandparents, now you have six people hopping on you all the time. It’ll be interesting to see what we do to this generation of grandkids and how screwed up we can possibly make them. Boomers are very passionate about sharing what they know and sharing what they care about with these kids.
There’s also this new term “glam-ma,” or glamorous grandma. Do you think people feel differently about becoming grandparents today?
I read some funny blog post the other day about, “Oh my God, my grandma’s dating,” written by a 13-year-old who was just mortified that her grandma was going out on dates because she never thought about her grandmother as a sexual being.
The images of what a grandparent looks like are so starkly different. The average age has actually risen a bit, but late 40s, early 50s—those men and women look like they’re 30. They’re not the hunched-over, rocking-chair-on-the-front-porch kind of grandparents of 20 years ago. It’s a very, very different image.
It’s going to redefine for generations to come what it means to be a grandparent or a great-grandparent to these kids. We’re seeing a lot of interesting things about grandparents who are taking a leading role in a grandkid’s life around better eating habits and getting rid of childhood obesity, and travel. They want to be the culture vulture for the family, and they want to be engaged and they want to have trips along with these kids, and to have day-to-day quality time with these kids where they’re sharing stuff about themselves and helping the kids navigate their lives.
The Boomer generation was the one that moved away from their parents and didn’t really want that day-to-day connection. And now they’re going to be these helicopter grandparents.
Do you think terms like “hip” and “vital” have a different connotation than they might have five years ago or so?
It’s so funny how words get assigned an age. You look at words like “vitality,” which to me is a euphemism for an old person who still does a lot of stuff. “Vitality” has become that word that gets used in the Viagra ads. It’s part of that head space where if you’re not virile, you’re not vital—if you’re not purposeful, you’re not living life. I kind of hope words like that die out, and we’re just using the same language to describe anybody who’s healthy and still moving.
[Words like “energetic” and “vital”] are increasingly going to be used to describe people 30 years older than [Boomers] are. I think it’s going to be a different language. I don’t think advertisers are going to be able to use that kind of language to speak to Baby Boomers. They’re going to have to talk to them just like they would talk to a 35-year-old about those kinds of things. Would you say to a 35-year-old, “Have you thought about your health, wellness and vitality today?”
Hell, no. Then why are we saying it to somebody 65? In their head space, they still feel the way they did when they were 40. There’s a funny ad that’s a wife who says to her husband, “I think you need more fiber in your diet,” and he goes, “Fiber makes me sad,” and it’s true. It’s like, at my age, I don’t walk around talking about fiber. “Vitality” makes me sad. It’s trying to describe somebody who’s kind of old and fragile who still wants to have a meaningful life.
Will we see more celebratory, positive messaging that doesn’t make Boomers sad, so to speak?
Advertising to older people, now that Boomers are officially the older people, cannot keep being about old person messaging. It has got to shift to this sense of being what Boomers are interested in, which is why the social media space has taken off so incredibly with Boomers. Because it’s all about what they’re interested in and allowed them to explore all kind of things they’re interested in.
So that’s a shift that advertisers are going to have to make in messaging, and they need to embrace that sense of hope and purposefulness and optimism about growing older. [Boomers] are not delusional. At the end of the day, we know that getting old sucks. We’re just going to delay the feeling and the effects of that as long as we possibly can. But that’s not where our heads are right now, and that’s not the way we want to be talked to.
The other thing is the Boomers sort of hitting their stride in this economic climate. So continuing to consider that Boomers are so optimistic about the future is a way to drive a very positive message for a lot of companies in what is a pretty dire time. Smart companies need to look at that cross-section. We’ve got a generational cohort whose head is already in that space at a time when we need positive messages to help drive a recovery and to make our brands seem caring and the kind of brands that are going to help us navigate through these times.
What do you think is going to happen in the next five to 10 years? Where is the trend going?
No one knows how old you are until you say how old you are because everybody’s beginning to look the same age. It’s going to radically change the way we view older people, the way we value older people and their contribution. It’s going to be a huge shift, and not just in the United States. It’s all over the world. It’s in every developed nation.
I go to a concert, and I sit next to 25-year-olds. That’s who we are as a culture now, and we need to make sure that our [brand] communications are reflecting all these changes.