“After 40 years of catering to younger consumers, advertisers and media executives are coming to a different realization: older people aren’t so bad, after all.”
So goes the lead to a May 2011 New York Times article about a marketing transformation underway. Suddenly the venerable newspaper has produced an article that unambiguously acknowledges what the marketing industry has been way-too-slow to accept: “older people,” namely Baby Boomers, are too lucrative to ignore even though over 80% of the generation has aged beyond the traditional marketing and media sweet spot of adults 18 to 49.
The Times article makes a point that this shift in mainstream thinking among media and advertising agencies is due to two factors: demographics and economics. Not only does the Boomer generation still evoke the metaphor of a “pig in a python” — its dominant population slice — members of this generation have far more to spend on a discretionary basis — 20% more on average in weekly earnings than the coveted 25 – 34 demo.
And older consumers spend on categories once thought the domain of youthful consumers. As The Times article insists, “Mature consumers also seem to be spending on categories not traditionally associated with older people. NBC’s study of those people 55 to 64 showed that they spent more than the average consumer on categories like home improvement, large appliances, casual dining and cosmetics.”
These are insights and conclusions many of us in the “marketing to Boomers” arena have been writing and speaking about for years — a decade in some instances. For many of us, The Times article comes across with about as much newsworthiness as if the newspaper was trumpeting the importance of segmentation in marketing. We have known with zero uncertainty that Boomers would bring to their aging a new style of lucrative consumerism. Some did not know that The Great Recession would give Boomers a distinctive economic advantage over younger cohorts, but this has happened too.
So, what is important about this article and what is missing?
Robert Dilenschneider, formerly CEO of public relations agency Hill & Knowlton, has written many worthwhile books about business communications. One of his notable books is Power and Influence. He makes a very strong argument that a handful of media in the nation shape and dominate the national conversation. The New York Times serves a unique role in setting the national agenda, as does The Wall Street Journal. When The Times covers a story, the story gains validity, further influencing lesser magazines and newspapers, shaping their choices of topics. Broader media coverage inevitably shapes mainstream thinking.
Indeed, though it has been a long time coming, an article in The Times with a mind-shifting headline — “In Shift, Ads Try to Entice Over-55 Set” — can be construed as definitive breakthrough. Those of us who have been writing, ranting, proselytizing, and prodding media to recognize reality can finally rest: message delivered and received.
And what is missing?
We can expect a business article to make a business argument: dominant demographic size plus disproportionately higher income equals a market mandating attention. Yet, behind this argument is a larger issue, making money notwithstanding.
The generations over age 45 are inexorably changing aging, so much so, and in such a pervasive and positive manner, that the structure of our culture and social order is becoming something it has never been before. As Dr. Ken Dychtwald, author of Age Wave, has been insisting for over two decades, Boomers don’t just populate life stages, they transform them.
My friend Susan at age 45 had her first healthy twin babies. My friend David started a thriving home healthcare agency several months before turning 60. My friend Lou leads two of the hottest, most progressive rock ‘n’ roll radio stations in Colorado at age 70. And so it goes for the breakdown of what’s normal and expected.
Dr. Bill Thomas, geriatrician and profound thought leader on the future of aging, suggests that aging is its own opportunity for business to consider. “The development of a new perspective on age and aging is both necessary and possible,” writes Dr. Thomas. “Given the importance of aging in our lives, and the impact of aging on our families and society, a new openness and even curiosity about human aging would seem more than warranted. The time has come for our wondrous longevity to emerge from the long shadow cast by the vigor and virtues of youth.”
Boomer demographic dominance and economic might have now become self-evident and mainstream thought, thanks in part to the power of influence embedded in The New York Times. What’s lacking in this discussion is a third pillar of value: that older consumers are more than consumers; that age is more than decline; that an emerging elderhood will change nations.
Older consumers represent an unprecedented human asset worthwhile for business to cultivate, market size and economics notwithstanding. Our collective thoughts and actions as an “age cohort” will create new markets for goods and services while revitalizing others. We will empower brands like never before as brands become associated with maturity, wisdom, judgment, holistic thinking, generativity, longevity and actualization of human potential across the lifespan.
But I suspect it could take another ten years before the marketing and media communities fully grasp transformative implications of an aging society, one that will continue to manifest new dimensions as Generation X and then Generation Y cross that timeworn media delineation between age 49 and 50.
Rather, marketers and media will remain stuck in old arguments and beliefs: that the ultimate value of human existence is exoneration of youth to the exclusion of age. They will grudgingly revise their marketing plans to follow the money, just as The New York Times instructs, but they won’t buy into aging as a value unto itself. Many people inhabiting these fields won’t embrace their own aging because denial runs deep and vigorous, especially in these professions.
Right now the best way to manifest an emerging new sociology of aging and age inclusiveness is to buy stuff they didn’t expect us to buy and engage with media programming they didn’t expect us to consume.
Maybe a bit impatient, we’re not so bad, after all.