This is the second of a series of articles written by our colleague David B. Wolfe noted author and older consumer expert.
by David B. Wolfe
The Coming of the Age of Aquarius II
Who would not jump at the chance to know the mind of the market for an age cohort, or even more broadly, the market at-large, twenty years into the future?
Pushing aside concern about sounding immodest, I framed the mind of today’s boomer market nearly 20 years ago. I did so in my book Serving the Ageless Market (McGraw-Hill 1990). Subsequent to that, I predicted that the behavior of consumers in virtually every age group would be influenced in major ways by the worldviews, values and behaviors that are characteristic of aging boomers today.
My predictions in 1989 about how boomers would handle their own aging sharply conflicted with what was then conventional thinking. With some editing for brevity and clarity, here is a sampling of what I wrote then:
Many observers are predicting that in later life boomers will be frozen in a kind of adolescent stage of self-absorption. Widely quoted gerontologist, Ken Dychtwald, 39, said in an Advertising Age interview, “There is every indication that most generations grow up and out of the ‘me generation.’ Boomers don’t.”
Like a reformed scarlet lady, boomers are finding it hard to live down their “me first” reputation. That’s because current perceptions of boomers are largely fashioned from perceptions of boomers formed in their adolescence and early adulthood. No allowance is made for personal growth into higher levels of maturity. “Many “experts” predict a dark and selfish old age for boomers. No generation in history will be as filled with angst about aging as boomers will be.
The idea that boomers in the early years of midlife don’t like the idea of “old age” is not unique. It happens that way in every generation. But people generally get beyond their midlife anxieties about age as the years pass.
Most boomers are not destined to experience relentless regret over spent youth in their later years. Predictions to the contrary fly in the face of a large body of research into adult psychological development, and deny the work of such luminaries in adult development as Carl Jung, Erik Erikson and Abraham Maslow.
My discussion covered boomers’ outlook and behavior as they transitioned from the rebellious years of youth into the early adult years, and from there their entry into early midlife, which the first boomers entered in 1986:
Fifteen to twenty years ago, the older of the boomers trimmed their hair, shaved their beards, removed their funny jewelry, and put their bras back on and joined the establishment to fulfill the urges of the first experiential lifestyle stage of adulthood – the Possession Experience years. Many succeeded beyond their expectations, dissolving their earlier views about the evils of materialism. In pursuit of materialistic indulgence, they jettisoned their idealized images of what life ought to be. They now set about making money in less than idealized jobs working for less than idealized companies to begin the accumulation stage of their lives.
But now, as boomers troop into the middle years, many are revisiting the idealized views life they had in their late adolescence and early adulthood. They have begun asking themselves perennial midlife questions such as, “Is this all there is,” and “what is the meaning of my life” and “how will I be remembered?”
I then described a new era that echoed the themes of love, light and humanity boomers lumped under the heading the Age of Aquarius in the 1960s:
My roster of clients includes an impressive array of children of Aquarius who are re-visiting the ideals of their youthful selves with as high a sense of mission as they had in the tumultuous 60s and 70s. This time, however, they have greater wisdom and financial wherewithal to more successful.
The same generation that generated great upheaval in traditions in the 1960s and 70s is now leading us into a neo-traditional movement. Boomers are taking us back to “basics” after they led society away from them in the Age of Aquarius I. We are now in the beginning stages of its sequel: The Age of Aquarius II, which turns much of what was once put down as “New Age” nonsense into mainstream convention.
The New Age movement is not a fad that boomers will grow out of. It is an approach to life that many will get into deeper as they age. Optimal marketing success in aging boomer markets depends on understanding this.
New Age thinking revolves around the idea that all things are of a piece, that no one thing is separate from all other things. This imposes on us an obligation to regard our place and time on earth as an office to be filled with a sense of responsibility to all life and the planet we live on.
I asked Nancy Peppard, 39, about what Boomers are going to be like in the future as members of the maturity market. Peppard is both a boomer and a gerontologist. She sees boomers moving in a direction that portends major changes in public policy and in the design, marketing and rendering of products and services.
First, she talks about where older boomers are today in their minds: “I find lot of people in my age range going through what I have been going through. We are beginning to look outside ourselves for meaning in life.” Maslow would understand that. It’s the direction taken by adults in middle age in every generation.
“I think New Age thinking is something marketers interested in older markets need to take a long look at. I don’t mean the Shirley MacLaine kind of thing. The so-called New Age movement of today began 20 years ago. Unlike other fads that youth cultures embrace today and reject tomorrow, the New Age philosophy has become part of our culture and it has grown with time. In both subtle and overt ways it now affects many facets of our daily lives.
“Within certain segments of the medical community, for example, the effect of New Age thinking is being felt. Specialties such as homeopathy, a holistic preventative approach to health care, and psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the direct relationship between the mind and the body, are growing in respectability and visibility.”
Peppard cites as one example of sensitive concern about all life the growing number of restaurants that now serve “non-stressed” beef and chicken, animals grown in stress-free environments. Socially responsible investment funds and credit cards that contribute a percentage of their profits to causes are other examples of business response to the greater sense of the cosmic connectedness that is common among leading edge Boomers.
From Peppard’s point of view, boomers are projecting unique behavior. In some regards, I agree with her, but in a larger sense, boomers are not unique. They are traveling the same path toward maturation that people in midlife have done for millennia. In comparisons with previous generations, boomers are unique mainly in the opportunities they have for developing themselves toward the Maslovian goal in later life of “being all you can be.”
Next: How it was possible to know the mind of the market today, 20 years ago.