NEW YORK — They’re America’s largest generation and control half the country’s consumer budget, making them a plum marketing target, but baby boomers’ purchasing behavior is highly individualistic and difficult to predict. Some are affluent empty nesters, while others are caught in the squeeze of supporting children and perhaps ageing parents. As a group, baby boomers are expected to redefine what it means to age in America — and to spend a growing share of wallet on personal care, adult education, travel, and entertainment.
This story first appeared in the October 23, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In a bid to help marketers appeal to the boomers, American Demographics magazine held a breakfast meeting called Busting Boomer Myths, on Oct. 9th, at Manhattan’s Hilton Hotel. Following are some highlights.
Myth 1: Baby boomers are big spenders.
Reality: Nearly one in five boomers, or 19 percent, have annual incomes under $25,000 — a greater share than the 17 percent of the group who have annual incomes of $100,000 or more.
Database: Baby boomers have roughly $2.2 trillion to spend annually, with about half of that sum controlled by 34 to 44 year olds, and the balance, by 45 to 54 year olds. While a generation representing 28 percent of the population holds half its budget, quite a few of its members have low levels of savings and high debt. Moreover, the widely publicized, greatest-transfer-of-wealth-ever, anticipated to benefit boomers, is wildly over-rated: the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland is forecasting 80 percent of boomers will receive inheritances totaling $125,000, while a far more limited share of boomers — those whose families’ net worths rank in the top 5 percent of U.S. households — will inherit close to $1 million.
Implications: Past income and spending trends observed among 50 to 64 year olds will be of little help in predicting how boomers will behave as they move into that cohort. “Baby boomers were the first generation to grow up with a wide variety of brands to choose from, and they are expected to remain less brand-loyal than their parents,” said AD research editor John Fetto. Currently, the 45- to 54-year-old group accounts for a growing share of aggregate spending in such categories as apparel, food, transportation, and entertainment.
Myth 2: Baby boomers are getting old and are retiring.
Reality: Boomers are likely to delay retirement and redefine what it means to age in America.
Database: There are several reasons boomers will probably retire later, among them: They have good jobs, many of which don’t require great physical strength; they’ll need the income, and there’s a growing demand for part-time workers, including those ages 55 and older. The latter can be explained, in part, by a Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast of slowing growth for America’s workforce. Further, BLS is estimating that by 2010, there will be a 33 percent surge in the slice of the work force ages 55 to 64.
Implications: For boomers, 50 is the new 30. They are more active than their counterparts 10 years ago and expect to stay in better shape and stay more active than their predecessors. As boomers enter a life stage AD is calling “mid-youth,” it’s anticipated they’ll create a vibrant marketplace, pushing traditional ideas of a mature market into oblivion.
Myth 3: Baby boomers are monolithic.
Reality: Boomers are a fragmented market.
Database: Among three age groups of boomers, two-thirds of the youngest cohort, or those ages 35 to 44, now have children in their households. And as American Demographics founder Peter Francese observed, “If there’s anything that defines consumer behavior, it’s the presence of kids in their households.” More than half of boomers ages 45 to 49, or 56 percent, have children at home, as well, but only 12 percent of boomers ages 50 to 54 do.
Implications: As seven boomers turn 50 each minute, over the next 12 years, their purchasing habits are expected to change radically. With less need to spend on their children and households, boomers will likely shell out more for second homes, health care, recreation, adventure-travel and other experiences. This may portend good news for a handful of states, including Maine, which has more second homes than any other. A disproportionate number also are found in New Hampshire, Vermont, Florida, and the Carolinas. Apparel purchasing is expected to be stronger than it has been among preceding 50-plus age groups.
Myth 4: Baby boomers are white.
Reality: Boomers don’t fit a cookie-cutter mold circa 1950.
Database: Whites are slightly more prevalent among boomers than the broader U.S. population, but 9 million boomers, or 24 percent of the generation’s 78 million members, are not Caucasian. (Whites account for 75.1 percent of the country’s populace.) Through 2007, America’s white population is forecast to expand less than 2 percent, while gains of 27 percent are anticipated for Asian Americans; 12 percent for Hispanics, and 9 percent for African Americans.
Implications: Businesses marketing to diverse boomers will do best to focus on the Asian and African American contingents. African Americans account for 12 percent of boomers; Hispanics, who can be of any race, 10 percent of the generation, and Asian Americans, 4 percent. Targeting Asian-American boomers is advisable, said AD editor at large Alison S. Wellner, because their incomes are higher, on average, than those of Hispanics, with a growth rate projected at more than twice that of the Spanish-speaking group. African Americans represent a larger share of boomers than Hispanics and have seen their education and income levels rise significantly since 1990 — trends that are expected to continue.
Myth 5: Baby boomers reflect mind-sets of the Sixties and Seventies.
Reality: George W. Bush is a typical baby boomer.
Database: The boomer generation is around twice as conservative as it was 20 years ago, according to various studies. For example, they are more inclined than before to believe courts are not harsh enough on criminals; less likely to seek government solutions to poverty, and more religious. At the same time, boomers are less likely to believe in a traditional division of labor between men and women, and their stated commitment to civil rights for African Americans is stronger than ever.
Implications: Not all boomers are ex-hippies or Me-decade narcissists. Many have adopted family-oriented lifestyles. Nonetheless, as AD senior editor Pamela Paul pointed out, it’s still a highly varied group. As they enter their 50s and 60s, boomers will probably develop attitudes that diverge markedly from their predecessors’, particularly a desire to keep feeling and looking youthful.