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One Nation under AARP
The Fight over Medicare, Social Security, and America's Future
By Frederick R. Lynch
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 Frederick R. Lynch
All rights reserved.
Generation, Culture, Demographics
For here is the easy question: can a generation—reared in affluence, schooled in self-importance, comparatively ignorant of national sacrifice—admit that the country can't support it as grandly in its old age as it did in its youth? —Howard J. Fineman (2006)
In the pre-2008 glow of prosperity and optimism, the buzz at the 2007 Fourth Annual "What's Next? Boomer Business Summit" in Chicago was that business and corporate America were finally rediscovering the vast baby boomer market. Advertisers and marketers once studied and catered to the huge numbers of baby boomer children and adolescents. Corporate America's first generational mass marketing effort in the 1950s had given the boomers much of their identity and culture via television and rock music. But as middle-aged boomers became so much more diverse in economic status and lifestyles, interest in generation-focused research waned. No more.
"Welcome to the revolution," AARP's chief brand officer Emilio Pardo told the three hundred registered conference attendees. More diverse and powerful than any previous generation, "boomers have transformed every life stage through which they've moved. Boomers want to feel good, look good, are still creative and idealistic. They want choices, have a voice (in national affairs), and they have 'attitude.'" However, warned Pardo, boomers resent being stereotyped and approached only on the basis of age. "Focus on needs and make the individual connection," he told the audience. AARP had found that boomers' main concerns were financial security, health, community, the need to contribute and leave a legacy, and "play" (through leisure and recreation).
Mary Furlong, the prime mover behind the boomer business summits and author of Turning Silver into Gold, insisted that the aging boomer market could not be ignored. "There is no market opportunity larger than the boomers," the Santa Clara University business professor told the conference. But marketing to boomers meant understanding the trends shaping their needs and wants: global markets, longevity, life stage transitions ("e-shocks" such as divorce or death of a loved one), technology, and spirituality. Boomers constituted a pot of gold for businesses in health, housing, travel, networking, and services. And busy boomers, seeking second careers and new life purposes, might propel an explosion in small business growth.
Indeed, many audience members seemed to be women over age fifty who were in some sort of career transition—unemployed, marginally employed, or trying to start new careers. (Approximately two-thirds of the audience and speakers were women.) Corporate America was conspicuous by its relative absence. AARP was very much the primary sponsor and supplied several major speakers. Very few conference speakers and panelists were from major corporations. Intel, Phillips, Verizon, Microsoft, and Walmart were listed as minor sponsors.
Other boomer-business conferences reportedly failed to register much increased interest or participation from corporate America even before the Great Recession dampened enthusiasm—and budgets—for expanding market frontiers. Jennifer Mann, a Kansas City Star reporter, was puzzled by this neglect. The one hundred million consumers over age fifty control eight trillion dollars in assets, more than 70 percent of disposable dollars, "yet they barely get passing notice from American advertisers." A major reason, marketing experts informed her, is that "a big problem in the ad agency world is that so many employees of agencies, particularly those who work on the creative side, are mostly in their 20s and 30s. Either they have no interest in working on campaigns targeted to older people, or they don't know how to."
Nonetheless, through their sheer numbers, the boomer age wave is becoming a mass market inevitability. There has been an obvious surge of television and print media advertising toward boomers in the marketing realms noted by AARP's Emilio Pardo: health-related products (from Viagra to Flow-Max to Cancer Care Centers), financial planning (the rock-and-roll advertisements of both Fidelity and Ameriprise Financial Services), and leisure and recreation. In the realm of "political marketing," strategists in the 2008 presidential campaigns quickly realized that age had become a key voting behavior variable during the Democratic primary contest between boomer Hillary Clinton and self-advertised "postboomer" Barack Obama. Voters under thirty heavily favored Obama; those over age fifty—especially working-class women—generally favored Clinton. In the subsequent general election against John McCain, Obama won the under-thirty vote by 2–1.
In this chapter I am primarily interested in defining the key concept of generation and in outlining the basic cultural and demographic characteristics of baby boomers, especially the Older Boomers (born 1946–55). I will begin addressing questions that will recur throughout the book: Who are the boomers? What are their similarities? What are their differences? How have they changed? What are their needs, hopes, fears?
Boomers' culture and demographics will strongly influence a broader question: Will they have sufficient cultural cohesion and economic and sociological convergence to politically mobilize? Or will their intense individualism, coupled with inequalities and other demographic differences, forever fragment them? And, if so, will AARP become their leader by default?
A vital preliminary question for marketers, political analysts, and social scientists is: Do boomers think of themselves as boomers? And do common generational experiences provide a lasting basis for shared perceptions on economics, politics, culture, and other realms?
Currently, boomer self-identification seems superficial at best. A recent survey by Boomer Insights Generation Group (a subunit of the huge Edelman marketing and public relations firm) finds that 71 percent of boomers identify themselves as such, but fully 28 percent do not. The latter are mostly Younger Boomers. A MetLife Mature Market Institute survey discovered that the oldest boomers were more likely to favor the label than the youngest. Eighty-three percent of the "Oldest Boomers" (born in 1946) liked the term or liked it somewhat, but nearly half of the Youngest Boomers (born in 1964) indicated that they didn't like the term, and another 20 percent indicated that they didn't know whether they liked it or not. Overall, though, a 2008 Harris Interactive poll found that boomers were more satisfied with their generational label than other age groups.
The chief impediment to boomer generational self-identification is their fierce individualism—a hallmark trait found in nearly all research on boomers. Boomers' individualism is also a headache for marketers and advertisers.
"Boomers refuse to be identified as part of a group," former AARP Magazine editor Steve Slon told me. They don't "feel part of the same tribe." He should know. ARRP tried to market a monthly magazine specifically for boomer members titled My Generation. It failed. (AARP Magazine is now quietly segmented by subscribers' age groups: fifties, sixties, and seventy or above.) "Please Don't Call Us That!" was the title of Joe Queenan's 2010 protest against the "baby boomer" label published on the AARP Web site.
Boomers' sensitivity to collective categorization forces marketers to group "the aging generation into categories that give the illusion of individuality, they hope, while still encompassing millions of people," observed the New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. Contemporary boomer-focused advertising sometimes gently references "generation" but never the word boomer.
Boomers' lack of active generational identification has led to disappointments for Web site founders hoping to attract boomers as boomers. Eons.com is the prime example. Launched in 2005 with great fanfare by Jeff Taylor, founder of the successful Monster.com jobs Web site, Eons. com has narrowed its original broadly based focus on "living life on the flip side of 50." The broader, more commercial and information-based mission (including an obituary page) has been dropped. Eons.com now operates primarily as a "friendship engine" for middle-aged people who want to meet others with similar interests via a wide range of affinity groups. Many other boomer Web sites are relationship oriented or, like Baby Boomer Headquarters.com, focused upon cultural nostalgia. Boomer-oriented Web sites come and go.
But boomers' collective consumer profile is nonetheless being mapped by entrepreneurs and corporations who track the Web sites boomers most frequently visit. (Again, as AARP's Pardo noted, these are in the areas of finance, health, news, and recreation—though he did not publicly admit that for boomer men the latter includes both sports and pornography.)
Boomers likely will become much more age conscious as they cross various age thresholds, including "senior citizen discounts" (as low as age fifty), voluntary or forced retirement, and eligibility for Social Security (for reduced benefits at age sixty-two) and Medicare (age sixty-five). Most especially, boomers will acquire collective consciousness via intimations of mortality as they confront early indicators or the actual onset of chronic disease. (Cancer patient Diana Wagman was surprised to discover how many of her age forty- and fifty-something friends smoked marijuana. The reasons: pain—"We're all beginning to fall apart ... a couple of tokes really take the edge off the sciatica, rotator cuff injuries, irritable bowel syndrome, and migraine"; and anxiety—"to relax, to forget our disappointing careers and mask our terror of not just our own future but the future of our kids as well.")
As AARP's savvy marketers have discovered, one broad basis of unity for Older Boomers is the music and television of their youth. Older Boomers came of age during an era that was unusually ethnically and culturally homogeneous. They were more uniformly molded than previous generations by postwar prosperity, suburbanization, television–and especially a youth-based commercial music industry. "They were the 'Golden Kids,' the first automobile-centered, 'transistor teens,' the focus of the radio music industry," said Marc Fisher, Washington Post columnist and author of Something in the Air. "They are the first generation to think of themselves as such."
But demographic diff erences within this huge age cohort make it difficult for boomers—or others—to see anything like a unified group. AARP's marketers are still studying the wide range of economic, educational, ethnic, and other differences among boomers. "More than ever, we realize boomers are a large and diverse generation," AARP's savvy former CEO Bill Novelli told me. "We have to do a lot of segmentation research."
Again: Who are the baby boomers, especially those Older Boomers born from 1946 to 1955? And what, exactly, is a generation?
KARL MANNHEIM'S CONCEPT OF GENERATIONS
No one has better defined and explained the term generation than the German sociologist Karl Mannheim in his classic 1923 essay "The Problem of Generations." Mannheim located the study of generations within the wider enterprise of the sociology of knowledge: how individuals and groups come to "know what they know" through shared experiences and interpretations of events and processes within specific historical and sociocultural contexts.
Mannheim likened the concept of generation to the more popular Marxian concept of social class—a category of people who share similar economic or occupational positions. Just as an economic class can become an organized, active "class-conscious" group, so, too, can a generation. A generation shares the same historical location. They collectively experience and interpret the key events of that period. Many will think and respond to their shared passage in the same way. Distinctive generational identities may arise. They may begin to think and act as a group.
The concept of generation is often blurred with the related concepts of age cohort, period effects, and cohort effects. An "age cohort" is simply an inert demographic category. For example, the baby boom is usually defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. But as discussion inevitably turns to boomers' social history and generational identity, that broad category is usually subdivided into two "minicohorts," which I identify throughout this book as Older Boomers (born 1946–55) and Younger Boomers (born 1956–62). "Period effects" are events or processes during a particular historical time frame that affect all groups. For example, World War II affected most Americans in the 1940s; in the 1950s, the increased availability of television was a major information and entertainment transformation. An "age cohort effect" is the impact of such events on a particular age group during a particular life stage. For instance, men of military draft age were most directly affected by World War II; baby boomers "grew up" on television in the 1950s.
The gerontologist Robert Binstock has illustrated how age cohort and period effects interacted in shaping older voters' behavior in the 2008 elections. A majority of voters over sixty-five picked the Republican presidential candidate John McCain John McCain over Obama (53 to 45 percent). But Binstock demonstrates that the vote for McCain was particularly strong among voters age sixty-five to seventy-four, the "Eisenhower cohort" of older voters, who in their youth were strongly shaped by the 1950s presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. This political cohort has manifested these GOP-leaning "period effects" throughout their voting history.
Mannheim maintained that, though an age cohort may obtain consciousness of itself as a generation, the salience of generational consciousness varies. Some generations may have a strong sense of collective consciousness; others may not. "The drama of youth" shapes each generation's shared perspective as they make "potentially fresh contact with current events and 'present problems.'" But subgroups or "generational units" may also encounter and interpret the same historical processes differently. For example, boomer subgroups differently interpreted the 1960s and its liberal legacy—resulting in the long-running "culture wars" that postboomer President Obama promised to transcend.
AMERICA'S GENERATIONAL LANDSCAPE
Throughout the book, I shall refer to five generational classifications drawn from studies by both the Pew Research Center and the Metlife Mature Market Institute:
The Greatest Generation: approximately 8 million people over age eighty-four (born 1910–27), who were molded as young adults by enduring the Great Depression and by fighting and winning World War II. They have been famously lionized by Ronald Reagan as the generation that "saved the world."
The Silent Generation: an estimated 31.5 million people aged sixtysix to eighty-three (born 1928–45), who had their childhood and adolescence shaped by the Great Depression and World War II and who moved into adulthood during the general era of conformity and prosperity in the postwar years.
Baby Boomers: 78 million people aged forty-seven to sixty-five (born 1946–64), defined by a nineteen-year postwar spike in the birthrate. The Older Boomers were raised with high expectations during the prosperous 1950s and 1960s but were shaped by conflict and division over civil rights and the Vietnam War and also by several memorable historical events, ranging from the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 to the Watergate scandal and resignation of Richard Nixon in the early 1970s; Younger Boomers came of age in the aftermath of all this and were shaped by the increasing educational and occupational changes wrought by globalization.
Generation X: 49.6 million people aged thirty-five to forty-six (born 1965–76), also called the "Baby Bust," who had to cope with changing institutional structures and have become defined by their entrepreneurial, savvy skills.
Gen Y or "the Millennial Generation": 76.5 million people aged seventeen to thirty-four (born 1977–94), who came of age in the twenty-first century. Nearly as large as the boomer generation, they are seen as very technologically savvy and as the most politically liberal—they were viewed as the backbone of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
Generational identities are not strong but may be growing. When the Pew Research Center asked respondents from all adult age groups what made their own generation distinctive or "unique," the top choice of traits among the competitive boomers was, not surprisingly, "work ethic"; somewhat more surprisingly, the generation with the 1960s rebellious stereotype also viewed itself as "respectful." And a small percentage of boomers identified themselves as "baby boomers"—the only group to self-identify as a generation. Three of the four age groups cited "work ethic" as a key characteristic; Gen X and Millennials cited "technology use" (table 1). But these lists of cultural traits only begin to suggest the complexity of an identifiable, basic shared culture and ideology among baby boomers—one that has remained fairly consistent over time.
Excerpted from One Nation under AARP by Frederick R. Lynch. Copyright © 2011 Frederick R. Lynch. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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