Those Aging Boomers

Middle age, tradition tells us, is when youth fades, passion ebbs, and life's winded marathon runners sink into the big easy chair of suffocating responsibility. But spare Frederick and Kathryn Clarke, a high-voltage Cleveland couple, any laments for what C. S. Lewis called "the long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity."

Fred turns 44 in June. He put in 11 years at Ernst & Young before becoming chief financial officer for a money-management firm. Now he's striking out on his own, running two franchises for Voice-Tel Enterprises Inc., a voice-messaging company based in Hudson, Ohio. His wife, Ryn, 41, runs a graphic-design firm out of their suburban Lakewood home. The Clarkes have two daughters, ages 1 1/2 and 5, but that doesn't slow them down. They go in for running, aerobics, skiing, tennis, and paddleball.

The Clarkes, with an income of well over $150,000 a year, are a blur of motion. They're renovating their seven-bedroom Victorian house, and their vacation travels take them from Maine to San Francisco. Ryn is on the board of the Cleveland Institute of Art, while Fred just ended a stint as president of the Cleveland Center for Economic Education, a group that helps local schoolteachers improve economics curriculums. "I don't see us slowing down," says Ryn. She calls middle age "an exciting challenge. You can't sit back and let it happen to you."

The Clarkes are wealthier than most people, and busier than many. But their refusal to give in to "dull, monotonous" middle age seems typical of the baby-boom generation, whose leading edge turns 45 this year. For these 66 million Americans, the adventure of youth continues. "This is not a generation that has accepted the reality of aging well," says Jeff Ostroff, 39, director of PrimeLife Marketing, a group in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., that advises on marketing to older consumers. "It's been brainwashed into thinking it has to wear short-shorts and use hula-hoops."

This youthful attitude has enormous implications for the thousands of U. S. businesses whose fortunes will rise or fall on keeping boomer customers satisfied. America's marketers can't afford to assume that these aging Aquarians will act in middle age the way their more sedentary parents did. Instead, they have to learn the knack of selling products and services to a generation that acts and thinks young but still must grapple with the new realities of midlife, which include the stress of starting families and switching careers.

PRACTICAL PIZZAZZ. Boomers' frenzied efforts to balance work and family, for example, make them voracious consumers of time-saving services and products. They also still want the fashionable jeans of their youth--provided they are cut for an ampler profile. And after acquiring a taste for travel as backpacking undergrads, they still want their exotic vacations--but the resort had better provide nursery care.

Designing products for these fortysomething tastes requires a deft mix of practicality and pizzazz. That's a big enough challenge. Marketers, though, also have to deal with the unique psychological and economic contradictions the boomers face. Though millions of them enjoy substantial incomes, others with less education face a tough grind as manufacturing jobs dwindle and many service jobs continue to pay poorly. Among the households headed by adults aged 35 to 44, nearly 20% struggle on incomes of $20,000 or less.

Even affluent boomers are starting to realize it will be tough for them to reach the level of affluence their parents enjoyed in the prosperous postwar world. "When we grew up in the `50s and `60s, we were told the world would be our oyster," says Richard Hokenson, a 46-year old demographer at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc. in New York. "Now life's turned out to be more of a struggle than we were told it would be."

Hokenson attributes much of this struggle to the boomers' huge numbers. As the largest group in the population, boomers are competing for a dwindling number of job promotions in an economy that may never again see the dizzying growth of the `50s and `60s. And since housing prices are no longer outpacing inflation, boomers may not realize the huge capital gains their parents get as they sell their homes to finance their retirement.

So despite relatively high incomes, boomers will have to shepherd their resources carefully. That doesn't mean they'll abandon their rich consumer habits. But marketers will find boomers looking for the best combination of price, service, and convenience in a product before they pull out their wallets.

Of course, the boomers won't march into middle age in lockstep. "The baby boom will not cross the terrain of middle age on a single superhighway," says Ralph Whitehead Jr., a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts. "They will blaze many trails across that landscape."

TOP DRAWER. Nearly a quarter of people aged 35 to 44, for example, are single, compared with 12% in 1960. That's a big market for vacations, packaged foods, and other goods aimed at affluent individuals. Some older boomer parents, meanwhile, have adult-age children, while many others are like Dr. Jay E. Lieberman, a 45-year old Washington, D. C., dentist. He will be past 60 before Julia, his 18-month-old daughter, heads for college. The middle-age nesting of boomers such as Lieberman helped boost the number of births last year to 4 million, the highest in the U. S. since 1964, the last year of the baby boom.

Affluent boomers coming late to parenthood are especially attractive to marketers. Unlike parents in their 20s, most in this age group are at or near the peak of their earning potential. And though worried about retirement, they want top-drawer items for their children. "When I make a decision to buy something for Julia, my only consideration is that it's best for her," says Lieberman. "I don't have to worry that I can't get the car fixed." Such well-off parents can afford to fret about contaminants in baby foods and are willing to pay a premium for products such as Earth's Best organic baby food. The company expects to triple its 1990 sales of $5.1 million by next year, says Marketing Director John Eldridge.

Because they are so well-educated, (chart, page 108) boomers are also willing to spend lavishly to give their kids a leg up in life. They are shelling out millions for educational toys, videos, and tutoring services. The American Booksellers Assn. estimates that publishers' overall sales of children's books--which can go for $15 or more at retail--jumped from $284 million in 1982 to $992 million in 1990.

Married-with-children boomers are also a prime market for the struggling U. S. auto industry. Families who outgrew tiny Toyotas have moved into the roomier Ford Taurus. Now, Ford hopes to get those buyers into even larger sedans and has redesigned its Crown Victoria with a Taurus-like look as a lure.

For active lifestyles--or getting the kids to ballet rehearsal through the snow--there are the increasingly popular four-wheel-drive vehicles. And every other automobile in the suburbs seems to be a minivan. Chrysler reports that baby boomers make up 61% of its minivan owners--much higher than the 42% boomer ownership for all passenger cars. Safety-conscious boomers are also willing to buy such costly options as airbags and antilock brakes.

Like autos, travel marketing is becoming increasingly child-oriented. Hyatt Hotels Corp. has developed a whole range of products to appeal to parents traveling with kids. Hyatt offers half-price adjacent rooms for children and a special kids' room-service menu. Many Hyatt resorts and downtown hotels have begun Camp Hyatt programs that provide activities for kids while parents attend meetings or play a set of tennis. Even cruises are being redesigned for the family. Premier Cruise Lines Ltd.'s Big Red Boat combines a Bahamas trip with a stay at Walt Disney World.

But even as growing children take up more of their time, boomers must deal with the needs of aging parents who are living longer than any previous generation. A 1985 survey by Travelers Corp. found that 20% of its work force had eldercare responsibilities. Notes Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University: "This is the first era that most middle-aged children will have living parents, and those parents will need care."

So boomers are shopping for childcare and eldercare, for nursery schools and nursing homes. Take Marianne L. Gumpper, a 40-year-old executive at People's Bank in Bridgeport, Conn. She has three young children and septuagenarian parents. "So far, they're healthy," she says. "But I do worry that as time goes by, I'll sort of be in a sandwich."

These "sandwich" boomers will be a lucrative market for inventive health care companies and insurers. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. has found that one way to market to seniors is through their children. Employees of American Telephone & Telegraph, Chevron, and Monsanto can now buy MetLife long-term-care insurance policies at group rates for themselves, spouses, parents, and grandparents. "Boomers are encouraging their parents to buy these policies because they are a way to protect their inheritance," say MetLife Vice-President James B. Weil.

INNER NEEDS. Having already redefined parenthood, baby boomers are about to do the same for America's notion of work. We never saw Ward Cleaver at the office, but we can assume that he supported June, Wally, and the Beaver by spending his life at the same white-collar job. You can't make such simple assumptions for those now entering midlife. Workplace experts figure part-timers and job-sharers will flourish, and entrepreneurship will surge. "This will be the first generation whose careers won't last for a working lifetime," says Peter A. Morrison, a RAND Corp. demographer. "Midlife career redirection will become more commonplace."

In part, this mobility has been forced by corporate restructurings that have led to massive layoffs of middle-aged managers. But others aren't waiting for pink slips. The weakening of job loyalties and the drive to satisfy inner needs are encouraging thousands to strike out on their own.

Even some whose jobs are secure will opt to move on. Ellen A. Rudnick, 40, was one of the highest-ranking women at Baxter International Inc., a hospital-supply company in Deerfield, Ill. But a feeling that her advancement was blocked and the demands of being a single mother of two led her to quit in 1989. Today she heads a company in Ann Arbor, Mich., that compiles medical data, and she loves her new freedom. "You can really get your hands around the business," she says.

The proclivity of boomers to change jobs and careers creates opportunities for an array of business services. Michael Cote turned unhappiness with his life as a lawyer into an opportunity. In 1988 he left the New York office of a Paris-based firm and eventually found a job counseling disgruntled lawyers seeking more meaningful work. Today, Cote, 39, runs the one-man New York office of Philadelphia-based Lawgistics.

Dissatisfied boomers are helping boost attendance 25% a year at New York University's Center for Career and Life Planning, which counsels adults on career changes. "I see people--a successful lawyer or banker--where everything about their career looks fantastic on paper, but they aren't satisfied," says Letitia Chamberlain, the center's director.

A generation that starts families late, changes careers, and faces permanent job insecurity will have to deal with a high level of turbulence. "In the earlier generation, by the time you were 50, the kids had graduated college, the mortgage was paid, and the dog had died," says Jane R. Fitzgibbon, head of Ogilvy & Mather's TrendSights Div. "This generation has nowhere near that level of certainty."

Indeed, for boomers having children later, big bills will crimp retirement savings. Yet savings will be more important than ever. Job-hopping will keep boomers from accumulating pension benefits, and corporate cost-cutting means they will pay a larger share of their health care costs in their old age. "My husband and I will be approaching retirement when Kevin is in college," says Beverly J. Merchant, 41, president of a Coral Gables (Fla.) real estate consulting firm and mother of a one-year-old. "At this rate, we will have to work for the rest of our lives." An Urban Institute study concludes that today's older boomers will retire with only half the $293,000 in real wealth their parents are expected to have when they quit working.

Companies that sell financial planning services want to take advantage of the boomers' new sense of financial insecurity. John Wilkinson, a vice-president at Cigna Corp., says that the demographic profile of the insurance company's customers has changed dramatically. The typical customer for Cigna's upscale financial planning services used to be a 55-year-old business owner. Now, he says, half the customers are under 45 and about a quarter are women.

This whiff of realism is helping tone down the hedonism of the 80s. "After boomers bought all the CD players and gelato makers, they realized they don't need any more of that stuff," remarks Susan Hayward, senior vice-president of market researcher Yankelovich Clancy Schulman. "Having everything turned out to be exhausting and expensive."

It's no surprise, then, that companies hawking apparel and luxury goods are modifying their approach to these consumers. BMW, a yuppie icon, still trumpets that its cars are the "ultimate driving machine," but its ads now emphasize safety and resale value. The Sharper Image Corp., which prospered in the `80s selling expensive adult toys, is trying to get its troubled business back on track by appealing to boomers' ecological concerns. It's peddling "green" products--can crushers for recycling, low-flow showerheads, and composters. Chairman Richard J. Thalheimer, 43, says "special planet Earth" products account for about 20% of the company's catalog.

Designers and clothing manufacturers are also targeting the fuller middle-age profile. Levi Strauss & Co. is aiming its Dockers line of casual men's trousers--with their roomy thighs--at an audience significantly older than the typical buyer of its snugger jeans. The Dockers collection, which was introduced in 1986, now accounts for 15% of the company's $4 billion in revenue. Says Daniel Chew, Levi's corporate marketing manager: "Men in their 40s are incredibly more fashion-conscious than their fathers."

Middle age suddenly is gaining cachet, too. Some cosmetics makers are using models who, while not exactly wrinkly, show some maturity. Revlon has launched a campaign for its Eterna 27 facial care product that features middle-aged model Lauren Hutton. Says marketing consultant Wendy Liebmann: "The Eterna 27 customer is an older woman who can now really relate to Lauren Hutton and say, `This is a contemporary, and wow, doesn't she look fabulous!' "

CATALOG SHOPPING. As they grow older, boomers who can afford it will buy anything that helps manage the time they have so little of. There has been an enormous surge in purchases from catalogs, which spare busy shoppers the trouble of slogging through shopping malls. Home-repair and lawn-care services should thrive. Trendy eateries are now joining pizza parlors in the home delivery business. "I spend a lot of money having people do things I am capable of doing myself but don't have the time to do," says Sherry A. Swirsky, 39, a partner in a large Philadelphia law firm.

The fastest-growing area of supermarket sales is ready-to-eat deli items, which include healthier foods, such as chicken and vegetables. Most Safeway supermarkets around Washington, D. C, and in the San Francisco Bay area now offer home delivery of phone or faxed orders. Growing numbers of supermarkets are open 24 hours a day. And are you ready for McGroceries? McDonald's Corp. is even selling eggs, milk, and bread at drive-up windows in some test markets.

Healthier eating is part of the boomers' preoccupation with slowing the biological clock. So is their fascination with exercise, which makes boomers different from the Barcalounger-lizard generation that preceded them. "Being fit is terribly important for these people psychologically," says James Bostic, president of NordicTrack Inc. "It means recapturing their youth, retaining their vitality."

But fitness, which used to mean an evening stop at the gym, is becoming a domestic activity for time-crunched boomers, who are cramming their homes with exercise bikes and stair-step exercisers. NordicTrack, which makes home machines that simulate cross-country skiing, has enjoyed a compound annual sales growth averaging 55% over the past five years, and sales could pass $150 million this year. NordicTrack's Bostic says his typical customer is between 40 and 45 and has "extraordinarily high education and income levels." Their income had better be high. NordicTracks cost as much as $1,299.

As boomers feel the effects of aging, the weight of responsibilities, and the realization that they will not attain all their goals, they are doing a little soul-searching. Churchgoing is up, and the divorce rate is edging down. Psychological services for sufferers of midlife crises could thrive. And boomers' neverending search for self-fulfillment will open up markets for educational vacations and hobbies such as gardening. Boomers are even taking piano lessons--a once-hated ritual of childhood.

SHARING TIME. This age group is also feeling a renewed sense of social consciousness. Volunteerism is on the rise. In March, 1990, 64% of Americans aged 35 to 44 had volunteered during the previous year, compared with 54% for the same age group only two years earlier, according to the Independent Sector, a coalition of charitable organizations.

Steve K. Ferber, 39, has discovered volunteering in a big way. Last year, Ferber, a Fairfax (Va.) father of three daughters, sold his share of a successful newsletter business to his partner and is now devoting full time--without pay--to developing environmental education programs for the local school system. Says Ferber: "It gives me a sense of contributing to something real."

This surge in volunteerism shows that somehow the old `60s spirit of wanting to change the world never quite flickered out. That's a good thing--there are plenty of problems screaming for the boomers' attention. And as they struggle with these personal and world-class issues, the boomers may well tone down their self-indulgent ways even more. They've already learned, as the Rolling Stones lyric goes, that they can't always get what they want. But boomers know that if they try, they just might find they get what they need, as they move vigorously into their 50s and beyond.