Today's older baby boomers are challenging that cliche as they pass through their mid-50s and begin to visualize a "retirement" characterized by youthful vigor, prosperity and personal fulfillment.
"This group is now looking at 30 years at the end of life between 50 and 80, or 15 fabulous years between 50 and 65," says Landon Y. Jones, author of the influential 1980 book "Great Expectations: America & the Baby Boom Generation." "They are looking for wholly a different retirement than their parents had."
Boomers-born from 1946-64-define themselves in terms of attitudes and values, in contrast to the generation that preceded them, says Maddy Dychtwald, co-founder and senior VP of the Age Wave think tank and author in 2004 of "Cycles: How We Will Live, Work & Buy." "They do not want to age the way their parents or grandparents did."
Is 55 the new 40? Julia Huber of the U.K. research organization Demos seems to think so. In an essay on AARP's Web site titled "The New Old-How Baby Boomers Are Redefining Retirement," she articulates three core themes: Leading-edge boomers anticipate a "windfall" of wealth, good health and quality time; they continue to express personal fulfillment in ways that "dominate popular culture"; and they're confronting their fears of "infirmity and death."
This combination suggests areas of opportunity for marketers of financial, hospitality and wellness products and services. It also offers some strategic direction for food, beverage and personal-care manufacturers.
Information Resources Inc., which tracks product sales, is detecting signs that older boomers' behavior reflects two key trends, says Sheila McCusker, editor of Times & Trends, an IRI monthly publication that recently described a sharp change in consumption patterns and priorities as adults pass the age of 50.
"We identified two themes ... we call `Aging Process' and `Transition to Empty Nest,' " she says, adding that the findings were based on differences in purchase behavior.
Among the new old, the aging-process trend manifests in purchases of foods identified as "healthier" and in personal-care products such as skin creams that promise preservation of youthful appearance, Ms. McCusker says. "We have already seen growth for anti-aging products among older boomers. ... There is room for real innovation. Even among some routine care products, manufacturers are positioning more effectively."
Julie Danis, senior VP-director of mind and mood at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote Cone & Belding, Chicago, concurs that older boomers are especially interested in products and services that will preserve youth and health. She cites data from the World Health Organization. "Fifty percent of boomers in North America, Europe and other industrialized nations have tried complementary [alternative] medicine and therapies," she says.
Suggests futurist Ryan Mathews, CEO of Black Monk Consulting: "It's about hanging onto the original promise. Here are all the props you need-Rogaine, Viagra, Lipitor, surgery, Nexium. It's all about keeping going."
As for the empty-nest transition, IRI's Ms. McCusker says, "We're already seeing more higher-end meals positioned specifically for empty nesters. ... At the same time, we see some declining demand across family-oriented convenience meals [like] items aimed at younger children, such as aseptic juice boxes."
Mr. Jones, a former managing editor at People, is widely credited with coining the "pig in the python" metaphor to describe baby boomers' advancing demographic bulge. While it's in some ways convenient to characterize boomers as a single demographic cohort, the common experience of the head-of-the-bulge boomers differs in some significant ways from that of younger boomers.
Older boomers are more likely to have benefited from the expanding opportunities in education, careers and even real-estate investing that coincided with America's rise to economic pre-eminence after World War II, futurist Mr. Mathews says. They were taught to anticipate that their lifestyle would exceed that of their "Greatest Generation" parents, and their expectations largely have been fulfilled.
By comparison, many younger boomers (see "Ageless Aging," P. 18) find themselves relatively disadvantaged in these areas.
But older boomers aren't without worries. Mr. Mathews says: "There's a growing sense guaranteed prosperity is no longer there, that it's not turning out to be true."
Age Wave's Ms. Dychtwald says she detects a similar theme. This is still very much the "sandwich" generation who face the possibility of caring for their children and elderly parents. "For the most part, older boomers' parents are still alive," she says. "They hope to inherit something, but it is not a certainty."
What many fiftysomethings are inheriting is care-giving duties for parents. This was underscored in "The Future of Retirement," a 2004 study commissioned by HSBC and conducted by Age Wave and Harris Interactive. It indicates many of the new old intend to keep working, out of preference or necessity.
"When we asked people, `What represents the ideal plan for how you will live in the next stage of your life?' 42% said they planned to cycle between work and leisure, 56% said they would try a whole new profession," Ms. Dychtwald says.
Another area that marketers should be watching is gender roles, says boomer expert Mr. Jones. "A big wild card is the women in the group. We may expect a dramatic increase in women who worked throughout their lives who are more educated, who have not had children, who have been divorced. We'll be seeing more economically independent women over the age of 50."
`Catching the happiness'
Ms. Danis says she detects more of a focus among the older boomers on "catching the happiness while I can. ... I want things that are going to make me happy on a daily basis."
While the purchase patterns of the new old are changing in sometimes predictable and at other times surprising ways, it's clear that consumption isn't going out of style.
"Baby boomers always buy solutions to the problems caused by their existence," says Mr. Jones. "In the 1950s, it was polio vaccine. Now they are working on Alzheimer's and erectile dysfunction. This is not a coincidence. Solutions will come about. Infrastructures will be created to supply the demand that they create."
Born Up to 1951
Lifecycle population: 68.8 million
As share of U.S. Population: 23.0%
White (Hispanic) 6.6%
White (non-Hispanic 79.2%
Other races 1.5%
Hispanic origin (Includes non-white hispanics) 7.1%
Top Male Name1: James
Top Female Name1: Mary
More info: census.gov; ssa.gov
Sources: Census Bureau population projections for 2006; Social Security Administration (names)