Wild & Crazy: Companies See Green in This Graying Generation's Attitudes and Outlook on Life

Article excerpt

The retirement-community division of Pulte Homes, Del Webb, was concerned that it might be misreading its customers. The division suspected that many of its "retirees" weren't sitting around at the pool all day or playing shuffleboard. Good hunch on Del Webb's part, because when it dispatched 100 employees to retirement communities throughout the country to interview more than 100 residents about their lives and tastes, the community's administrators got a surprise: Residents are active, energetic, and choose recreation like dance and fitness classes as well as more sophisticated ventures like taking on new careers. "We've become masters of adopting to the wants and needs of this generation," says Caryn Klebba, a spokeswoman for Del Webb. The division took this lesson and turned it into a competitive advantage.

Today, Del Webb no longer depicts retirement living as a reward for a lifetime of hard work. Instead, the company presents it as a new beginning, and for good reason: Baby Boomers hate being pigeonholed. More than any other generation before them, Boomers are redefining life for the 50-plus crowd. Traditionally, age 50 has been the point at which marketers lose their interest in consumers, branding them as shoppers whose purchasing habits have been hardened and whose loyalties with certain brands entrenched. But the massive Boomer generation (said to have been born between 1946 and 1964) bucks the norm at every turn, and that matters now more than ever. More than half of the almost 76 million Boomers are 50 years old or older, while the rest crest the hill at the rate of 10,000 a week, according to Matt Thornhill, president of the Boomer Project, a marketing consulting firm based in Virginia.

At this rate, Thornhill says, marketers have little time to respond to these changing attitudes. "Companies need to retool their attitudes if they're to meet this group's expectations about marketing and service." These attitudes are changing for good reason. The average American's life expectancy has topped out an all-time high of 78 years. For Boomers this means more time for fun, as most consider the 50-plus years as a new lease on life. "This isn't a group that wants to hear about retirement, growing old, and moving to Florida," says P.J. Wade, a futurist and founder of business-improvement consultancy The Catalyst Group. "To them, it's a fresh start."

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

The Boomers have the cash to make that fresh start real. Experts place this generation's spending power at more than $1 trillion a year, nearly double the spending power of the prior generation. As American life expectancy continues to increase, so have Boomer expectations about how long they want to work. A recent AARP survey found that more than two-thirds of workers between the ages of 45 and 74 plan to continue working in some capacity past retirement. Even the AARP now refers to this life stage as "so-called retirement." Britt Beemer, president and chairman of America's Research Group, says, "This is a generation that is working longer than any previous generation before them."

Boomers are also reaching their peak earning years as expenses begin to bottom out. For most of them, the kids have moved out of the house, mortgages and other loans are ending, and they are inheriting money from their savings-minded parents (which, Yankelovich's Smith says, is a trait Boomers don't have). "Baby Boomers love to spend money on themselves. An economist once said that Boomers will be the first generation in American history to leave less money for the next generation than they received from the prior one."

Marketing to Boomers well past their 50th birthday also has the advantage of enabling companies to make up for the financial shortcomings of Generation X. Generation Y, a group of almost 73 million teens and 20-year-olds, still has a long way to go before reaching financial prowess, but Gen X, which falls between Gen Y and Boomers, should be the next logical target for marketers. …