Post-Baby Boomers Come of Age - with Little Economic Impact / Long-Term Issue: Will They Earn or Spend Enough to Keep U.S. Prosperous?

Article excerpt

The generation following the baby boom is finally coming of age, but without the expected economic impact.

The post-baby boomers are fewer in number, of course, and many economists thought the tighter supply would put upward pressure on the wages paid to these young people as they entered the labor force. Instead, their pay has either fallen or remained flat in recent years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

In addition, the post-baby boomers are being largely ignored by consumer products companies, which don't seem to consider them shoppers worth fussing over.

``Everyone's eye in terms of marketing is still on the baby boomers,'' said Nancy Hallberg, a vice president in the strategic services department at J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency. ``I think that's short-sighted, but the baby-boom generation still spends the big bucks.''

All this is an inauspicious beginning in the marketplace for a generation that will have a major influence on the economy by the year 2000. The long-term economic issue is whether the post-baby boomers will eventually be able to earn enough and spend enough to keep the nation prosperous. And the first impression is that the majority won't.

``There are going to be fewer Americans with discretionary income by the late 1990s,'' said Martha Riche of the American Demographics Institute.

The oldest of the post-baby boomers are now 23 or 24, having been born after the birth rate peaked in the mid-1960's and began its decline to the current low level. But the economic impact of the post-baby boomers is most noticeable among the 16- to 19-year-olds just eligible for jobs or in college.

Their ranks are the first to truly shrink, falling to 14.5 million people today from 16.7 million in 1979, when the tail end of the baby-boom generation was this age. By comparison, the nation's 20- to 24-year-olds total 19.6 million, almost as many as the 20.4 million people in the age group in 1979.

Although the post-baby boomers are entering adulthood, many experts argue that the buying clout of their elders, the baby boomers, is great enough to keep business executives mesmerized into the 21st century. Certainly the marketing efforts of the fast-food restaurants, with their new salad bars, and of Proctor & Gamble, with its lines of toothpaste for older people, are no longer focused on hooking the young as consumers.

The auto industry, for example, should be gearing up to sell subcompacts to the post-baby boom wage earners. There is such a sales effort, but General Motors, Chrysler and Ford are not investing much in the manufacture of subcompacts; most are obtained through joint ventures with the Japanese. …