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Boomer consumers adjust to economic, lifestyle realities


By Brian Goslow

As the economy rebounds, baby boomers are not likely to change frugal spending habits that were shaped during the recession. The once spendthrift generation no longer maxes out credit cards or leverages home equity without considering the possible consequences.

That doesn’t mean the 76 million consumers isn’t a buying force. Far from it.

“They’re still spending money on things they enjoy and things they’d like to do, and to fulfill their wants as much as their needs,” according to Matt Thornhill, founder and president of The Boomer Project. “But they’re being more practical and responsible about it. They’re being more responsible about their money when it comes to buying products and services.”

The Richmond, Va.-based Boomer Project develops marketing strategies for companies looking to market their products to baby boomers. Thornhill formed the company in 2003 with John Martin, president and CEO of SIR Research. They are the co-authors of Boomer Consumers: Ten New Rules for Marketing to America’s Largest, Wealthiest and Most Influential Group.

It’s not just attitudes about money that are changing.

“We’re going to see more impetus on well being and maintaining your health and wellness,” Thornhill said. “If you let yourself go, you’re going be frowned upon because you’re costing more money to maintain than someone who is fit.”

Big companies will push the idea of a well-being lifestyle and personal responsibility hard to the boomer market. “Over the past 40 years, we’ve made it that you’re a social pariah if you smoke a cigarette,” Thornhill said. “Over the next 20 years, we’re going to try to do the same thing about being out of shape and obese.”

While the need for self-maintenance has been a growing mantra for health care advocates, as a whole, the message has yet to catch on wide-scale. “But it’s going to, especially as boomers start to realize the warranty on their bodies is running out and they have to use it or lose it,” Thornhill said.

“The reality is the older you get, the harder it is to get out of bed in the morning. The knees are sending a signal to your brain saying that this is not like when you were 35 anymore,” he said. “You may think you have an attitude like 35, but the plant equipment isn’t holding up like you’re 35. There’ll be kind of an individual motivation that will come from there.”

Earlier this year, in an article titled 10 Ways Boomers Will Transform 2012, Thornhill and Martin wrote, “Health systems, rather than shopping malls, will become the center of communities; exercise programs and services from kettlebell (exercises that work the entire body) gyms to local aquatic centers will thrive; and pharmacies and food markets will become more wellness oriented.”

Similarly, developers are including fitness centers in new retirement and assisted living communities. “It’s really about taking care of yourself while you can still live independently and them providing care for you when you can’t live independently. We’re seeing that trend develop.”

Of equal importance is keeping an active mind.

Because of “responsible consumerism,” boomers will also live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Thornhill points out that many boomers came of age around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, and related activities have been part of their lives ever since.

“The vast majority of boomers today think they’re being green,” he said. “They’re starting to think about how they’re going to leave the planet, they’re motivated by their legacy so we think they’ll stay engaged in that.

“This great recession happened at a time the green movement was picking up speed and it happened at a time that boomers who had been über consumers for the last 40 years were reaching a stage of life when they realized, you know what, it’s not so much about having more stuff. You remember the bumper sticker, ‘He who has the most stuff wins?’ Boomers would now say that it’s he who has the best experiences or the most experiences before he dies wins,” Thornhill said.

While boomers may be looking to cut back on their purchases, Thornhill said, “the longevity economy” will provide business opportunities for “industry after industry” that offers products and services that help boomers stay vital as they grow older.

“Anything that helps boomers stay in their homes and live longer and be connected socially in their homes is going to be a big business,” he said. “From remodeling to making an age-friendly home to putting technology in place that connects you up so you can stay at home to providing services in the home. Products to physically adapt the home to be easier to live in as people grow older will be popular. Technology products will allow people to stay connected with their caregivers, family and friends while living in their own homes. Homes will become “more age-friendly,” Thornhill said.

At the same time, demand for more traditional in-home non-medical and personal care — such as cooking, housecleaning, grocery shopping or just companionship — will continue to grow.

Where existing support programs are cut for budgetary reasons or are not available, “villages” will continue to spring up in communities able to cover their costs.

Such a model follows in the footsteps of Boston’s Beacon Hill Village where members, for a set annual fee, can access services ranging from rides, house sitters and delivered meals to plumbers, electricians and tax experts, and enjoy social and cultural programs with other members. Not everyone, however, has the financial resources to pay for village membership. One alternative that is slowly catching on is virtual villages and caring collaboratives where people volunteer time to provide services to someone in need.

“Every hour that they give to help somebody becomes an hour they can get in help from someone else,” Thornhill said. “They call these volunteer time banks where you can make deposits and later on, make withdrawals and, for example, get somebody in the caring collaborative to go with you to a medical procedure or to drive you home.”

There are approximately 100 time bank programs in the United States with 11 Massachusetts-based programs, including ones in Boston (BackBone Community TimeBank), Cambridge (Metro Boston), Gloucester, Salem, Marshfield, Cape Cod, Worcester and Orange (North Quabbin). Most are not age-specific.

One reason time bank collaboratives were formed was that, while most people are willing to help, people needing help typically are reluctant to ask for what they need. “They’re of the mindset, ‘I don’t want to bother anybody; I don’t want to ask for help,’ ” Thornhill said. “If you were asked, you’d help in a heartbeat.”

Another development impacting how the boomer generation lives is that a third of them — approximately 25 million out of 76 million boomers — are currently unmarried; a growing number of them are living together platonically.

“They never married or they’re divorced or separated or they’re widowed,” Thornhill said. “As they hit 50, 60 and beyond, they’re looking around, going, ‘Hey, I’ve got one kid, who lives in Seattle and I live in Boston, my kid’s not going to be able to take care of me, I don’t want to move to Seattle, what am I going to do?’ ” The answer, he said, may lie in assembling a network to act almost as  “a family of convenience” as opposed to blood relatives.

Thornhill said this housing trend is a Golden Girls scenario where friends move in together and provide care for one another. “They’re going to pal up with other boomers and kind of take care of each other,” he said.

And, like it or not, economic realities will continue to cause generations of families to move back in together. “The good news is boomers tend to have very strong relationships with their millennial age children, there’s not a huge generation gap between them (as compared to previous decades),” Thornhill said. “They like the same type of music; both generations like rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not as drastic as it would be back when the boomers were living at home and their parents liked Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.”

Thornhill and Martin’s next book, Age Ready: Your Guide to a New Future in an Older World (LINX Publishing), due later this spring, explores what communities, organizations and companies can do to get ready for 2030 when the United States is predicted to have twice as many people over 65 as today.

“That’s the most fundamental change that is coming to America and the world and it will cause the most dramatic change. It’s an irreversible truth — we’re going to have an older demographic composition in the world in 2030,” Thornhill said.

“That really is going to change everything.”

For more information: The Boomer Project,; TimeBanks USA,


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