Aging Baby Boomers: They're Not Babies Anymore

Home in on the aging boomer market, now in its peak earning years and in the throes of changing housing needs, and you may have a hard time spending the money you'll make.

April 1, 1996

On New Year's Day 1996, something of a watershed occurred that you'll want to adjust to. That's when 7,745 of the oldest baby boomers turned the big five-oh. Over the next 18 years, all 78 million of their fellow boomers will claim mid-centenarian status at a rate of one every eight seconds---3.4 million in 1996 alone.

So what's the big deal? Only that the most affluent, educated, and self-defining generation in America's history has turned middle-aged. And as John A. Tuccillo, chief economist for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, says, "If salespeople try to market themselves or otherwise work with the aging baby boomer population the way they have with similar age groups previously, they're going to come up empty-handed.

But fear not: The baby boom crowd is far from mysterious. As the babies born between 1946 and 1964 grew into the counterculture '60s, the indulgent'70s, the opulent '80s, and the practical '90s, they left signs of who they are and how best to market and service them.

How to Tell Boomers Apart

Sure, many boomers share clearly defined attitudes and preferences. Those are largely based on similar life stages and shared experiences, such as coming from a generally prosperous home and being the first generation to grow up in the shadow of nuclear threat. "But there's no way to paint a definitive picture of the typical baby boomer," explains Susan Williams, director of marketing, Coldwell Banker--Success Realty, Scottsdale, Ariz. "Each is highly individualistic. And sales and listings come from people, not demographic groups."

Her point is reflected in the difficulty of ascertaining some basics, such as aging boomers' migratory inclinations. "Climate won't play as much of a role in boomer homebuying decisions as it has with earlier generations," Tuccillo suggests. "Instead, their priority will be finding their preferred housing options, regardless of geographic location."

So with few particulars to pigeonhole them, it helps to keep in mind that boomers encompass two distinct types of consumer. The younger half, in their 30s and early 40s, are in their peak child-rearing years. They may be first-time or step-up buyers looking for room to grow a family. Proximity to schools, parks, shopping, and other families with kids is important to them. Having not yet established a strong credit history or a huge savings, they tend to require more creative financing than their elders.

The older half, in their late 40s and early 50s, have just entered their peak earning years. Denise Athas, a salesperson with Frank Howard Allen, REALTORS®, Novato, Calif., sees them as wanting smaller homes, but not necessarily because they can't afford larger ones. "They're putting a lot of time in their work," she says. "When they're not working, they want to have fun, which has always characterized boomers. These early empty nesters want properties that are easy to maintain."

Athas says an increasing number of older boomers are attending her seminar for retirees, "The Last Home-buyer Seminar," though the first baby boomers won't hit retirement age until 2011. "They're planning for the future," she says. "I've worked with boomers who've traded down to the home they think they'll keep forever," partly because they question the adequacy of their savings.

"This group is becoming very cautious with money," agrees Steve White, a salesperson with RE/MAX of Valencia Inc., Valencia, Calif. And rightly so: This is the age group with parents needing assistance, kids in college, and the feeling that Social Security benefits or company pensions may not be there for them when they need them. In addition, a tighter economy demands that they work harder and spend smarter than their parents for life's little goodies.

Even so, boomers are notorious spenders, preferring toys over trusts and tapping into credit like no other generation. "They may buy a pricier home just because, for the first time in their life, they can," says Williams.

Older boomers are also igniting the second-home market. According to Ragatz Associates, a Eugene, Ore.--based marketing consultancy to the resort industry, 44 percent of households hope to buy a vacation home during the next decade, compared with 26.2 percent in 1990. Those most interested are 35- to 54-year-olds with median household incomes of $54,000.

To target younger or older boomer groups most effectively, Williams says, include ages or age ranges in your mailing list databases.

So What's It to You?

If all this sounds too complicated to put to practical use, take heart. "It boils down to keeping a few key points in mind," says Athas. "One is that these are intelligent people." Translation: Avoid gimmicky and trite marketing ploys, such as doling out trinkets. A video on how to sell your home would probably be preferred to the expected free market analysis. Athas also shies away from fluorescent and candy-colored papers and inks, which may get noticed but look childish to boomers.

And they expect superior service but not hand-holding, says Tuccillo. "They want all the facts. They won't fall for fancy words."

"You can't simply say that you can meet their needs," adds White. "They want to know that you understand what their needs are and that you have the experience and resources to service them effectively. They tend to want proof and statistical support."

So plan on having boomer clients and customers scrutinize your claims, such as the value of their home, the area's market conditions, and your ability to sell it. A six-month-old list of your closed transactions won't cut it with these folks. Stay current to get on their good side.

"These are people who work hard so that they can play hard, and they expect the same from you," explains Char Huff, a salesperson with Kaisner Realty, Bloomington, Ill. That means frequent status reports: What activity has the listing received? How's the progress on financing, inspections, and construction? When can you fax over a copy of the latest ad and activity report?

When it comes to boomers, you must shift gears to cater to their unique characteristics. But then, 78 million---and all the transactions it represents---is a nice number to think about while you're adding ages to mailing lists, sprucing up marketing pieces, digging up statistical data, and staying in touch.

Boomers at a Glance

Baby Boomers . . .

  • Are the 78 million Americans born from 1946, after World War II, through 1964, just before the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
  • Define the demographic makeup of the United States. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of adults under 35 will decline a total of 8.3 million, but the number of adults over 50 will grow to 86 million. By 2015, 115 million will be over 50.
  • Are the most educated U.S. generation. Among the oldest baby boomers, 87 percent are high school graduates, more than one in four have college degrees, and more than half have some college experience. In 1950 three-fourths of the people over 55 didn't have a high school diploma.
  • Are mostly married---two-thirds, anyway. And 62 percent of adults 3044 have kids under 18 at home.
  • Are earning above-average incomes. In 1993 the median household income was $40,900 for householders 35-44, and $42,200 for those 45-54, compared with $31,200 for all households.
  • Are tech heads. Thirteen percent use computers at home---compared with 10 percent for all adults. They also use E-mail and fax more than older or younger Americans.
  • Believe that hard work is rewarded. But one-third say they'd quit working if they had enough money to live comfortably the rest of their life.
  • Tend to be fun loving, making hits out of "Seinfeld" and "The X-Files" and boosting sales of sporty, stylish cars and recreational clothing and equipment.
  • Like to walk. More than 40 percent walk a mile or more per day.
  • Are stressed out. One in four claims to feel stressed nearly every day, compared with one in five adults in general.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; Roper Starch Worldwide; 1994 General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago; and American Demographics magazine.

Straight From the Boomers' Mouths

You know how practitioners size up the boomer generation. But what do boomers say about themselves? The Phoenix-based Del Webb Corp., which develops communities for adults 55 and over, this year released the results of a nationwide telephone survey of 1,000 baby boomers born in 1946. At 50 they're the oldest of that immense generation and the group leading the way for change in everything from health care to housing. Some survey highlights:

HOMEOWNERSHIP

  • 90 percent say they own their own home.
  • 36 percent plan to move to a new house for their retirement; of those, 51 percent---or 18 percent of all respondents---say they intend to retire to a different state.
  • 40 percent of those planning a move for retirement say a favorable climate is the deciding factor.
  • 30 percent of those who predict they'll move say being close to family is most critical; 15 percent say cultural and recreational amenities are key.
  • 8 percent say they'd prefer to live in an active adult community; 45 percent would opt for a community open to all ages; the rest have no preference.
  • 23 percent say they'll use the equity in their home to finance their retirement.

SIGNIFICANT STATS

  • 43 percent say they have at least one child under 19 living at home.
  • 32 percent say they're currently supporting their children and parents or anticipate doing so in the future. Most say that won't adversely affect their retirement plans. Those who'll be affected say they'll put off retirement or work part-time after retiring.
  • 69 percent aren't threatened by crime in their neighborhood; 38 percent say they aren't threatened by it in their city.
  • 80 percent work full-time; 6 percent are retired.
  • 90 percent say they'll retire before 70; 30 percent will stop working before 60.
  • Most say old age starts at 79.
  • The median amount that respondents have saved for retirement to date is $59,000; they hope to have saved about $131,000 by the time they're ready to retire.

BELIEFS AND BEHAVIOR

  • They believe that their generation was born to more opportunity and less hardship than previous ones. They describe themselves as more affluent, better educated, and having higher expectations of life than their parents.
  • As the first generation to grow up with television and rapid advances in technology and medicine, they appreciate those advantages but say that quick change leads to stress and job insecurity.
  • They're more socially permissive and open-minded than earlier generations. In addition, they're more self-indulgent and materialistic and not as family oriented as their parents.

Five Ways to Win Boomers' Appreciation and Business

  1. Avoid corniness, cute sayings, and too bright colors in your marketing.
  2. Give them lots of statistical information to support your claims about home values, economic trends, and your qualifications.
  3. Add intelligent humor to at least some of your marketing and follow-up material.
  4. Consider the consequences of aging. Older boomers with dimming eyesight may appreciate type sizes of at least 12 or 13 points and sharply contrasting colors, such as black and white or dark blue and yellow. Avoid subtle color combinations like blue and green.
  5. Meet expectations of superior service by contacting boomers frequently and by following through on promises expediently and completely.

7 Tips for Small Talking Your Way to Success

To network like a pro, try these schmoozing tips from Debra Fine, head of The Fine Art of Small Talk, a training company in Englewood, Colo.

  1. Use the names others give you. If you're not sure, ask the person, "Do you like to be called Debra or Debbie?"
  2. Mirror other people's behavior. Be alert to the cues others give you. If they speak softly, don't talk in a strong, boisterous voice. If they're outgoing, try to match their friendliness.
  3. Ask open-ended questions. Avoid questions that require only a yes, no, or one-word answer. Instead of asking people how long they've worked in their profession, ask how they got interested in it. "What brought you out here?" is a great follow-up question to "Where are you from originally?" If you ask people how their weekend was, chances are you'll get the standard response---"Fine." Dig deeper: Ask what special things they did that made it a good weekend.
  4. Use free information to get conversations rolling. If a prospect is wearing a Rotary lapel pin, ask, "What got you involved in Rotary?" A picture on someone's desk or a diploma on a wall is also a conversation starter.
  5. Be an active listener. Smile, make eye contact, and nod to communicate that you're listening. If your arms are folded over your chest, you're not open to the speaker. Show you're paying attention by paraphrasing the speaker's key points.
  6. Share information about yourself. A prospective client or customer will feel more comfortable if you mention, for example, that your kids play soccer or that you're taking a class at the local university. Be careful not to ramble on about yourself, though. Good conversationalists learn more about others than they share about themselves.
  7. Prepare. Come to a meeting or party brimming with conversational topics. When I go to a function, I arrive five minutes early and sit in my car thinking up open-ended questions. It really pays off.
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