Essay

BOOMERS HAVE IT TOUGH, TOO

Sheer numbers give them clout, but they competed for everything they have

BARBARA WICKENS October 27 2003
Essay

BOOMERS HAVE IT TOUGH, TOO

Sheer numbers give them clout, but they competed for everything they have

BARBARA WICKENS October 27 2003

BOOMERS HAVE IT TOUGH, TOO

Essay

Sheer numbers give them clout, but they competed for everything they have

BARBARA WICKENS

I’D HAD my suspicions for a while, but that sunny June day in HMV is when I knew for sure. At first, I thought the cashier had a peculiar look on his face because I was pay— ing with something he’d never seen before&cash. But no, he was trying, none too successfully, to suppress a snigger at my purchase—the Beatles’ 1 CD. Suddenly I saw myself through his Gen-X eyes: just one more aging boomer nostalgic for the music of her youth. (And, I might add, turning 1 into a monster hit, just as we had with the Beatles’ music we loved first time around.) So there it was in a nutshell; after setting the public agenda for the last half-century, the nine million Canadians born between 1946 and 1965—not to mention some 80 million American boomers—are now somehow risible. Our interests and pursuits, as one young writer of my acquaintance puts it, are “irredeemably lame.” Our music? Geezer Rock. Yoga, plastic surgery, Viagra? Pathetic attempts at trying to maintain our illusory youth.

No doubt about it, some of the Xers’ beefs are legit. But others sound like the whining of a little kid excluded from the big kids’ clubhouse. Even before my encounter in the music store, my friends and I had commented on how those Gen-Xers with Mcjobs seemed to serve up lashings of attitude with our fries. Those who have graduated to real, albeit often contract, jobs seem aggrieved in other ways. The boomers, the X lament goes, got everywhere first, and have been sucking up all the resources ever since. We did so with the good jobs, and are going to do it with the pension money as well. And we make them listen to our music.

OK, so maybe it is a raw deal to be trailing the largest cohort in Canadian history. But let me tell you, it hasn’t always been easy, or fun, being in the midst of it either. When we were little, we poured into elementary schools faster than anybody could build them. Many kids had to learn their ABCs in hastily constructed, aluminumsided portable classrooms we called “chicken coops.” Pretty self-explanatory. But mostly, we waited. In the schoolyard. As the teacher took attendance. And the worst, at least for a W in that alphabetically ordered universe, for inoculations.

I’M SURE many of us will take the advice that Welsh poet Dylan Thomas once gave his father, and ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light*

And so it’s been at every age and stage. At the University of Toronto, there were some 200-plus students in my first-year psychology class. (We wouldn’t hear so much about overcrowding again until the boomers’ kids, the so-called echo generation, started working their way through the school system.) When boomers reached typical home-buying age, house prices reached nightmarish heights. And always, whatever any one of us thought, did or bought, was being thought, done, or bought by millions of others. So much for being original or unique or special.

Boomers too have had to wait their turn in the generational pipeline. We may have made famous the expression “don’t trust anyone over 30,” but, in fact, the truth is many of us respected our parents’ generation. They had fought in the Second World War, and when they said we owed them, dammit, we believed them. We even kept electing them to public office long past their best-before dates. A half-step behind them came a generation so small it doesn’t seem to have warranted its own label. Children or teens during the war, they entered a workforce with little competition. So little, in fact, that Toronto economist David Foot notes in his seminal Boom, Bust and Echo that anyone who had a pulse could get ahead. They did. And there many of them still sit.

So sure, boomers have had the numbers to set the social agenda, from rock ’n’ roll to the women’s movement. And we’ve been a marketer’s dream, making instant best-sellers out of everything that caught our collective fancy, from Hula Hoops to miniskirts to Botox. But it strikes me we’ve never really wielded power in the way our numbers would warrant. Certainly not in politics. American boomers elected their first president, Bill Clinton, only in 1992. In Canada, we’ve yet to have a boomer prime minister—and likely never will. (Kim Campbell’s tenure was too brief and ineffectual to really count.) The Canadian Alliance’s Stephen Harper might be a boomer, but he’ll likely never be PM. Meanwhile, with Paul Martin, 65, set to assume leadership of the natural governing party, boomers like Brian Tobin, Allan Rock and John Manley appear to have given up on ever getting the top job. Probably with good reason. By the time Martin retires, the Liberals will want to present a more youthful face to the world.

And now, it seems, even the marketers no longer care about us. Despite the aging population, companies still spend nearly all their marketing and advertising budgets on the young. One study that seems emblematic of the industry—with the charming title “You’re getting old”—claims that consumers’ spending habits are cemented by age 35. Since they won’t switch brands, why bother advertising to them? Marketers looking at age alone are bound to see only the stereotype of the “mature” or “non-hip” consumer. But look at the purchases and you may have a “coolhunter” or “metrosexual.” And why not? Kids long gone, house and car paid for, older shoppers have the time and resources to indulge their whims. It’s a trend that’s bound to continue. Already, people over 50 buy about half of all new cars, often at the top end of the line. Hell, the median age of a Harley-Davidson buyer today is 47.

Besides, it’s hard to believe boomers will put up for long with being victims of the youth culture we created in the first place. We’re healthier and wealthier than any generation in history, and likely to stay so well into our senior years. We’ll lobby for changes in retirement policies, refuse to be warehoused in old-age homes, and demand respect. There are, in fact, already signs that attitudes about aging are changing. And smarter companies are starting to catch on. L’Oreal has announced that Catherine Deneuve will be the face of its new hair-care line for mature women—and agreed with her request she not be airbrushed. She turns 60 this week. Ford has created what it calls its “third-age suit.” The outfit makes the wearer’s joints stiffer, waist thicker and even includes goggles to simulate cataracts, to help its designers (usually under 40) understand the needs of older drivers.

Elsewhere, academics are starting to look into what’s likely to happen when boomers begin retiring en masse. Looks like we’ll be leaving a pretty big hole when we take all our skills and intellectual capital with us. One industry study, for instance, Bringing the Future into Focus, examined the projected loss of 64,000 registered nurses by 2006. The report warned of a “health system catastrophe” in Canada if steps aren’t taken to try to retain at least 15,000 of those expected retirees.

The boomer generation made “sexism” a dirty word. It’s in our own best interest to do the same for “ageism.” I’m sure many of us will take the advice the poet Dylan Thomas once gave his father, and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 171