Sixty-two year-old Kathy Sparks is not simply a 30-year older version of her 32-year-old self. In many respects she’s a different person. That poses a problem for the 32-year-old copywriter or ad creative trying to fashion a marketing message aimed at Kathy and her age peers.
A true story illustrates the point.
While conducting a workshop in 1996, the year the first boomers turned 50, I asked for two volunteers, one born in 1946 and another born in 1964, the bookends of the “boomer generation.” A balding man, a bit wide of girth, approached the podium. A trim, well-groomed 32-year-old man followed him. Before I could say anything, someone from the audience got the point and shouted, “They’re twins!
As peals of laughter ebbed, I asked each man to talk about his plans for the next five years. The 32-year-old said he wanted to get into the top echelons of his company, buy a bigger house, and start working a few less than his customary 12 to 14 hours a day. The 50-year old in effect said, “Been there, done that. I’m easin’ up now. Making my life simple. Gonna retire in a few years and I’d like to get some practice now.”
Each man was at a very different time of life, with different aspirations and goals, yet both are called boomers, supposedly having much in common because, we’re told over and over, “boomers were shaped by the same events growing up.”
I can’t imagine any developmental psychologist seeing any constructive meaning in the marketing application of the term “boomer generation.” About the only ones who do are marketers and their clients. Erik Erikson, who created one of the most influential stage-of-life constructs or Abraham Maslow would certainly see nothing of merit in the term.
As generally used in marketing “stage of life” refers to such events as school graduation, first job, marriage, the coming of children, divorce, empty nester status and retirement. These are social stages of life. While they do predispose to some extent people’s needs (households with a baby buy diapers), they have far less influence on the qualitative aspects of a person’s behavior than psychological stage of life.
For example, our 32-year-old boomer and 50-year old boomer both had personal transportation needs. They may even have had the same likes in vehicles. Let’s say they each can afford and like Lexus sedans. However, the differences in values they bring to their decisions are different. The 32-year-old’s values are likely infused with materialism. He probably sees his Lexus as a symbol of who he is, what he’s accomplished and where he is headed. He bought it and drives it with an eye cast outward to catch others’ reactions.
In contrast, the 50-year old boomer’s affection for his Lexus is likely more experiential. He’s not so concerned with making social statements with his Lexus. High on the list of motivators to buy a Lexus was comfort, convenience, aesthetics and the core values of the manufacturer and its agents. This is not to say that the younger boomer is uninfluenced by those motivators. There, the younger boomer’s motivations are likely to more strongly reflect social influences than those of the older boomer.
I’ve read in articles and heard from podiums the misguided advice to not place as much value on social stage-of-life factors as once made sense. The idea is that once only young people had new, growing families. Today you see 50 and even 60-year olds with pre-elementary school children. The implication is that a 60-year-old new dad is like a 32-year-old new dad. But the older father of a young child is generally more inclined to a deeper sense of awe and wonder in pondering the new life he has sired.
The development of an organism has been described as “Movement from a lower and simpler state to a higher and more complex state. “ That certainly applies to humans. Maslow once observed that an infant enters this world with a mission to become ever more human. In other words, we are programmed by our genes to develop in the direction of higher states of being and complexity.
In Maslow’s view, the first three levels of basic needs in his famous hierarchy (physiological, safety and security, and love and belonging) are about deficits and their fulfillment. The next two levels (self esteem and the esteem of others, and self-actualization) are about growth. People think differently, he noted, when their lives are dominated by deficit needs than when growth needs have become the first order of business. He spoke of D-cognition and B-cognition (B for Being) in referring to differences in how people think, according to whether their aspirations are need-dominated or growth-dominated.
In the next post I will discuss some of these differences. They are unambiguous and crucial to getting messages to older people right every time.