Dispelling Myths About Baby Boomers in The Washington Post

Who says baby boomers don’t like sex, are terrible with technology, are all rolling in the dough, are healthier than their parents and rottenly selfish? It’s just not true! In a piece I wrote for The Washington Post, I put these myths to bed.

Take a look and see what you think:

Washington Post
There are 75.4 million baby boomers in the United States, people from 51 to 69 years old. They are the largest generation in American history, raised during the economic prosperity that followed World War II. Media and marketers have treated the generation as one enormous, monolithic group since their youth. But larger than the entire population of France, America’s baby boomers are a far more diverse demographic than any of their many stereotypes convey. The oldest boomer, born in 1946, was 18 years old when the youngest was just entering the world. It’s time to debunk some generalizations about the original Me Generation. 
Sally Abrahms is a nationally recognized writer on baby boomers and aging. 

1. Boomers are wealthy.

Rather than downsizing, many empty nesters are snapping up second homes or moving into bigger quarters, seeking more prestige and space for friends and relatives to visit. For instance, the Lake Weir Preserve retirement community in central Florida offers custom homes with garages as huge as 3,000 square feet, to fit RVs, boats and classic-car collections. Increasingly, “retirement isn’t all about being practical,” Ken Dychtwald, founder and chief executive of the consulting firm Age Wave, told U.S. News & World Reportthis year.

Such stories of big spending have dominated popular perceptions of boomers in their later years. But many boomers couldn’t be further from living that dream. While some benefit from multiple income streams, members of this sandwich generation often are saddled simultaneously with their children’s eye-popping college tuition payments and health expenses for their aging parents. Some have to leave their jobs to be full-time caregivers. A 2013 AARP study found that about 1 in 5 workers between ages 45 and 74 had either taken leave or quit a job to care for an adult family member in the past five years. That amounted to an average $303,880 in lost income (including pension and Social Security benefits) per caregiver, according to a MetLife estimate

On top of that, there’s a mounting number of “gray divorce” couples who, in their 50s and 60s, suddenly have to divide assets they had counted on. Given boomers’ longer life expectancy, that translates into a lot more bills for many more years. 

Savings aren’t helping them much. A Wells Fargo study released last month shows that working Americans age 60 or older have median savings of just $50,000, about $250,000 short of their goal. And plans to keep their jobs longer might not work. In the same study, 49 percent of retired respondents said they left the workforce earlier than expected, frequently because of health problems or an employer’s decision. 

Boomers know that their financial situation is more precarious than others think. “When I talk to audiences around the country, I hear this palpable fear that boomers will outlive their money,” says personal finance expert Kerry Hannon, author of “Getting the Job You Want After 50.”

2. Boomers are healthier than their parents.

Baby boomers have the longest life expectancy in history. The average 65-year-old today can expect to live to 84.3 — nearly three years longer than a 65-year-old in 1980. New tests to screen for health issues, along with greater public awareness about the dangers of smoking, sitting and obesity, give boomers health advantages that their parents never had. Statins to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease weren’t even introduced until 1987. Boomers are tracking their fitness, tallying their steps and counting their calories. It’s natural to assume they are healthier than the previous generation.

But the data doesn’t agree. “We have all these medical advances, fitness and technology. There’s this belief that with so many more tools available that boomers have to be doing better, but it’s a misperception,” says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise. 

 Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2013 showed that boomers were in worse health than their parents at about the same age. They had more disabilities and higher rates of chronic diseases. Just 13 percent of the studied boomers said they were in excellent health, compared with 32 percent of people from the previous generation. Boomers were more likely to be obese, exercised less, and had higher rates of hypertension and high cholesterol. 

3. Boomers are selfish.

If you want to see how unpopular the cohort unfortunately nicknamed the Me Generation has become, just Google “baby boomers selfish.” My search returned 147,000 results, including headlines declaring them “The Worst Generation Ever.” Detractors complain that boomers stay too long at their jobs and in their homes, not making room for the next generation, spending their children’s inheritances and running up debt. 

Elsewhere in this issue, Jim Tankersley writes, “the generation that was born into some of the strongest job growth in the history of America, gobbled up the best parts, and left its children and grandchildren with some bones to pick through and a big bill to pay.”

Not so fast. Boomers have been far more generous with their money than they’re given credit for, a benevolence that will continue after their deaths. The generation is poised to lead the largest wealth transfer in U.S. history. Researchers at Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy estimated that between 2007 and 2061, heirs will receive $36 trillion from deceased relatives, and $20.6 trillion will be given to charity. A new Merrill Lynch report credits boomers for an upcoming surge in charitable giving: Over the next 20 years, retirees will donate money and time worth $8 trillion. 

4. Boomers are technology-challenged.

It stands to reason that people who weren’t exposed to personal computers until adulthood would have a harder time learning digital skills than those who have been using them since childhood. The personal computer didn’t even exist until the oldest boomers were a decade out of high school. The youngest were in their late 20s when the public Internet was born. In 2001, educator Marc Prensky coined the term “digital immigrant” for those born before 1980 who can find technology foreign. It’s assumed that older adults are slower to grasp new skills and that computers, digital gadgets and social media are too complicated for them to use. 

But boomers, like younger generations, have integrated digital technology into almost every facet of their lives — from banking and shopping to following news and watching videos. A 2010 Pew Research Center studyfound that 84 percent of Americans between ages 57 and 65 owned a cellphone, about the average for adults of all ages. They were nearly as likely as Gen Xers to own a desktop computer — 64 percent compared with 69 percent (though Gen Xers were more likely to have a laptop). And among younger boomers, 42 percent owned an iPod or MP3 player, while 38 percent owned a game console. 

They’re also far from social-media-shy. Users over age 55 are Facebook’s fastest-growing segment; 7 out of 10 boomers already have an account. They have no problem logging on for love, either. Several dating sites, including OurTime.com and SilverSingles.com, cater to the 50-plus set, who now make up 20 percent of all online daters.

5. Boomers don’t have sex.

On that note, boomers also have challenged the notion that our sex lives collapse as we age. A culture that glorifies youth and glamorizes taut bodies has grimaced at the idea of grandparents as sexual beings. Older actresses are sidelined as romantic leads in movies, and the sex lives of married couples are the butt of jokes on TV shows. Society’s discomfort with older-adult sexuality makes Viagra and Cialis ads seem almost ghoulish.


Ageism, Advertising, and Being Married to a “Celeb”–Advertising Age

Have you ever seen the Dos Equis beer ads starring The Most Interesting Man in the World? If so, you know what my husband looks like. He’s a dead ringer for the actor who plays Mr. Cool. I wrote the story below, that appeared recently in AdvertisingAge, one night after yet more “fans” approached him.

I am in a bar in the West Village with my husband, daughter, and nephew. My husband David gets up to order a drink in the other room. “It’s happening again,” he tells us when he returns.

That’s all he has to say. We know the rest. At the bar, there will have been stares and whispers. Invariably, as they did that night, someone will come over to ask my husband if he’s “that guy” and want to take a picture with him. He has yet to turn down a photo opp.

At a recent meeting attended by hundreds of attorneys, my husband’s buttoned-up law firm puts up two photos side by side on the massive screen. One is of my husband and the other is that guy.

And last summer, on Nantucket, our family is listening to a band playing at a packed brewery. All of a sudden, the lead singer stops mid-song and says, “We are honored to have in the crowd with us the Most Interesting Man in the World.” People turn as he points his mic at my husband.

Dozens of times — in San Francisco, Houston, New York, Nantucket, and Chicago, in airports, elevators, bars, restaurants, on subways and the street, and last night, at a professional basketball game in Boston — David has been stopped and asked if he is The Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis beer commercials. Although he’s more than ten years his junior, a wee 63 year-old boomer, my husband looks remarkably like the actor.

And that suits David just fine. After all, The Most Interesting Man in the World is sophisticated and adventurous. He drops from helicopters into igloos and hosts rambunctious cougars (the animal, not the older women who hook up with younger guys) in his kitchen. Did I mention the beautiful women on his arm?

My husband is not a poser. He doesn’t say he is Mr. Dos Equis, and always gives his real name. He has been known, though, to toss out, “Stay thirsty, my friend” to star-struck gawkers. When pressed, he always admits he is a mere lowly lookalike.

The truth doesn’t stop him from having his favorite one-liners from the ads: “I once had an awkward moment just to see what it felt like” and “His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body.”

The message is that if you drink Dos Equis, you, too, will be cool like the guy in the ad.

How refreshing! In a society that only seems to celebrate the young and dismisses the old, these advertisers have chosen to build a campaign around a septuagenarian with a gray beard and laugh lines–not a hottie in his 20s or 30s.

Rather than assume an older person is over the hill and no longer has what it takes, Dos Equis made its man an object of desire for women, and someone men want to emulate.

And many of his fans happen to be young.

The Benefits of Age

What makes The Most Interesting Man so appealing is his experience, knowledge and wisdom, all gained from living a long life. These positive qualities are acquired by aging, a concept that has had little value in the marketing world.

Instead, advertisers usually target a younger demographic with, say, a buff, boyish male model wearing tight jeans and no shirt.

If there is a product for older people, it is likely to involve retirement (doom and gloom, you haven’t saved enough) or erectile dysfunction (you’re old, so see, you can’t perform).

Dos Equis has chosen to show a different face of aging, someone who is sexual, fun and vital. The ads have received a grand reception from viewers; there are pages and pages on Google with Dos Equis commercial witticisms and life-size cardboard cutouts on eBay of the real McCoy.

Have we turned the corner with stereotypes of clueless older people? Is this the beginning of multi-layered depictions and a better understanding of the wide range of boomers and seniors? Is ageism dying?

A 2012 campaign for Toyota Venza showed older parents biking with their friends, getting a puppy or clubbing while their millennial age children assumed the folks were going to be early and missing out on life. That’s a start.

The creative ranks of agencies, which are typically made up of Gen Xers and Millennials, could use more boomers. No doubt they would change the script rather than play it safe.

At the very least, there are financial incentives for an advertising shift: the 50-plus group has $2.4 trillion in annual income, or 42% of all after-tax income; the 55-plus demographic controls more than three-quarters of America’s wealth; and 55-64 year-olds outspend the average consumer in almost every category. The buying power of 78 million boomers, the oldest who turn 68 next year, will likely flip the TV picture from black and white to grey.

But my husband isn’t thinking about advertising dollars or his important faux role in transforming how older people are perceived. He’s thinking it’s funny that he’s repeatedly mistaken for The Most Interesting Man in the World.

That part of the story is compelling, feel-good fiction: The fans believe they’ve had a brush with fame, the Dos Equis folks have a winner on their hands while debunking ageism, my husband gets a good chuckle, and even I make out. Not only do I have a new man in my life without having to stray, but he happens to be more interesting than I even knew!

I’ll drink to that!