Monday, January 26, 2009

You Can Call Me Ray. You Can Call Me Jay. Just Don't Call Me Granddad

As Baby Boomers go about reinventing "old age," one of the time-honored traditions they're ditching as grandparents is accepting nicknames that connote advancing years. According to the Wall Street Journal, many Boomers can't abide the idea of being called "grandpa," "grandma," "gramps," "granny," and the like.

Susan Wilkofsky, a 56-year-old documentary filmmaker who is youthful looking for her years, became a grandmother last Christmas. She rejected the Yiddish appellation "bubbe" because it suggested a frumpy old woman from the old country who has an accent and wears a babushka. She settled instead on "Glamma," as in, glamorous grandmother.

When comedy writer Alan Zweibel hears the term "grandpa," he thinks of a hunched-over old man who "pees involuntarily." He opted for "Lefty" or "Sheriff."

That got us to thinking what we want to be called when first grandchild arrives. (One of us has a 25-year-old daughter, so that occasion may not be that far away.) There's a good chance that we'll end up letting the little tykes call us whatever they want -- or whatever they can pronounce. The two-year-old daughter of one of our colleagues mangled the pronunciation of her grandmother's name, Sallie, to Lahi -- and the cognomen has stuck for more than 20 years. We intend to be more proactive in regards to the selection of our own name. We're partial to Bocephus. Or, should we decide to grow whiskers, maybe Woolly Bully.

Meanwhile, Boomers are reinventing time-honored grandparental roles in more profound ways. It's worth taking another look at Matt Thornhill's column, tagged "The Nanas and the Papas," written a year ago.

(Photo credit for image of Granny Clampett:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Encore Education

"Animal House," the comedy classic starring John Belushi, was set in 1962. But the anarchic attitude of the n'er-do-wells at the Delta House fraternity reflected the Baby Boomer zeitgeist of 1978, the year the movie was released.

Boomer college kids of that era went on to graduate (most of them.... eventually), get jobs, marry, raise kids, and... go back to college.

Adults aged 50 and older now account for 3.8 percent of U.S. students enrolled in courses at degree-granting colleges and universities, and that number is increasing, according to Mary Beth Lakin, associate director for the center of Lifelong Learning at the American Council on Education.

"People are living longer, and they are thinking about what they will do for the next 30 years," Lakin told the Badger-Herald in Wisconsin. "Also, given our uncertain economic times, a lot of older adults are thinking of staying in the work force rather than leaving it at a traditional retirement age."

University tuitions can be a barrier for Boomers in the 50s, who don't have a lifetime ahead of them over which to amortize the cost of a college education. But, then, there's no pressure to earn a full 120 credit hours, and many universities allow older students to audit courses for free. Courses at community colleges, of course, are much more affordable.

According to life cycle theory, human beings of all generations tend to de-emphasize material accumulation in favor of rewarding experiences. The back-to-school movement among Boomers is a vivid illustration of that theory. As the best educated generation in history when they came along, Boomers are even more likely than their elders to seek the intellectual stimulation of college-level classes.

Colleges will benefit, as will companies like The Teaching Company, which markets DVDs of the "great courses," and Rosetta Stone, which sells language learning on DVDs. Expect to see more travel packaged as educational tourism. While some Boomers will go for encore careers, expect many more to favor "encore education."

Reinventing the Family

A hallmark of American society for the past century has been the atomization of family life as Americans first embraced the nuclear family of mom, dad and kids in place of multi-generational households and then busted up the nuclear family through divorce. In a recent column published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jim Bacon opined that the phenomenon of shrinking household size appears to be reversing itself. Key quotes:

There are many ... reasons to believe that households will grow larger, such as the prolonged adolescence of Gen Y. Whether young people simply refuse to grow up (the premise of the movie, "Failure to Launch,") or they're so saddled by student loans and so stymied by the high cost of housing, many are deciding that living in their old room with the twin beds and study desk isn't a bad alternative to poverty.

Meanwhile, members of the Silent Generation are resisting the idea of being shunted into impersonal nursing homes. Seniors want to stay connected with family and friends -- and an increasing number of middle-aged families are accommodating their parents. Subdivision builders report a spike in demand for granny flats and other detached dwelling units for the grandparents. Baby Boomers are even more repelled than their elders by the prospect of living in "old folks homes." After letting their adult Gen Y children back into their homes, they may well expect the Gen Ys to return the favor some day.
To those dynamics add a nascent trend toward quasi-families, as noted last year on this blog, in which divorced and/or widowed Boomer women live together, share expenses and form committed friendships. We don't know if anyone has coined a name for such a household -- there's a Ph.D. dissertation for a budding sociologist -- but one is needed.

Since the publication of "Reinventing the Family," we came across an article written by ABC News. From 1990 to 2000, the network reported, homes in which three or more generations live together grew more than 38 percent. As lifespans lengthen and four- and five-generation families become more common, an increasing number of those family members will likely choose to live together. Also driving that trend, omitted in our column, is the increasing number of immigrant families from cultures where multigenerational living is the norm.

(Photo credit: ABC News.)

The Age of Mass Consumption Is Dead, Dead, Dead

In a Christmas-season column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Matt Thornhill heralded the dawn of "responsible consumerism," or, as he referred to it more colorfully on this blog, the "new fru." While everyone is awakening to the obvious, that consumers are curtailing their borrowing and spending in response to the recession, Matt contends that the roots of parsimony go deeper than a downturn in the business cycle. Some choice quotes:

The [Baby Boom] generation that put the mass into consumption is now at the stage of life where people naturally shift focus from the material to the ethereal. What’s fascinating (or worrisome, if you’re in a retail or consumer-products business) is that the impact of this shift on America’s consumption-driven economy is just beginning.

This shift away from spending by our largest demographic group coincides with a larger societal trend towards sustainability. Consumers of all ages are thinking more about the environmental impact of their purchase behavior and consumption patterns. In a national study we conducted among all adults in late summer, before the economic meltdown, 80% of all consumers told us they think or act in a “green,” or environmentally responsible fashion. Green is mainstream, and here to stay...

One last ingredient to this perfect storm: the worst recession since the Great Depression. Put all three trends in a blender and the future for marketers is grim indeed. Mass consumption, the underpinning of the American economy since 1946, is dead, dead, dead.

Valuable Insights into the Hearts, Minds and Wallets of Today's Baby Boomers

This blog is by the authors of Boomer Consumer: Ten New Rules for Marketing to America's Largest, Wealthiest and Most Influential Group, on sale now.

Here is where you'll find information referenced in the book, as well as updates, news and perspectives from Matt Thornhill and John Martin, founders of the Boomer Project.