Selling form over content

Are Boomers buying the forever-young package?

Aging used to be a taboo subject, boring at best and depressing at worst. Marketers know this and until now have largely avoided the seniors and their needs.

However, with the boomers becoming a massive, aging presence in the room, they can no longer be ignored. The numbers are compelling: one in eight Canadians are 65+ and their numbers will keep growing until 2029 when the last of the boomers enter their ‘golden years’ and one in five Canadians will be a ‘senior’. Their numbers are growing at a faster pace than any demographic, outpacing the birthrate. A diverse group that includes many immigrants, they are more educated, have more money and enjoy better health than any other seniors in history.

What this means isn’t entirely clear; all we know is that the graying of the nation will get mixed in with all the other massive changes we’re currently trying to manage: a planet stressed by too many of our polluting species and the end of the industrial revolution. Such massive changes create equally massive anxieties, which creates ideal opportunities to sell stuff, especially ones that will alleviate the evils of aging. Be they aches and pains, stiff joints, incontinence or wrinkles, never fear; we’ll keep you forever young if you just buy the gadget, the pill, the magic potion. Aging is being ‘re-positioned’ into something happy, upbeat, desirable and cool. Aging is going to be sexy; and not just because we have blue pills to prop up a sagging sex drive.

The question is whether this is actually something older people welcome or whether it simply makes them feel angry, misunderstood and worst of all, ‘managed’. Here is my admittedly unscientific survey, which demonstrates that the marketers, indeed the culture at large, are barking up the wrong apple tree.

A perfect example of this approach to the problems of aging is Zoomer; the magazine that is blazing a new path for those over the age of 45 courtesy of Moses Znaimer, famous for his brainchild, MuchMusic. Getting older himself, Znaimer has decided that people of a certain age are no longer seniors; they are Zoomers, evoking images of people zooming through life at breakneck speed. Perhaps that is what he does, but it’s precisely what most older people no longer want to do. Instead of rushing around multitasking, they prefer to focus and think about things in depth. To ruminate, evaluate and sort the wheat from life’s chaff.

To be fair to Znaimer, it’s no small feat to find an appropriate alternative to ‘senior’, a word that no longer evokes today’s aging boomers; I went through reams and none were quite right. If we can’t even name it, we must be in uncharted territory.

I actually think the magazine interesting; it offers a number of informative articles and even publishes excerpts of upcoming books on aging.  But among my friends, I’m alone in this opinion. It’s strange, but three different people representing a wide age range, offered unsolicited opinions on Zoomer that astonished me because they all zeroed in on the packaging: too glossy, too slick and too much like everything else they’ve ever known.

And the content didn’t rate with them either. My son, at the age of 46 at the far end of the boomer bulge, instantly dismissed the magazine as shallow, predictable and simply too slick to be of interest to him. The fact that there are articles clearly aimed at men didn’t make a difference: “Who do they think I am?” he snorted derisively while flipping through the pages. The second man was a total stranger in his late fifties with whom I fell into a spirited conversation while waiting in the Costco checkout line. He surprised me by dismissing Zoomer as representing the worst of what he thought ails us: a near universal focus of form over content. “I used to respond to slick packaging when I was young; I’m too old for that crap now; just give me the straight goods, the facts without embellishment, ” he insisted. He thought that our society needed to wake up and stop all this juvenile worrying over looks and sleek surfaces and get back to basics like solving our problems, of which there is no shortage.

The only woman in this trio was a 75 year old friend of mine suffering from advanced Diabetes but still doing what she has always done: traveling, entertaining friends, attending cultural events and helping her granddaughters with their essays. So while things are the same, they are also different because she feels and looks different. A magazine that so obviously wants everyone to be, at the very least, youthful and attractive doesn’t speak to her. “I feel they simply don’t pay attention to people like me; I’m not youthful, I have a lot of health issues and my interests go beyond the surface; I’m interested in the larger, deeper issues facing humanity. At my age, the package isn’t so pretty anymore, so content is more important than ever.”

What I find fascinating is that three very different people who do not know each other spontaneously came up with very similar concerns. Perhaps the influence of the aging boomers will be simply that: a return to content and a rejection of form for form’s sake and a preference for the ‘straight goods without embellishment’. What they all seemed to be saying was pay more attention to my experience, my values, my content, and worry less about my form, this old body that is slowly but surely diminishing. Stop trying to sell me youth in a bottle; it discounts and diminishes who I am.

I believe there is a deep yearning to share and use the wealth of experience, the content that boomers have accumulated. The boomers will certainly change how we relate to aging, and the next 20 years will see a massive ‘repositioning’ of aging, but it won’t be what marketers are currently selling. Perhaps we will return to what traditional societies have always done: hold the old in high regard, consult them, include them, and honour them. Attempting to make them ‘younger’ isn’t honouring them; it simply tells them that being old is not acceptable.

Far from being on the sidelines tending to their looks, I believe the boomers will seriously engage in adding to the content of their lives. And ours. Many will work longer, either because they need to or because work engages them with society and gives their lives meaning. Many will volunteer, help their children, or go back to school. What they likely won’t tolerate is relegation to a purely decorative role. Retirement will look radically different if they have anything to do with it.

Unlocking the accumulated knowledge, experience and wisdom of the largest, healthiest, most educated generation of old people we have ever seen is a long term challenge to our communities, our policy makers and each and every individual boomer; indeed, all of us.

Zoomers we may not all be, but we’re all getting older and have a role in redefining what aging means to us in the twenty first century.

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