Are Boomers the special case we think they are?

Don’t trust the perceived wisdom about Baby Boomers – we’re being led up the garden path by mass generalisations.

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The Boomers are coming. Millions of them are reaching retirement age. And they’re not like the docile cardigan-wearing geriatrics of yesteryear. They’re radicalised. Suspicious of authority. And as consumers, they’re more demanding than any generation before or since.

So runs the conventional wisdom. But the more I research this generation, the more suspicious I become of this easy generalisation.

There’s no doubt about the quantitative reality of baby boomers, which most demographers define as people born between 1946 and 1964. According to the Office of National Statistics, there will be 17.1 million people over 60 by 2026, a massive 50% increase on the equivalent number just ten years ago.

However, I’m not sure that it’s time for marketers to make any assumptions about this group’s attitudes and behaviours just yet.

The novelist Linda Grant seems to have put her finger on it. At the climax of her recent Boomer saga We Had It So Good, one of her characters opines: ’We were supposed to be so special, we were going to change everything and it turns out we’re just the same.’

Next to this novel on my bookshelf is David Kynaston’s magisterial multi-volume history of post-war Britain. One of his key sources is Mass Observation records, the nearest thing to a longitudinal qualitative study there’s ever been in this country. And it makes a very revealing read for anyone interested in Boomer psychology.

We’re usually told that there was a stark attitudinal contrast between those born before and during the war, and those born afterwards. The former were supposedly more accepting of the status quo. The latter much more aspirational.

The process of aging seems to have its own attitudinal consequences. Just as anyone who is not a socialist under the age of 25 has no heart, anyone who hasn’t seen the benefit of a nice warm cardigan over the age of 60 has no head

But read your history, and it emerges that Boomers don’t have a monopoly on discontent and aspiration. After all, it was the supposedly monochrome and conformist pre-war generation who voted out Churchill in 1945 and planned the radical New Jerusalem of the welfare state.

Though surely things were different by the Fifties, the decade when Winston’s promised “sunlit uplands” finally became reality?

I’m not so sure. The problem is that much Boomer analysis and mythology originates in the US. But the US and the British experiences of the Fifties were radically different.

In the US, the decade was all about double bacon cheeseburgers and tail-fins. The British experience was more about sweet rationing and the Standard Eight, a car named not for the number of cylinders under its bonnet but for the number of horsepower its wheezy one-litre engine produced.

If you want a truly realistic, if relentlessly depressing, insight into this decade, just read Correlli Barnet’s vivid if occasionally polemical Pride and Fall series of economic histories. But I warn you. You’ll need a stiff drink afterwards.

If you lived through the Sixties, so the mythology goes, alcohol wasn’t the only drug you were partaking of regularly. But once again, I have my doubts about this easy assumption. Just as military history is written by the victors, most Sixties memoirs seem to be written by people who lived and worked within spitting distance of the King’s Road or Dean Street.

The reality in Northampton was a little different. I know because I’ve asked my dad. He was an art student there in the Sixties. The combination of ’art student’ and ’Sixties’ conjures up a picture of someone halfway between Alan Ginsberg and Tariq Ali, perhaps with a bit of Terry Gilliam thrown in.

However, Dad’s main memory of this time is one of a highly rigorous, academic-style training. He was actually taught how to draw. To do this, he had to learn the names of the bones and muscles of the human body. The result is that he knows his way around the human skeleton better than most junior doctors.

His drug of choice was a pint of mild, usually enjoyed after a vigorous game of rugby. I’ve seen a few photos of him and his art school friends. They are all dressed in flannels, cords and knitted ties. (Well, the blokes are, at least.) To a modern observer (and I’m sorry about this, dad) it looks a little like an actuarial department annual outing.

The other day, I was chatting to Nick Mason, the thoughtful and incisive strategy chief at RNIB. Much of his life is spent inside the heads of his largely 60-plus charitable donors. He was equally sceptical about Boomer generalisations, but for another reason.

He’s observed that the process of ageing seems to have its own attitudinal consequences. Just as anyone who is not a socialist under the age of 25 has no heart, anyone who still hasn’t seen the benefit of a nice warm cardigan over the age of 60 has no head.

In the case of Nick’s audience, there are signs that some segments of the supposedly ’selfish’ Boomer cohort are actually becoming more generous as they age, their altruism often on a par with that of the pre-war generation.

In marketing, if there’s one generalisation that’s universally true, it’s that few generalisations are universally true. To see the whole boomer cohort as one with a shared set of attitudes radically differentiated from those of the preceding generation is to be guilty of a particularly rash generalisation.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that many of the oft-recited Boomer insights aren’t true. I’m just proposing that we pause for a moment and ask ourselves who exactly they are true about.

People born in the early Sixties will have come to political maturity around the time of Watergate and will have grown to economic maturity around the time of Thatcher. Perhaps it is these people, and not my parent’s generation, we really need to be working harder to understand.

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