Life in the Afternoon

Will aging boomers continue to make society dance to their tune?

Do you ever wonder why we boomers did not fulfil the promise of the 1960s and create a world of peace and love, free from war and poverty? Being more realistic, maybe you are curious simply about why our generation does not donate more to worthwhile causes or spend more time volunteering. It turns out that a good number of us are not particularly altruistic, and many of us feel we have enough trouble taking care of ourselves without worrying about other people. And have you pondered why the organic food generation, whose politics are even identified by our “crunchy granola” breakfast, is not in better health? Apparently, a significant number of us believe a diet of cigars and scotch is the path to longevity and would cite as proof George Burns at 100 years of age. These stereotype busters, and many more, are found in Michael Adams’s latest book, Stayin’ Alive: How Canadian Baby Boomers Will Work, Play and Find Meaning in the Second Half of Their Adult Lives.

The findings come from social value surveys conducted by Environics, the marketing research company of which Adams is president, and they are a wake-up call for those who see the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1965) as one monolithic block whose members all view the world through the same lens. Instead, Adams found that “sharp variations occur across the Boomer generation on a huge range of questions, from social norms, religion, and gender roles to money, consumption, and global issues.” Readers of Adams’s previous books on Canadian social values—Sex in the Snow: Canadian Social Values at the End of the Millennium and Better Happy Than Rich? Canadians, Money and the Meaning of Life—will recognize the whimsically named tribes into which he divides the boomers. The people he labels Disengaged Darwinists (48 percent of the boomers) are traditionalists who fear society has abandoned common sense; Connected Enthusiasts (21 percent) love diversity of experience and revel in the changes they see around them; Anxious Communitarians (12 percent) are responsible, caring and dependent on social status; and the Autonomous Rebels (19 percent ) are outspoken and influential change makers.

With the assistance of co-researcher Amy Langstaff, Adams analyzes the data to explore the tribes’ perspectives on a wide variety of issues, including social diversity, retirement, having a life partner, physical fitness, equality of the sexes, technology, religion and death, and the list goes on. Adams elucidates his findings with a narrative that combines sociological insight with personal stories, and interlaces it all with wisdom from a dazzling array of experts. You will find the cross-dressing performer RuPaul (“We’re born naked. Everything else is drag.”) not far from G.K. Chesterton (“The trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.”). Wrapped in this engaging package is a psychosocial analysis of the boomer generation that yields rich nuggets for a broad range of prospectors, whether volunteer organizer, job seeker, marketing analyst, policy maker or merely the reader looking for a little self‑help.

Starting close to home, Adams finds the boomers deeply committed to their current partners and hoping to deepen that relationship in retirement. Whereas the boomer tribes differ in their responses to many issues, this is not one of them. Nine in ten boomers see retirement as an opportunity for spousal togetherness, and when asked to choose the one person they would like to spend more time with in retirement, 46 percent of them chose their spouse. However, Adams shows he is a true student of human nature when he reminds us this is a question in the abstract and feelings may change once the time arrives. And there is a big gender difference hiding in this aggregated number. Whereas 54 percent of boomer men say that spending time with their spouse is their top social priority for retirement, only 38 percent of women say the same thing.

We could add a further level of nuance to this picture of marital harmony, one that Adams does not address, by asking how much time we are talking about. A retirement counsellor tells me that togetherness is the issue with the greatest potential for misunderstanding and conflict for couples post-retirement. To help improve communications on the subject, he asks both of the partners to answer the following question without consulting one another: after you retire, what percentage of time will be “me time” and what percentage will be “we time”? The answers invariably show a large discrepancy, with the man intending to spend significantly more time with his wife than she has in mind.

When it comes to social values relating to altruism, tribal differences assert themselves, and they foreshadow significant challenges for the non-profit sector. One third of the Disengaged Darwinists feel no personal responsibility to help those who are worse off than themselves. Given that this tribe represents almost half of the boomers, the aging of this group could have a big impact on the voluntary sector. Currently seniors contribute the highest average annual number of hours to volunteer activities, and groups such as Volunteer Canada are trying to figure out how to engage baby boomers to take on these roles. Their overall strategy is to close the gap between what Canadians are looking for in volunteering and how organizations engage volunteers. In its report Bridging the Gap: Enriching the Volunteer Experience to Build a Better Future for Our Communities, Volunteer Canada cites research that boomers find it “refreshing” to be engaged in activities that are different from their daily work. The report recommends that organizations respond to this preference by providing activities outside the volunteer’s skill or knowledge base.

Adams found that many Disengaged Darwinists hold this attitude, with only a quarter of them wanting to volunteer in their area of expertise. Given that the tribe is predominantly male and holds traditional values, Adams suggests they be recruited to coach hockey teams or volunteer with community safety groups. On the other hand, being mindful of scarce resources, the voluntary sector might be better off concentrating on people with a more amenable mindset than Disengaged Darwinists. They could target boomers who volunteered in the past but do not currently; they could reach out to younger demographics through social media and also focus on new Canadians who may welcome the opportunities for work experience and social integration. Connected Enthusiasts would be a better fit for a volunteer engagement campaign since Adams found them to be “natural volunteers and natural leaders.” They also profess an increasing emphasis on the quest for meaning. Given that members of this tribe believe ecological calamity is coming fast, environmental organizations would be wise to target them.

When it comes to attitudes toward health and well-being, Adams warns that the Disengaged Darwinists may be on a collision course with the healthcare system. Members of this tribe are the most likely to say they do not pay attention to the nutritional value of the food they eat, and only a third of them feel it will be important to exercise regularly when they retire. Adams suggests we try to reduce the potential financial burden of the looming poor health of this group through marketing campaigns along the lines of “Real men eat salad—with their steak.”

Given that fatalism is one of the strongest values for members of this group, I am less optimistic than Adams about the potential of marketing for changing their behaviour. But I do find reason for hope in another apparently unrelated finding. Disengaged Darwinists have a new enthusiasm for technology and are catching up with the rest of the culture in this regard. Since technology is increasingly used to foster personal responsibility for health and to keep people out of hospitals, this newfound enthusiasm may be just in time to mitigate some of the demands of this group on the healthcare system. For example, a multitude of smartphone applications are available to assist patients to manage chronic illnesses such as diabetes (for example, Glucose Buddy) or high blood pressure (as in HeartWise). And this tribe just might become proactive about health after playing with tools like Tap & Track, an all-in-one app for diet and exercise, or iTreadmill, a pedometer that selects a tune with a matching beat once you have established your stride. Given that Disengaged Darwinists experience a “sense of exclusion and disempowerment,” think of themselves as dispossessed “underdogs” and worry a great deal about their finances, stress reduction would be an important component of their health management. Here is where they could benefit from Rage Eraser, which lets you record your tirade and then listen to yourself after you have cooled down. The app includes techniques for transforming your anger into more productive emotions.

When it comes to work, about half of the boomers would like to stay in the labour market after they retire, but the level of interest varies by tribe. Adams found Autonomous Rebels and Connected Enthusiasts to be more enthusiastic, especially the latter tribe, in which only 5 percent plan to do no work whatsoever. However, I would argue that we will want to pull the Anxious Communitarians into the workforce because we are going to need their services as caregivers to the rest of us. According to Adams, members of this tribe, which has a higher percentage of females, have spent their lives in service to others and are “motivated by conscience, guilt, and a sense of duty.” Adams’s other findings suggest angles for encouraging this group to continue to work after retirement. Given that the incomes of this tribe are low, Anxious Communitarians may respond to financial incentives, and since they are markedly above average in fearing technology, they may appreciate the personal nature of caregiving.

The healthcare profession is turning to an older workforce to fill critical gaps, and this trend will only accelerate. Junior seniors are finding employment as companions for their elders, the working conditions of older nurses are being modified to keep them on the job and mature students are returning to school to obtain credentials in health and caregiving fields. To lure the Anxious Communitarians into the labour market, we will need to increase the value we place on their contributions through greater financial remuneration and higher social recognition, and we will need to design networks to support them.

For Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World’s Population and How It Pits Young against Old, Child against Parent, Worker against Boss, Company against Rival and Nation against Nation, American author Ted Fishman researched Sarasota, Florida, as a precursor for all aging communities. The attitudes he found confirm the weakness of relying on voluntary senior-to-senior support. Sarasota, with 33 percent of residents over age 65, not counting the snowbirds visiting for the winter, is a highly philanthropic community donating heavily to institutions such as the opera. But few charitable dollars go to programs for seniors. The CEO of Sarasota’s Senior Friendship Centers speculates that older donors do not give to needy people their age or older because it reminds them too much of what is in store for them. Lest you think this is a uniquely American problem, you should note that a good percentage of the Sarasota elderly are Canadian.

We boomers will need to figure out a way to take care of one another because the generations coming behind us do not see it as their job. According to Adams, many post-boomers do not believe it is up to them to help others face difficult circumstances, and they vastly outscore boomers in the belief that society is better off when government steps in to solve these problems. What will happen when these post-boomers realize that it is their taxes that will be required to fund these government programs? But even were they inclined to support their elders, they may not have the means. In Shock of Gray, Fishman argues that global aging will accelerate globalization and the result will be less money here at home to support the public expense of an aging society. Employers are moving their companies offshore to cut costs by using workforces whose paycheques do not come bundled with pension requirements. He concludes that “aging societies that press employees to pay today for the welfare of workers tomorrow will find their young workers passed over in the job market, as businesses shop for youth elsewhere in the world.”

If there is an economic upside to the greying population, it lies in the huge aging boomer consumer market, and Adams provides a wealth of information for people eager to develop its products and services. One boom(er) industry will be the business of death: Adams concludes that the boomer philosophy of consumer choice will lead to expanded demand for personalized “death care.” It looks like wedding planners should reposition their talents to planning funerals (or “exit parties,” as some boomers may want to view the last stand). And musicians earning their bread and butter at family celebrations would be wise to polish up programs for celebrating the end of life. Based on Adams’s findings, exit specialists should not waste time trying to sell funeral plans to Disengaged Darwinists since they have the lowest scores on “awareness of mortality.” Instead they would be better off partnering with environmental organizations to pitch green funerals to the Connected Enthusiasts because their values make them “vulnerable to greenwashing.”

Reading about our social values and attitudes toward aging, I am inspired to offer some marketing advice to the maker of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Fishman tells us that, because the big bikes are driven mainly by portly leather-wearing fogies with long grey hair, they are not selling well to younger riders. I recommend the company ride the grey wave and bring out a line of hip Harley-Davidson mobility devices instead of fighting to lure back the younger demographic. By developing scooters with built-in cappuccino makers and walkers with martini holders, they can use their outlaw brand to exploit the self-image of the aging renegades. I would aim the sales campaign at members of the Autonomous Rebel tribe who, according to Adams, “always bristled at institutional constraints and ritual conventions,” and I’d call the product line “Stayin’ Alive.”