The Age of Incontinence

No one disputes the dominant influence that aging, retiring boomers will have on society. The real story is how quickly this will happen. And companies, like governments, are wholly unprepared.

No one disputes the dominant influence that aging, retiring boomers will have on society. The real story is how quickly this will happen. And companies, like governments, are wholly unprepared.

If we judge the changes that occurred between 1966 and 1969, when the first post war babies, near their 20th birthdays, commenced their assault on colleges and the workplace, these changes will probably happen overnight.

During three short years, the way North American society treated the young, made a 180-degree turn, from benign indifference to obsession with youth culture. Fashion, music and television changed, as did public perceptions about the Vietnam War and the role of government.

That process is about to be reversed. During 2001, the first of those boomers quietly turned 55; the age London Life would have us stop working. If the past is any indication, during the next few years, the consequences of the boomers’ collective realization that they are playing the back nine will be just as profound as those of the mid-1960s.

One person who has given thought to the business consequences of this process is marketing guru Faith Popcorn, whose new book Dictionary of the Future, co-written with Adam Hanft, opens with a chapter on aging.

According to Popcorn, the number of Americans over the age of 65 will triple by 2030. Of these, nine million will be over 85. To meet changing needs and continue selling to aging boomers, magazines, Web-sites, TV programs and consumer marketers will completely re-brand the aging process.

They will have to. If boomers follow the buying patterns that seniors traditionally take, then consumer spending, despite its recent strength, is heading into a free-fall. Because as we get older, consumption tends to decline dramatically.

The kids have moved out of the house, which is probably paid for, as were the appliances and cars. The one service seniors will surely need – health care – is provided mostly by the state. Travel, said by many to be a key boomer-growth market, has been under a cloud lately, due to security concerns.

The only way to get boomers to prolong heavy consumption into old age is to convince them they are still young. That means portraying aging as a period of vigorous commitment and growth, rather than as a slow decline and detachment from mainstream culture.

Popcorn predicts that aging boomers will become increasingly frustrated that they can’t avoid the depredations of old age. Long secure in their position as the most spoiled generation in history, they will lash out in bursts of ‘Age Rage,’ against caregivers, in surprising acts of violence, writes Popcorn.

Conversely, as boomers attempt to stretch their jobs and university tenures past normal retirement age, and their lives extend as a result of better health and new medical techniques, they will be derided by many as ‘over-stayers.’

Among other trends, boomers will elect to ‘retire in place,’ and stay longer in the family home than their predecessors. This will lead to new markets for home maintenance services, as consumers find it harder to haul their creaky bodies onto the roof for gutter cleaning.

Popcorn predicts a big demand for ‘gentle tech’ initiatives that use the Internet and other technology to help those with memory problems remember to perform daily tasks such as taking pills.

She foresees the emergence of ‘Spa finales,’ – luxurious resorts dedicated to providing venues for the termination of one’s existence. No fat-free foods will be served in their four-star restaurants.

Popcorn warns against the ‘killer grandpa’ problem, as older drivers, beset by declining vision, hang on determinedly to their car keys.

While Popcorn’s predictions are equally split between amusing, thought-provoking, and off-the-wall, what comes through is that big changes are coming.

Governments – despite the talking they have done in recent years – have been slow to adapt to the threats to public health care and pension plans. Businesses have also done little to adjust.

But they had better start. Because if we use the mid-1960s as an example, society’s evolution from the Age of Aquarius into the Age of Incontinence, will happen overnight.

Peter Diekmeyer is the marketing columnist for the Montreal Gazette. He can be reached at peter