Lori Bitter joined us for an interview recently and opened our eyes to the unique phases of the 50-65+ market. It may not be what you think. She brings a researcher’s instincts to understanding our unpredictable generation.
Through her firm The Business of Aging, she provides strategic consulting, research and development for companies seeking to engage with mature consumers. She serves as publisher of GRAND – the digital magazine for grandparents. Her book, “The Grandparent Economy” is now available at Paramount Market Publishing or on Amazon.com.
She was President of J. Walter Thompson’s Boomer division, JWT BOOM, the nation’s leading mature market advertising and marketing company and led that firm’s annual Boomer marketing event for five years. Prior to that she led client service for Age Wave Impact. She is the contributor to five books on aging consumers, and is a leader in research on topics relevant to the senior and boomer population.
This is the first of 2 parts of our interview with Lori.
Decades of Understanding Our Generation
Next For Me : As some background for our readers and listeners can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the businesses that you’re involved with?
Lori Bitter: After arriving in San Francisco about 20 years ago with an advertising background, I joined Age Wave Impact and was there for six years running Client Services. Then, I was asked to join J Walter Thompson to run JWT BOOM, which was their boomer-focused agency in New York and San Francisco.
When the recession hit in 2008 the majority of the work we were doing at the time was in age-targeted housing. It was 50 plus targeted country club communities. It was continuing care retirement communities. These were all real estate models where an older adult would have to sell a home in order to be able to buy into a community. We all know what happened with real estate in 2008. So it was a really bad time for a lot of our clients and J Walter Thompson closed our division.
I started a firm called Continuum Crew and Crew Media 10 years ago. We wanted to know what we could learn about consumers from being part of an boomer focused online community and other platforms.
Then, I really wanted to focus on consulting with companies, because increasingly we needed a way to get in earlier with companies to really help inform their mature consumer strategy.
What we were finding out was that a lot of companies were starting up with very little research and very little knowledge about the boomer consumer. What might be a really good idea technically, or a really good idea medically, would be launched with no real understanding of whether consumers would take it on and think it was a good idea.
By the time they would get to the agency side of our business, the idea was already baked. The consumer hadn’t been involved in the process to market something. All of our experience with the mature consumer said they’re not going to buy this.
So, I was really anxious to have a company that could get in much earlier in the process. And so that’s why I landed on this consulting model. I still have people that I work with in the marketing space and I bring all sorts of resources when I work with companies.
We can make an impact on the business model by creating a really grounded sense of understanding of the mature consumer. It helps that I’ve worked with close to the same research team for the last 21 years.
We have a lot of longitudinal understanding. I can tell you where caregiving was 20 years ago compared to where caregiving is now. How they’re thinking differently about taking care of an older adult than they were 20 years ago.
We don’t only do research for companies, we do our own kind of knowledge for knowledge sake kind of research too. Because of that we’re providing our clients with a really sound understanding of what’s going to work. This last study that we’re promoting right now called “Hacking Longevity” started as focus groups and qualitative work. And then we did a survey in January of three generation looking at living to be 100.
Generation X, Baby Boomers and The Silent Majority
We talked to what we call today’s seniors who are “the silent generation.” We talked to baby boomers and Generation X. Three generations over the age of 50 were asked about living to 100. We asked them what kind of plans they’re making, what’s important to them today, how they’re spending their time, and who they’re spending their time with.
It’s interesting because the people who are our seniors today are pretty content to be honest with you. They’ve navigated the, “How am I going to finance my retirement?”. They’ve navigated the “Where am I going to live in my retirement?”.
They’ve gotten over all of those hurdles and now they’re challenged by their health and they’re very, very focused on staying healthy for as long as possible. Ironically, they’re the most optimistic of the three generations about aging, which I think is pretty interesting.
The baby boomers were a real mixed bag as you might expect. They say they’re thinking a lot about their health and their finances, but when you drill down into what they are actually doing to mitigate the problems or trying to solve for their own retirement, they really aren’t making movement. They’re thinking about it whether that means they’re talking to their financial planners or not. It’s not unlike things like exercise and health that we’ve heard baby boomers pay lip service to in the past, but not really execute on.
They say they’re thinking a lot about their health and their finances, but when you drill down into what they are actually doing to mitigate the problems or trying to solve for their own retirement, they really aren’t making movement.
There seems to be a place where they’re not jumping off and actually doing something with the information they have. They are worried about their retirement, they’re thinking about how they’re going to live, where they’re going to live, how they’re going to finance their retirement. They’re thinking about how long they’re going to have to work.
They are also thinking about their bucket lists quite a bit. What are those dreams not realized and how they’re going to spend their time.
We did a report with AARP for their Living 100 event in April. We did a timeline of inflection points when we saw key things happening along this timeline and there’s a place at about 55 where people seem to flip a switch from worrying about their financial health in older age to their physical health in older age. And certainly the boomers have flipped that switch to their physical health. But the majority will tell you that they don’t have any clue what they’re going to do about their financial health. It’s almost like they sort of just resigned themselves to “It’s going to be what it’s going to be.” and they feel like they can’t impact it anymore.
Then you get to the Generation X. If I could say one thing about comparing GenX to baby boomers is that Generation X is where baby boomers were 15 years ago with the responsibilities of caregiving and the crunch to get promoted, needing to make more money. Their kids are getting older. So college is in front of them. They may be on second marriages now. They’re in that state of chaos that baby boomers were 10 to 15 years ago.
Work, money and caregiving. The caregiving numbers in this generation are pretty overwhelming, just like they were for baby boomers back when boomers were taking care of the World War II cohort. This generation is being asked to step up and take care of aging parents in and they’re a different generation. The baby boomers felt like it was their responsibility. This generation is a lot more pragmatic. They’re willing to take responsibility and help provide care, but they seem to have more of a sense of their need to balance that with their family life. And they’re frustrated.
They are the most worried and the least content. It’s not like being in your thirties where you’re just trying to figure out how to pay all the bills and buy a house and be married and all of those things. They’re past that. Now they’re figuring out that all this part of adult life is just really tough.
We’re zooming in on people thinking seriously about doing things in their career from that point on. They would say they’ve resigned themselves to see if they can stay standing long enough. A lot of people say 70 or 71 is their retirement goal.
There’s a segment of boomers who are starting businesses that will become a family business. A lot of those businesses that are being started are solo entrepreneur businesses. They’re consulting back to the industries they came from there. There are a lot of great numbers about boomers starting businesses that are employing a lot of people, but a lot of this is solo work or partnering with companies to provide services.
A lot of them are still trying to bridge what I call the “bridge to retirement.” They’re trying to get from their late fifties to their seventies. They’ve got this 10 to 12 year gap. They have to fill with some kind of income. In this research, a lot of people are trying to figure out how to get there. A lot of people are looking at the tradeoffs and really looking at their tax situation and their assets.
We saw a lot of couples where they were both working and just slogging through just trying to make it five, six, seven more years . They are stepping back and looking at their tax liability and their assets and going, “Okay, there may be a better way. Maybe one of us should stop working and go do this and we’ll sell the house.” We saw a lot of this interesting trading-off behavior. How do we make other kinds of changes that aren’t just finding more work.
Where Do Boomer Workers Fit In?
NFM: We know we’re coming upon a shortage of workers. What did you learn about how that impacts older workers?
LB: Well, it’s interesting because I’ve had a chance recently to talk to recruiters. Some of the very high-end recruiters know that older employees are right for a lot of the positions they have open. When they put them forward, they just come up against a wall. I think there are a lot of things going on here.
Back in the early days when I had the agency and we were trying to sell brands on marketing to baby boomers, we were fighting an uphill battle with 30 year old media planners. I think some of that is happening in the workforce.
I think the people who are occupying the chairs in HR are young. I think a lot of people in the agencies who are placing people in jobs are young and I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of myth around older workers.
For example, I just had a house full of 30 somethings in my house all weekend and I heard one of the young women say “I know for the company I’m in, people would be worried about healthcare costs of older workers and how expensive older workers are to have on the payroll because they just have a lot more healthcare costs.” And I said, “Do you think an older worker is more expensive than women who are in childbearing years?” There was this big long pause and they were like, “Oh, I hadn’t really thought about it that way.” Young women having children are far more expensive on a company’s healthcare dollars than any other worker other than someone having open heart surgery.
The whole idea of pooled risk is meant to mitigate that. The young people’s understanding of what goes into the cost of a worker is just not there. They don’t understand it and it’s not their fault. They haven’t had the life experience to understand it. But shame on the companies who are hiring these people and putting them in positions and not training them and not getting them the right kind of information about a worker.
You may be able to hire back a 65 year old consultant who’s already medicare eligible. They’ve already navigated their healthcare at 65 and they’re not going to be any sort of insurance burden on the company. I mean, people don’t get it.
I personally see a lot of blogs and a lot of smart conversation about it, but I don’t see anything going on, on the HR side to specifically say, “Here’s why we need more older workers in our workforce and here’s what they really cost us.”
I’m not in that world full time. There is a lot happening in HR about diversity in the workforce. Increasingly I’m seeing aging as part of the diversity conversation, which I find fascinating.
I do know that an age diverse workforce is a stronger workforce and there is something to learn from older people. It takes a really smart CEO and a really good HR department to know how to navigate that and how to not have age be an issue. It shouldn’t be an issue anymore than black, white, male, female should be an issue, but we all know that those things happen in the workforce and it’s good that there’s lots of conversations going on. I wish I felt like people were doing more than having conversations and writing books about it and that there was actually some feet on the ground, something happening there.
In Part 2 of this interview Lori discusses intergenerational mentoring, technology for older workers, the aftershocks of the great recession, living solely on social security, an epidemic of single retired women living on a single social security check, and what marketers can learn about speaking to this demographic.
Lori is a co-producer and speaker for the Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit which takes place June 20th and 21st in Berkeley, California. The Summit is gathering of venture capitalists, angel investors, entrepreneurs, and corporate executives focused on the longevity economy.