Boomer Angst

by Harry Sheff

Back in January, I was intrigued by a Smithsonian Magazine story by Landon Y. Jones that reported that Kathleen Casey, the “first baby boomer,” turned 60-she was born on Jan. 1, 1946, at one second after midnight. The US Census Bureau reports that Kathleen’s peers, the leading edge of the baby boomers (Americans born between 1946 and 1964), include George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as Cher, Donald Trump, Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton. This generation has an average household income of between $55,000 and 60,000, and makes up between 25 and 30% of the population: an estimated 78.2 million people.

A few months later, Nicola and I attended a Fashion Group International “Frontliners” event, where Graziano de Boni, President & CEO of Valentino, described shopping for denim in the young men’s section of an unnamed department store. As he looked around, he realized that all of the other men in the department were closer to his age than the YM target customer of teen to twenties.

On a more personal level, my friend Arlene has described the feeling of being “invisible”. Upon becoming a “woman of a certain age,” she found that when walking into certain restaurants or shops that, because she wasn’t a skinny little 20-something, she was virtually ignored. In fact, at one point last year she and a friend went to a trendy bar with an outside terrace. Everyone else in the bar was “young,” and when they somehow managed to get locked outside on the terrace, even though she and her friend were rapping on windows and gesturing to be let in, they were met with blank stares from patrons and wait staff alike. It wasn’t until they managed to find their way to another entrance that they managed to get back into the establishment.

David Wells, deputy editor for The Financial Times, reported on American Public Media’s Marketplace radio show that many middle-class retirees have been able to move up to an upper-class lifestyle, because they lived in expensive cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where even small homes have “grown in value in ways they never imagined.” If they’re willing to leave the old neighborhood, they are able to afford a more luxurious lifestyle by moving to places like Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Austin.

We talk a lot in this business about chasing the lucrative youth market, and emphasize that grown-up customers are too busy paying their mortgages to buy fashion; or that they are resistant to new purchases because they have perfectly good things hanging in their closets. But I have to wonder, has the baby boomer generation given up on us? Or have we given up on them? Are we, as an industry, doing what we can to make shopping for fashion as exciting for boomers as it is for their grandchildren?