Once upon a time, companies could target products and services at specific ages or life stages with a good degree of predictability. As new members came into a category - say "50-plus empty nester" - they could be relied on to act in much the same way as their predecessors. But today's 40-somethings seem to be acting out of character. Unlike their predecessors, they don't seem to want to save, plan or settle down. Many of them are doing the exact opposite - getting divorced, changing careers, going round the world, selling their houses and spending their capital.
The truth is, the post-war "baby boomers" are not acting out of character at all. True to form, they are doing for middle age what they did for teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s, families in the 1970s and 1980s, and middle management in the 1990s - reinventing the culture. The adolescents who created the youth market are still determined not to do anything the way their parents did.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in their attitude to money. The "what ifs" of the insurance industry don't connect with them. They are more interested in making the most of the present than planning for the future. Having benefited from their parents' scrimping and saving and having built up their own wealth in the boom years of the 1980s, the middle-aged boomers are intent on indulging themselves. "Live for the moment" is the mantra of a generation known in the US as "SKINs" - Spend The Kids' Inheritance Now. As one boomer in our research put it: "I've written a will and, if there's anything left, my kids get it. If there isn't, tough." But if providing for their children's future isn't a priority, providing for their own really should be.
The demographic time bomb is set to explode in the next ten to 20 years, as the largest generation this century stops working. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if the boomers had bred in anything like the proportion their parents did. As it was, boomer women took full advantage of the Pill and the dramatic post-war changes in social protocol - they chose careers rather than babies. As a result, there simply will not be the working population to provide for them in their old age. Arguing over 70p in the pound will be a thing of the past - this new generation of pensioners will be lucky to get 10p in the pound.
Well aware of this potential PR nightmare, the government has been actively promoting the need for private pensions, without actually admitting that there won't be a state-funded alternative. But our research has found many boomers are still not planning for the future, despite financial security being a primary concern. Some say it's either too late to start saving now or too early to think about it. Either way, when it actually comes to putting aside money for a pension now, they are torn between having fun today and saving for a tomorrow that might never happen: "Half of me just wants to blow what I earn and sod the future and half of me thinks I should be saving for the future."
Do the boomers realise their lack of expectations? Do they expect their children to look after them? Or does their preoccupation with living for the present reflect an underlying belief that the future will never happen? If so, it's bad news for anyone in the business of selling reassurance against fear of the future - and recent events won't have helped.
To understand what's going on under the surface, we need to remember boomers' formative years and influences. Many of their icons in the 1960s and 1970s lived fast and died young. Growing old was never going to happen to the generation whose slogan then was "never trust anybody over 30". Even now the first boomers have passed the 50-mark, they still feel young and perceive themselves as looking, feeling and behaving much younger than their parents did at the same age.
The adolescence of middle age - "middlescence" - is an entirely new phenomenon, with the general attitude of "mentally I feel about 15, but I'm trapped inside this 43-year-old body". And because they still feel young, issues associated with growing old like failing health and pensions, although a concern, can still be put off. The future, they feel, can somehow be indefinitely postponed.
Boomers love spending and are used to instant gratification. Having never experienced war or rationing like their parents, planning for future disasters seems like a waste of time and money. Many are retiring early. They want to travel, buy a home in the sun - in short, do everything they ever wanted to they and want to do it now. Even the option of investing in property or art, rather than pensions and investments, does not seem that attractive to a generation that is more interested in experiences rather than possessions.
Generation of wealth
There are 17 million boomers. They account for a third of the population, 50% of total income and £500bn of gross assets. They are the wealthiest generation this century and yet remain largely ignored or are treated as traditional seniors.
Product providers and IFAs often claim to be targeting high net worth individuals and the mass affluent. Boomers account for the vast majority of both, but it simply isn't enough to target them on the basis of their personal wealth. Our research has shown that boomers are more cynical and less enthusiastic about traditional financial services than their parents. Although they are likely to require significant private sector provision on top of any state pension, they seem unprepared to do anything about it. They need it and they know they need it, but they are still not buying.
It's not surprising. The financial services industry simply isn't marketing to boomers effectively and it needs a loud wake-up call. In an industry beset by increased competition and downward price pressure, an opportunity for real differentiation is simply being ignored.
Marketers need to take the trouble to listen to these new older consumers and give them what they want - only then will they gain access to their wealth. In mature industries, selecting the right targets and meeting their needs is the only way to maintain market share and profitability. The first suppliers to get it right for this market will reap rich rewards, but they need to get moving before it's too late.
Rebels without a cause who lived fast and died young
The tragic early deaths of icons such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Marc Bolan, Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix epitomised the "live fast, die young" ethos the baby boomer generation grew up with.