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Demographers describe the baby boomer generation as ‘’a pig in a python,” or a massive bulge in an otherwise slender age distribution, gradually sliding down the age distribution as boomers get older.
As the snout of the pig approaches the python’s nether regions, it poses a big problem. It’s estimated that baby boomers have roughly 10 trillion dollars of wealth (in the form of cash, assets and business ownership) to transfer. The question is, to whom are they going to transfer this wealth? Who is going to buy your business, Baby Boomer?
The progress of the baby boomer generation has been as easy to identify as the pig in the python phenomenon. It didn’t matter what stage of life the boomers were going through, as their sheer size ensured that the entire country experienced it, too. Two other factors greatly magnified this phenomenon: commonality and competitiveness.
I grew up on the north coast of America. My hometown and the surrounding areas were a mix of professionals and blue-collar folks living together in harmony. Ethnicity was defined by being Polish, Italian, German or Irish. Sure, there was discrimination, racial tension and rough neighborhoods. But we didn’t experience blatant segregation, literacy tests or poll taxes. My schools were a mix of white, black and brown. It was a reflection of the city, not of the law.
I had this notion that everyone alive watched high school football and basketball on Friday nights. Iced tea came in one flavor; if you wanted it sweetened, you put sugar in it. A local pub was on virtually every corner. During Lent, everyone went to the local restaurant or VFW hall for a fish fry, pizza, mac and cheese, and pierogies.
Imagine my surprise when I realized these experiences were not a universally common thread in our community!
TV and Toys
Like most boomers, I grew up in a culture defined by regional and ethnic influences. For generations, kids had grown up with generally the same attitudes, ideas and traditions as their parents. They just hadn’t experienced much else.
Then the television was introduced to America. At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, TVs were a big hit. When the United States entered WWII, the brakes were slammed on TV production as factories switched from building cars, tires and televisions to tanks, guns and ammunition. After the war ended, factories that had geared up for wartime manufacturing switched back to making consumer goods for the returning GIs.
In 1948, four television networks — NBC, CBS, ABC and DuMont — introduced a full prime-time schedule (8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern), seven days a week. Then in 1951, the first color TVs rolled out. The oldest boomers were just six years old.
Here in the United States, television took off as a private industry. Similar to radio, commercial advertising paid for programming. In fact, many of the brands that made radio successful were the first to move into the new medium.
Consequently, people watching television became “consumers.” The number of products it sold determined the overall success of a television show. It didn’t take long for the marketing folks to learn they could segment their audience by age, not by the regional areas or ethnicity of their parents.
Walt Disney was one of the first geniuses to figure this out. In 1955, he simultaneously opened Disneyland and produced “The Mickey Mouse Club” on television. It was one of the first shows focused on kids. If you want to understand the sheer impact of “The Mickey Mouse Club,” consider that by the late 1950s, everyone in America wanted a pair of Mouseketeer ears.
Back then you couldn’t jump on the Internet or visit Amazon for your shopping, as there were no 800 numbers or even credit cards at the time. If you wanted a pair of Mouseketeer ears, you picked up an envelope, dropped in either cash or a check, added postage and mailed the envelope to Anaheim, Calif., with a note that said, “Please send a pair of Mouseketeer ears for my child.” With what we would consider today to be obstacles for selling, Disney was shipping 25,000 pairs of Mouseketeer ears a day over the course of five years.
If you hooked onto the boomers, you made fortunes. Companies started developing twice for boomer kids. Boys got GI Joe dolls and girls got Barbies, a 1956 Mattel release. Now, the Barbie doll was unique for its time. Before Barbie, all dolls were baby dolls. They existed solely to train young women to be mommies. You could feed them. You could diaper them. When they cried, you gave them a bottle. Yet they couldn’t be anything but a baby.
Barbie allowed girls to dream and role-play. They could become anything they wanted. First, Mattel introduced girls to homemaker Barbie, then along came hippie Barbie and then quickly onto secretary Barbie, office worker Barbie and, finally, executive Barbie. There’s even a President Barbie, doctor Barbie and lawyer Barbie. But one version of Barbie has never existed.
Do you know which one it is?
Mommy Barbie. If you wanted the fantasy role-play with Barbie, you could be anything you wanted except a mommy.
The Greatest Generation demonstrated its zeal to spend on their kids. Traumatized by the Great Depression, they concentrated on working hard to give their kids all the things they lacked.
In 1946, Benjamin Spock’s book, “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” was a best seller with 500,000 copies purchased in its first six months. Spock’s manual single-handedly changed the way parents raised their children. Where previous American parenting guides were stern and repressive, Spock was humane, benign and borderline permissive. Children were encouraged to just be kids, not little adults in training.
For better or worse, all 78 million of those kids at the time were raised in precisely the same manner.
Like no other generation, baby boomers have been a force of change in American culture and economy. Many times, they resembled a herd of wildebeests — thousands of individuals all veering in the same direction at the same time. This has happened again and again as boomers have progressed through life. And it’s happening now as boomers are looking to transition their businesses.