Once a consumer driving force, the boomers are getting left behind
September 23, 2013
Let me tell you a tale of two groups. Two groups defined by the line between the pre-digital and post-digital eras that occurred sometime around 1985. It’s an important delineation, because along that division battle lines are being drawn. And the shot sent round the world was fired only a few days ago. I used the word “sent” because “heard” is an analog term, and that’s at the heart of the problem.
You see, people born before 1985 grew up in a more-or-less analog world. A world of paper memos, letters in the mail, analog clocks, telephone calls, and TVs that turned on like a light and changed channels with a knob. If you can remember that old admonition “Don’t touch that dial!” then you’re probably from the pre-digital generation. A book back then was an inch thick and printed on paper. A conversation was conducted face-to-face, or over the phone.
A conversation between post-digitals, on the other hand, is conducted by disembodied snippets of text that pop up on the screen overtop an online game or video. These people were raised with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor as the tools of their trade. More importantly, they were raised with, and largely by, the Internet. To the post-digitals, if it’s not on a cellphone, tablet, or computer screen then it’s just plain boring, old fashioned, and out-of-date. In other words, it’s expendable.
My wife and I once took our young sons to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller Alberta, near Calgary. It has one of the most amazing and extensive collections of full-sized dinosaur skeletons, reproductions, and dioramas found anywhere in the world. Yet, at one point my wife pointed out that our sons were ignoring the displays yet were transfixed by photos of those same dinosaurs on the computer kiosks located around the exhibit hall.
Generation gaps are nothing new. My own generation – the baby boomers – was accused of driving a wedge between ourselves and the “establishment”. The line between our two generations was drawn in 1945 by those born either before or after the second world war. Those born before aspired to be team players, company men, upstanding family men, obedient housewives, and law-abiding citizens. While many of those born after became beatniks, hippies, rock-n-rollers, hot rodders, or rebels-without-a-cause. The match that ignited the flames of conflict between these two groups was lit in 1965 when the post-war generation was forced to fight an unjustified war in Asia, while the pre-war generation was implored to accept the civil rights of all citizens. Needless to say, the late 60s was an unsettled and tumultuous time. See “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (an excellent movie) for a sobering glimpse at this period in American history.
The new battle that’s shaping up, while not hinting at such violent turmoil, still threatens to impose its own kind of radical division on the world. A split that will directly affect how the young and the old will live their respective daily lives.
If you’re over 50 you probably remember back to when it was said of the baby boomers that they would be a force to reckon with – a force that would change the world. And, you know what, they were right. But they didn’t just mean a force for social change. They meant a force for economic change too. Back then advertisers and marketers saw the boomers as an untapped, yet potentially lucrative market – as cattle primed for milking. And milk us they did.
They offered us new earners the technological bounty of the period. Personal computers, transistor radios, cellular telephones, VCRs (both Beta and VHS), CD players, Sony walkmans, designer jeans, PDAs, scooters, camcorders, pocket cameras, affordable imported compact cars, snowmobiles, digital watches, microwave ovens, component stereo sets – the list goes on and on of products designed for, and sold to, the largest, most affluent young demographic the world had ever seen. These products made our lives easier. They made us cool. They made us look good and feel good. The boomers made Madison Avenue sit up, take notice, and bend over backwards to make sure we were happy little consumers. In fact the term “consumer” was invented to describe us. We were no longer just “customers”, but were now classified as a statistically significant consumer demographic.
Not anymore. We boomers seem to have fallen out of favour with the pundits of economic opportunism. We’ve been supplanted by a new, young demographic that I like to call the over-consumers.
We’ve been replaced by a voracious buyer who’s willing to line up to get the latest iPhone even though he’s already got a collection of iPhones of every previous generation. A buyer who believes that a closet full of shoes is a necessity. A buyer who can’t wait to add the latest version of “Grand Theft Auto” to an already swollen collection of expensive computer games. Who eagerly replaces his individual “Lord of the Rings” DVDs with the Special Edition Collector’s boxed-set, then with the Director’s Cut boxed-set, and then with the latest Extended boxed-set because it has an extra ten minutes of uncut footage. A buyer who will discard a perfectly good electric razor only to buy a more expensive one instead of paying less to replace the blades. A buyer who’ll buy a cheap new printer instead of replacing the ink cartridges on the old one. A buyer who needs a new cellphone every year because the old one is now the wrong colour. These aren’t discerning buyers… they’re purchasing machines.
I’m not talking about individuals here, but about a statistically significant demographic. The buying habits of individuals will vary, but you can take the buying habits of a demographic to the bank. To corporations, consumers provide a flowing current of currency to be teased and manipulated by strategically-placed and well-timed marketing and advertising. Hence all the ads in magazines, websites, online games, TV shows, billboards, busses, podcasts, radio, airport lobbies, and even sported on personal apparel. It’s a relentless barrage of consumer manipulation that we are unapologetically subjected to 24/7.
This over-consuming demographic is a marketer’s dream come true. An affluent group that almost seems addicted to buying. If it’s newer, faster, sleeker, shinier, or better in any perceived way, then they simply must have it. Money is no object. Waste is not a bad word. To them, it’s a disposable world. Need is not the issue, want is.
Before the days of Sunday shopping I thought how silly for stores to be open seven days a week – what more could people buy? Wouldn’t they already buy the stuff they need on the other six days? Oh how wrong I was. I failed to realize that shopping is actually a hobby, a pastime, a form of entertainment for the over-consumer. More shopping hours means more purchased goods. I didn’t see this coming, but those cagey marketing people did.
These hobby shoppers, I might add, are the same group who buy wholeheartedly into that other phenomenon of modern life – the monthly service fee. When marketers discovered that consumers were willing to pay a monthly fee for Internet, for TV reception, for a cell plan, a leased car, a loan, an executive condo, a security service, for downloadable movies, for software, and possibly for all of the above at the same time – they must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven. This new demographic was actually willing to part with their money continuously and eagerly. Like a money pump, the consumer’s personal income could now be immediately and steadily siphoned out of their bank accounts, directly into corporate coffers.
And it proved all too easy to convince these buyers to part with their hard-earned cash simply by using the argument that “for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a day, you too can have…“. Considering these buyers were happy to pay $4 for a cup of coffee, marketers could make a monthly fee of $100 sound downright cheap to these over-consumers. These days the average teenager doesn’t think that $80/month is too much to pay for a single-user cellphone plan.
Compared to all those stingy baby boomers who buy a car and hold onto it for ten years, who buy new shoes only after the old ones have worn out, who are still using the same cellphone they bought 6 years ago, and who still listen to their old LPs and watch VHS movies, this new group of bottomless-pocketed consumers are the real deal. They are the next great herd of cattle to get milked. But steady milking this time, with the pumps permanently attached and always running.
You see, we boomers are no longer the wild-and-crazy-guys (and gals) we once were. At one time we may have been willing to part freely with our (or more likely, Dad’s) money without a second thought, but those days are long past. Even if we were once liberal with our cash, most of us now have a discerning eye on our savings – our retirement savings, if you must know – and we’re a lot more particular about what we’ll spend those savings on. And that kind of conservative thinking just pisses off the average marketer – a twenty-something marketer, I might add. And when you piss off marketers – the power brokers who control the purse strings of the consumer economy – they have ways of getting even.
And that brings me to what happened a few days ago. You see, Apple released iOS 7, the newest version of its once-popular mobile operating system. And it’s clearly designed to appeal to all those young, digitally-savvy, spend-at-every-opportunity consumers. Last year Microsoft, with its Windows 8 release, ventured somewhat less successfully into the same marketplace by catering to over-consumers who are willing to pay a monthly fee for someone else to store online, in the cloud, their photos, music, and even their productivity software.
To pull this off, these companies each needed an interface that would, on the one hand, attract that lucrative, young, over-consuming market, and at the same time drive away the older, stingier, baby boomers. That’s exactly what iOS 7 and Windows 8 are all about. Oh sure, they market them as modern, clean, and less skeuomorphic (yes, that’s a real word), but it really boils down to less friendly to those tight-wad baby boomers. Who needs ’em anyway, right?
And I attribute all this to the passing of Steve Jobs.
Steve was one of us. He was a boomer. He was born into a world where a quality product could be purchased, then used ’til it wore out. New products were introduced mostly to woo customers who hadn’t yet purchased from you. But all products were intended to be functional and friendly to their users, young and old alike. Steve applied that marketing philosophy to all his pet products, and Apple’s success can attest to how consumers responded.
The initial appeal of an Apple product over its plain, boring PC competitor was its classy and realistic (skeuomorphic) interface, employed to make the software look, feel, and operate like familiar things. Buttons that pushed in and out. Menu panels that rolled down and up like blinds. Calendars that looked like calendars. Rolodexes that looked like their physical counterparts. Desktop and writing surfaces with realistic felt and linen surface textures. The Mac interface looked like those elegant items you wished you could afford instead of the cheap ones you actually owned. With clever thought and attention to detail and design, a Mac offered an onscreen world that looked and felt classy and chic. It was like the chrome and woodgrain trim in an expensive car… it served no purpose but it made you feel decadent.
This appealed to Jobs and likewise resonated with millions of boomer buyers who shared his vision and sense of aesthetics. Witness the meteoric successes of the original Mac, the stylish and colourful eMac, the gotta-have-it iPod, the groundbreaking iPhone, and the revolutionary iPad. All products that Steve, and the rest of the boomer world, thought of as insanely great. And witness the subsequent undying devotion of millions of users/fans who would crawl over broken glass to purchase the latest gizmo conceived and promoted by that technological guru and visionary, Steve Jobs.
Sadly Steve is no longer with us. And a new corporate philosophy has apparently taken hold. Not as a result of his passing, but because of the times. Steve saw it coming and opposed it with his dying breath. He saw the coming of this new marketing trend with its greedy eyes on the bottomless pockets of the over-consumers. Most corporations (not just producers of consumer goods but of services as well) are now changing their business practices to tap into that over-consuming behaviour. Why sell an item once when you can continually make minor changes to it and resell it over and over? Why perform a service only when it’s needed when you can offer it 24/7 and charge continuously? Why sell just a product when you can charge extra for a never-used service contract? Why be a stranger to the occasional buyer when you can become their constant consumer companion?
In order to do that these companies needed to distance themselves from the out-dated, one-time, thrifty buyer mentality. Plus they needed to make the over-consuming buyers feel like they were part of a brave new world – not their granddad’s old fuddy world. And so they radically altered their products to appeal to a younger mindset which, in turn, had the added advantage of largely driving away older consumers. That’s what iOS 7 and Windows 8 are all about. Attracting zoomers while driving away boomers.
Now, normally I wouldn’t be overly concerned about a line of products or services aimed at buyers who are willing to readily part with their money as quick as a problem gambler places a bet. Easy-spenders are entitled to their indulgences too. But by making these radical changes the only option, Apple has reduced the boomers to collateral damage.
My sister Pam (herself a proud boomer) loves – or rather used to love – her iPad 3. But recently she upgraded to iOS 7 only to find that she dislikes the new interface. So just restore the old interface, right? Nope. Apple doesn’t allow for that. Pam has now lost the familiar, comfortable iPad experience that she came to know and love. Apple’s refusal to allow consumers like her to restore their iOS 6 interface demonstrates a disregard for a once-loyal customer base. Apple simply maintains the party line that the new interface is the future. I guess it doesn’t see the boomers as part of that future.
It’s not the refusal to restore an interface that irks me. It’s the design of an interface that appeals mostly to sharp young eyes, nimble fingers, and a good memory that many boomers no longer possess, and then to not offer any recourse to those who accidentally replace an interface they once found useable with one they don’t. That’s what ticks me off. Maybe if Blackberry wants to tap into a new market they should consider the aging boomers and seniors who still want a powerful mobile interface, but one that works at their pace and acknowledges their tastes and growing limitations.
When my sister told me about her experience I contacted my 90 year old father and advised him not to upgrade his cherished iPad 4 operating system (not that he knows how). Because right now he likes the way the old interface looks and works, with all its familiar skeuomorphic textures, icons, and animations. I suspect that he would find the new flat, concentrated, shape-and-colour-centric interface confusing and unappealing.
I don’t doubt that the designers and software engineers at Apple really believe that this is the way to proceed. That a clean, stylish, gimmick-free interface is the future of mobile computing. And they’re probably right for those millions of buyers in that large, young, over-consuming demographic. But they are seeing myopically through the quick eyes and sharp minds of the post-digital generation. They have chosen to disregard a generation of older users who were raised in a slower analog world. Who require the familiarity of psuedo-realistic things to guide, and reassure them as they navigate through what would otherwise be cold and abstract cyber-space.
Since its adoption, I’ve read several reviews of Apple’s new mobile interface. Not surprisingly, there’s widespread acceptance, even praise from the young, techno-centric writers. They love the newness of it. They love the tight concentration of data and information displayed on the screen. They like that nothing looks like its physical counterpart – in fact they especially like those apps that have no physical counterpart at all. And I truly believe that this new generation prefers the new interface, if for no other reason than that they know it will confuse the hell out of their parents and grandparents.
When asked what words they have for users who prefer the way things were, their advice is to not upgrade… to hang on to their old units and interfaces until they’re no longer compatible with any new apps. But if we do choose to upgrade, then quit bitching and “get over it.” That’s what concerns me – this callous “too bad, so sad” attitude. We boomers no longer seem to matter. We are, essentially, being told to just “get out of the way, pops, and let us pass!”
It’s happening everywhere. Digital clocks are quickly replacing analog ones. Cars now have more do-dads and gizmos than a space shuttle, most of which have nothing to do with driving. Microwave ovens require training. An easily-forgetful senior trying to watch a DVD needs to use three remotes and a user-manual as thick as a magazine, turning a once simple activity into a stressful ordeal. These days a call to any office confronts the caller with a menuing system with so many choices that by the time the last choice is recited the caller can’t recall what the first choice was. And for some, using a smartphone is rocket science. It’s bad enough that TVs and phones have become computers. How will seniors respond when their clothes and footwear come with a user-manual?
Wasn’t technology supposed to set us free? Wasn’t it supposed to make life simpler and more satisfying? Wasn’t it supposed to relieve our stress instead of increasing it? Wasn’t technology supposed to be getting easier to use, not more complicated? I used to think so when I was a young, idealistic Mechanical Engineer.
My aging, yet still sharp-minded father was a Bell Telephone Company executive for over 30 years. Before that he was a phone installer and repairman. Yet from one day to the next he can’t remember how to use his cellphone. He lives in an independent-living residence and recently observed that any enterprising young person willing to assist seniors in setting up their TV/DVD units or cellphones could make a killing because most seniors are totally flummoxed by this new technology.
So far most boomers can still keep up. But Apple and Microsoft are doing what they can to remedy this. I’m lucky to have young sons to consult with whenever I can’t remember how to start my Wii Bowling game. But there are times that, without them, I’d be lost. In a few years we boomers are going to need personal assistants on call to help us deal with our technology. My dad is already perplexed by all the new gizmos, but then he’s 90. On the other hand I, and most other baby boomers, probably have another 20 or 30 years of dealing with ever more complicated technology. And it’s already hard enough to manage. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like in another ten years, let alone another twenty or thirty.
Someone has got to start designing products that are easier to use, not more complicated. They need to tone down the feature bloat and beef up the usability. Hey Engineers, would it kill you to pick up a copy of Victor Papanek’s “Design for a Real World”? And please keep in mind that not all your customers are under 40.
If that’s too much to ask then I have a tip for the rest of you brilliant inventors out there. Get busy working on the next gizmo that we boomers are all going to desperately need – a personal robot that (who) can show us how all our devices and systems work. And, yeah, we’ll probably hang onto it for ten years or more until it wears out. So don’t plan on upgrading it too often.
I think Steve Jobs would be truly concerned by what’s happening at Apple and elsewhere these days. But, then again, if he’d had more time he probably would have come up with an insanely great Personal Robotic Assistant (PRA). Now that would have been cool!
I’m just sayin’.