Marketing to Age: Lessons From the Pandemic

By Peter Hubbell

With the incidence of Omicron fading, the many optimists among us are looking forward to an end to the pandemic, and along with it, the renewal of our confidence in the future and the advent of an era of exuberance.

As an expert in marketing to the baby boomer generation, I have chronicled the post-World War II dynamics that triggered a similar turning point in our country’s history, marked by an unprecedented burst of population growth and robust economic expansion. While there are obviously important differences between a global conflict and a global health crisis, their aftermaths will share a similar force: the power of consumer confidence. As we shift from a period of doubt and uncertainty, newfound optimism will have a profound impact on our behavior. Increased spending across all sectors of our economy will trigger a wave of prosperity that will propel many brands and businesses and make growth the norm of our new normal. If you’re a marketer who will not be content with benchmark growth, then you’re going to need to get different results by doing things differently. You’re going to need to prioritize the highly valuable cohort of consumers who will be spending disproportionately to the mass: the aging baby boomers.

Here's how the dynamics of the pandemic have created valuable opportunities that are unique to this cohort:

The Ageless Generation got a glimpse of their mortality In a country where life expectancy increases by 30 years with every century, it’s not surprising that our aging people have come to believe that they’re ageless. For years, the boomers have been defying the old definition of old by living full and active lives and embracing the future with limitless optimism. Their focus on quality of life has morphed to quality of longevity, and they have believed that aging gracefully was something mostly within their control, providing they worked on it.

When the pandemic wrested control of the future from them – and had a disproportionate toll on their aging peers – the most optimistic generation in history got a massive dose of reality. The daily news repeated the unassailable fact that life really is finite, and even the most irrational boomers began to accept that their lives had limits and that they should plan accordingly. As our worlds begin to get back to normal, expect the boomers to bring an unprecedented zeal to how they live their lives. They will be motivated by a sense of urgency, to do the things they’ve always wanted to do while they still can. When 78 million people decide that there’s never been a better time than now, it’s time to make them a priority. While everyone’s eager to get back to doing the things they enjoy doing, there’s an important difference when it comes to the boomers – they’ve got a shorter window to spend a lot more money.

They had a lot of time to have lots of meetings with themselves I’ve always quipped that we spend a lot of time in meetings with other people, but we seldom take the time to have a meeting with ourselves. Our truly private moments – which are few and far between – are precious opportunities to be alone with our thoughts and to search the depths of our souls. If that seems overly spiritual, think again. It took a pandemic to create more free time for us to assess our lives and choose new priorities. Many boomers came to the realization that it was more important to appreciate what they already have instead of constantly seeking something new; those experiences are more important than material possessions, and that being surrounded by family and friends is the ultimate sign of success. Just as importantly, many discovered that happiness was less about knowing what you want and more about knowing what you don’t want. Now more than ever, marketing to age is going to need to reflect a truly pithy understanding of what’s important to your audience. What they want today is very different than their desires in 2019. You’re going to need to get your hands on the minutes from their many meetings with themselves.

Aging in Place just got a shot in the arm. One of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic was long-term care facilities (LTCFs). According to the CDC, more than 200,000 LTCF residents and staff have died from COVID, representing a staggering 23% of all U.S. COVID deaths, down from 50% at the start of the pandemic. While the LTCF industry is hard at work to improve the safety and well-being of its residents, the grim realities of this pandemic will have a lasting impact on aging generations like the boomers. When they reach the age and stage that requires assisted living, they will have many more choices thanks to the advances in technology that are making aging in place more viable. The innate desire to nest, to be in the comfort of your own home when illness imposes discomfort, is a very powerful force that has gained inertia because of the LTCF woes during the pandemic. If you’re servicing any aspect of aging, now is the time to be more home centric for aging boomers that – given the choice - will prefer their own home over the nursing home.

The fear of COVID has been replaced by the fear of missing out. News flash – that walking tour of counties Cork and Killarney is sold out, and so is the wine cruise on the Rhine. For the generation who has the most money and loves spending it, the waiting is over but they’re going to need to get on the wait list for all those great adventures that were postponed by the pandemic. With heightened demand for leisure pursuits facing limited supply, “50+FOMO” is starting to take hold. The pandemic helped the boomers to realize how precious time is, especially when it’s taken away from you. Expect them to be led by their dreams lest another “nightmare” robs them of their freedom to pursue the joy they’ve worked their whole lives for.

There’s an old saying about being old. By way of living a longer life, you’ve had more experiences that have taught you more lessons, hence it’s said that you’re “older and wiser”. For most, this is true. While I often can’t remember what I just decided to write down so I wouldn’t forget it, I believe that my life’s experiences have created wisdom that helps me make more educated choices for my future. Now consider this in the context of the pandemic. As we begin a return to normalcy, 78 million baby boomers are arithmetically 2 years older but geometrically wiser because of the life-altering nature of the pandemic. For a generation whose size alone has always amplified the impact of its choices, now add the overlay of pent-up dreams and desires for a cohort that has a finite number of years to do what they’ve waited a lifetime for. As the pandemic starts to give way to a boom of prosperity, don’t forget about the boomers. Marketing’s most valuable consumer is out to prove that nothing can keep them down forever and they’re going to be doing it with their wallets out.

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