May 30, 2006

Hey, Baby Boomers: You're
still relevant, so claim your power

By Frederick R. Lynch

During a recent appearance on "Larry King Live," outspoken television court Judge Judy Sheindlin sounded the coming battle cry of her Baby Boomer generation: "I am still relevant!"

The judge scolded Madison Avenue marketers for ignoring legions of aging Boomers like her. She grumbled that she didn't know 75 percent of the glitzy young starlets profiled in "People" and other airplane reading fare. "At my stage, I don't relate to them." The daytime television star rarely views prime-time evening shows (also geared toward those 18 to 39 years old)."Where are all the people that I know?" she complained. "I'd like to know how Goldie Hawn is doing, and what is her life like now that she is a grandmother."

"You're not the [prized] demographic," explained the 72-year-old King, who, ironically, has cultivated a sizable cable-television audience of Boomers' older siblings. Judge Judy overruled him. "Baby Boomers run the world. People who are 55 and over don't buy a Chevy. Most of the guys driving the little black Porsches have gray hair or no hair." Baby Boomers have the dough, she explained, but "they don't know how to exercise this kind of power." To help empower her generation, the judge is considering launching a "gossipy high end" magazine.

Judge Judy is onto something big: 77 million aging Baby Boomers are anxious about losing their lifelong economic and political significance. Boomers will not go gently into that good night. Attention must be paid, and not just through a barrage of medical ads for swollen prostates, bladder problems, erectile dysfunction and bone loss.

The judge is also correct in arguing that the 27 percent of the population older than age 50 commands a disproportionate share of the nation's wealth. Generations expert Ken Dychtwald, author of "Age Power," found that medical and technological advances, lengthening lifespans and pensions and entitlement programs have fostered a gerontocracy. This 50-Plus group controls: (1) about 70 percent of all wealth held by individuals; (2) nearly 80 percent of all financial assets; (3) more than 40 percent of all mutual funds; (4) approximately 60 percent of all annuities and retirement funds; and (5) more than three-quarters own their own homes.

On the other hand, wealth is highly concentrated among a relatively small segment of this Boomer gerontocracy. New research from the University of Michigan's Retirement Research Center finds that the median total net worth for older Boomers (born 1946-1953) is just $151,500. Subtract housing and any business assets and this figure drops to a paltry $48,000; for the top 10 percent, the figures are $888,010 and $536,700 respectively; and for the top 5 percent, $1,327,000 and $903,600. Most Boomers' primary asset is their house, but as a retirement hedge, home values risk inevitable real estate corrections.

Approximately two-thirds of Boomers are not well prepared for retirement, according to recent surveys by AARP and Merrill Lynch. Fewer than half are covered by any sort of old-fashioned corporate or government defined benefit plan and 401(k) accounts (averaging about $130,000 as of 2004) are insufficient.

Judge Judy's reveille for market-driven relevance must be accompanied by Boomer mobilization for political relevance. Boomers will have to use their political clout to ensure proper government oversight of Social Security, Medicare and corporate and public pensions. Here, Boomers will have an even more formidable ally than Judge Judy: AARP. Indeed, the giant organization is one step ahead of the judge in that it already publishes a boomer-oriented monthly magazine that, as it happens, recently featured a cover story on Goldie Hawn.