5 Ways to Sell to Baby Boomers

Over at my other blog I talk about how to sell into businesses (my day job). In this series of posts I will describe the best strategies you can use to sell to the various generations.

Each generation has a unique character, and members of those generations have common attributes. Although it is impossible to make specific claims about each individual in a generation (since they span 20 years or more) generational theory is useful in understanding how members of a generation will likely act in a sales situation. It is also very useful when assessing the character of an organization, since when members of a generation work together they often exhibit even stronger generational qualities.

The Boomer Generation, born 1943-1960, is well-known for their cultural influence in the US. They were the children born after WWII during the American High, a period of plenty where life was stable and the future looked bright. In their youth they rebelled against the establishment and tore down many of the institutions that raised them. During their midlife, in the 1980’s and 90’s, they fought bitter ideological battles for the hearts and minds of the people. And now, as they move into elderhood, their character is shifting again.

Boomers in elderhood are typically quite set in their ways, and their strong ideology makes it difficult to sway their opinions. They often want to deliberate about any decisions and revel in the discussion more than the outcome, although they expect things to go their way. They often will make decisions based purely on ideology, rather than the practical or pragmatic. They judge younger generations (especially Generation X, born 1961-1981) as self-centered and cynical.
Ideals and ideas are both important to Boomers and they often will have strong philosophical views and opinions. They are willing, and often enjoy, engaging in lively debate, but it is difficult to change their minds about their beliefs.

5 things to know for selling to Baby Boomers:

  1. If they are the decision makers (often the case) then you need to understand their ideal state. You are unlikely to talk them out of those ideals, but if you can convince them you will help them towards this ideal then you are on the right track. Boomers are often visionaries (or believe that they are) and if you can determine how to align yourself with their vision you will have a strong ally.
  2. They prefer face-to-face contact and can be overwhelmed when too much information is presented too quickly, especially if it is shallow and glosses over the deeper meaning. Boomers prefer to concentrate on a single topic and understand it fully before moving on, so being willing to take questions during a presentation or demo is critical for Boomers. Even if you end up on a tangent you may satisfy the prospect that you are willing to really understand their needs in depth.
  3. If they have a strong emotional reaction (for or against) to material they are willing to read and research in detail. This is good if they agree with your pitch, but a bummer if they don’t. White Papers, technical manuals, analyst reports and other detailed information (especially from a well-known and trusted source) can be very effective with Baby Booomers.
  4. They are often more loyal to brands and individuals than younger generations. Although Baby Boomers broke down most of the institutions of their elders they were still raised to believe that organizations can be trusted, and in their elderhood they hope that this can happen once again. If Baby Boomers are the decision makers and you perform well after your first sales effort, you be well set up for subsequent sales.
  5. They are getting close to what will be their “final act” in the business world and many are concerned about leaving a legacy. Although many are more focused on just ensuring their retirement in these difficult economic times, some, especially the leaders of organizations, know that how they act now will be how they are remembered. If you can offer the opportunity for them to make a difference, to “Change the World”, you may have strong allies.

Some people believe these characteristics are really about age rather than generation. Although the character of generations shift as they age, they don’t act like the cohort that came before (or after) them at the same age. For example, the GI Generation (born 1901-1924) acted nothing like the Baby Boomers when they were entering elderhood in the 1960’s and 70’s. They were not, for the most part, philosophers or deep thinkers and they were proud of the strong society they had created. Each generation has a unique character at each age and understanding that character can help you sell.

Look for further posts on each living generation in the coming weeks. If you would like to learn more about how to sell to generations, please sign up for notification of my upcoming e-book on the topic “Selling to Generations”.

Directions for the Boomer Generation

The Baby Boomers (born 1943-1960) have a critical role to play in the upcoming crisis. Are they up to it?

In The Fourth Turning” the describe the roles of each generation during the various “Turnings“.  At the end of the book there are “scripts” for each of the generation in the Crisis (aka “Fourth Turning”) that represents the next 10-15 years in American history. Each script describes how the generation in question should act for a positive outcome from the Crisis. I already posted the script for the Millennial Generation (born 1982-200?) and Generation X (born 1961-1981). The script for Baby Boomers (born 1961-1981)  is shown below (emphasis and links mine). “Prophet” refers to the archetype of the Baby Boomers.

The Fourth Turning brings special meaning to the Prophet, because the seasons of the saeculum exactly match those of his own life. From spring to winter, history’s seasons are those of his life cycle as well. Where the Prophet’s shadow (the Hero) had his greatest trial young, the Prophet will find his in old age. To achieve late-life glory, the Prophet must harness the civic duty and skill of the old Hero (The GI Generation, born 1901-1924, whom he rewards but does not honor) and child Hero (The Millennial Generation, born 1982-200?, whose temperament he nurtures but does not understand). In the current Unraveling, though, the Prophet is damaging the civic culture created by the old Hero, thereby making it harder for the child Hero to thrive and pursue his destiny. It is the Prophet’s challenge to confront his shadow, offer the old Hero respect as well as reward, and instill the old Hero’s virtue in the child.
As the next Gray Champion, the Boom Generation will lead at a time of maximum danger—and opportunity. From here on, Boomers will face the unfamiliar challenge of self-restraint. Having grown up feeling that GI Generation could always step in and fix everything if trouble arose, Boomers have thus far pursued their crusades with a careless intensity. In the Fourth Turning, GI’s will no longer be around as a backstop, and the young Millennials will follow the Gray Champion off a cliff. If Boomers make a wrong choice, history will be unforgiving.
The continued maturation of Boomers is vital for the Crisis to end in triumph. These one-time worshipers of youth must relinquish it entirely before they can demand from Millennials the civic virtue they themselves did not display during the Awakening. This will require a rectitude that will strike some as hypocritical, yet it will be no more than a natural progression of the Prophet’s life-cycle persona. When the Crisis hits, Boomers will need to defuse the Culture Wars at once. Their pro-choice secularists and pro-life evangelicals will need to move beyond their Unraveling-era skirmishes and unite around an agenda of national survival, much as Missionary elders did during depression and war.
Boomers must also display a forbearance others have never associated with them. By nature, they will always tend toward self-indulgence in their personal lives—but if they allow this to overflow into public life and demand generous public benefits, they will bankrupt their children financially, themselves morally. Unlike the Silent, sneaking through unnoticed will not be an option. Worse, if Boomers become pointlessly argumentative and let their values back them into a corner, their current talk-show hyperbole about annihilating enemies could translate into orders to use real doomsday machines.
Come the Crisis, Boomers will face the utterly un-yuppielike task of presiding over an era of public authority and personal sacrifice. This generation must squarely face the threat its unyielding moralism could pose to its own children, to the nation, indeed to the entire world. “When people repeat the slogan ‘Make love not war,’ ” historian David McClelland has warned, “they should realize that love for others often sets the process in motion that ends in war” But if aging Boomers can control the dark side of their collective persona, they can look back on their role in the Fourth Turning the way old Ben Franklin looked back on his. When asked what image belonged on the national seal of the United States, the old man replied: the inspiring image of Moses, hands extended to heaven, parting the waters for his people.

What Generation is Obama?

Obama was born in 1961, but what generation does he belong to? And why does it matter?

Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961. It seems pretty simple to use this date to determine what generation he belongs to, but generational boundaries are always contested. Some say he is a Baby Boomer, others say a Generation X’er, and still others have made up additional generations to assign him to.
So who is the final authority on the generational boundaries? The short answer is that there isn’t one, and that because generations are nothing more than a theory there probably never will be. Generations serve different purposes for different people. Some use them for understanding the cycles of history, others to understand marketing or political trends and still others for self-identification. Most theories ascribe some sort of characteristics to each generation that can be discerned both in the group and in individuals. Some may think that this is nothing more than stereotyping, but people born at certain times, growing up under certain conditions will have some similar attributes. For example, kids growing up during the high times after WWII were told to have high ideals and go out and change the world. And the Baby Boom generation (born 1943-1960) did just that, much to the chagrin of their parents. The kids growing up during the turbulent 60’s and 70’s had a very different experience during a time when kids were largely ignored. Generation X (born 1961-1981) took that message of alienation in their youth and applied it during their “slacker” young adulthood.
As you can see from above, I am already applying some specific dates for the generational boundaries. These dates are drawn from the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of “Generations” and many other books on the topic of generational research. Howe and Strauss use their extensive historical research to determine the generational boundaries based on cycles over the last 500 years. Although their research is considered the gold-standard of generational theory, there are other opinions about the generational boundaries.
Demographers often place the end of the “Baby Boom” in 1964, when the birth rate dropped down below it’s historic highs. Although this might seem a convenient boundary for the generation, much of generational theory has to do with attitudes and social norms rather than birthrate. The shifts that happen are often imperceptible at the time, but over the years it becomes clearer where boundaries lie. Using straight demographics does not aid in understanding the changes in cultural attitudes.
Another theory put forth recently is that there is a “in-between” generation, named “Generation Jones” (by political pundit Jonathan Pontell) that covers the switch from Boomers to X’ers (1954-1965). There is little research behind this theory, but it is popular in the media right now. Although it certainly makes sense to segment portions of a generation for specific characteristics (useful in targeted marketing) calling them a new “generation” is misleading. Since generational characters change in cycles, we should be able to identify “generations” similar in character to Generation Jones in earlier cycles. So far, there is no evidence that this is the case. Although Generation Jones may be popular in some circles, it has yet to prove it’s value as a social theory.
This brings up a question of why the generation of our leaders is of consequence (I have written a bit about this in the past). Much of the time this is not terribly important, but during a crisis as we are facing right now, it is a critical question to answer. The character of the Baby Boomers and Generation X are very different and our top leadership reflects this contrast. Baby Boomers, as a generation, tend to be righteous in their beliefs and will push society to move towards specific (often unbending) ideals. Generation X is much more flexible when it comes to ideals, and prefers to focus on achievable goals. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were both Boomers presidents that expressed polar views of their generation. They both marched steadily towards their specific ideals, often losing focus on the practical repercussions of their decisions.
Obama, as a Generation X’er, does not seem to have the same righteousness of our previous two presidents. Although he is certainly has a direction for the country, it seems to be based much more on pragmatic goals (both short and long-term) rather than an ideal state that we should try to achieve. He is willing to compromise ideals to try to attain practical ends. I think he was surprised that he could not get bipartisan support for the recent stimulus plan from the Boomer dominated legislature. That battle was a good example of the contrast between the survivalist attitude of Gen X (Obama) and the idealistic attitude of the legislature (Boomer). In many cases the Boomers are willing to sink the ship rather than compromise their ideals.
Many of the Millennial Generation (born 1982-200?) were big supporters of Obama because he represented shift away from the old battles of the previous two administrations. They have even gone so far as calling themselves “Generation Obama” which refers to the age of his supporters not of the President himself. That the Millennials have so quickly tired of the Boomers’ ideology is surprising in some ways because they were raised by Boomers. But perhaps that is part of their own youthful rebellion against their parents. The optimism and positivity of the Millennial generation is not something you find in their pessimistic Boomer parents. And the practical optimism of Obama seems to really appeal to the younger generation today. Although Obama and other Gen X leaders won’t say we are going to make a perfect world, they do exude confidence in our ability to make positive change. It’s more pragmatic, but also much more achievable.