Every January, across New York City and Los Angeles, there is a flurry of lunches, dinners, special screenings, red carpets, Q&As, and celebrity meet-and-greets as studio executives court the rarified Oscar voter. An Academy Award nomination can increase a movie’s profit by tens of millions, sire new Hollywood royalty, and establish fresh templates for future generations of filmmakers to copy.
So what’s the average age of these kingmakers? Sixty-three.
Baby boomers made up the first consumer generation. They grew up in the television age, watching mass media emerge from their living rooms, embracing sex-driven, racially integrated rock and roll—Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles—all of it fueled by the world’s first true mass audiences. But then they grew up. They bought houses, had kids, and sent those kids to college.
Now, boomers’ kids are having kids of their own, and for the first time in decades, boomers are finding themselves dependent-free, once again able to focus on themselves.
This is a generation entering its twilight years, whose primary concern is quality of life, and it controls, by some estimates, up to 75 percent of America’s wealth. So how are boomers spending their retirement savings? Partially on the realities of life—health care, mortgages, millennial children—but also on living out the fantasies of their youth.
The generation defined by Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” has single-handedly fueled a Winnebago renaissance as retirees have retaken America’s highways. And the same men once obsessed with 1960s-era muscle cars have in their retirement become the 21st century’s most likely car buyers, when everyone else seems to be moving toward car-free urban life. (Most surprisingly, as America’s leading spenders on technology, they’re also making the science fiction they once pioneered a reality.)
As their invigorated spending power is helping them reshape industries from Detroit to Silicon Valley, it’s becoming increasingly clear that boomers’ renewed influence has also allowed them to reclaim what was once rightfully theirs: pop culture.
Many of this year’s Oscar-bait films were greenlighted by boomers, deal with themes of interest to boomers, and star boomers. Boyhood, written and directed by 54-year-old Richard Linklater, follows a man through the various stages of his life from raising his kids, to divorcing his wife, and eventually taking his son to college. The Theory of Everything, directed by 51-year-old James Marsh, chronicles the life, love, and career of the now-71-year-old physicist Stephen Hawking. Selma charts the fight of Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights Movement, and Birdman stars Michael Keaton, age 64, as an aging actor hoping to reignite his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play.
“Boomers are the first generation on the planet to get to age 60 and still see a long runway ahead,” says Matt Thornhill, president of Generations Matter, a think tank in Richmond, Virginia. “My prediction is we will see more content built around the topic of still having dreams at 50 and beyond, and still wanting to accomplish something, and what your legacy is and how will you have left the world a better place.”
Perhaps the strongest validation of the boomer renaissance is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a comedy starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, and Maggie Smith as a pack of British retirees relocating to India. The 2011 film was made for $11 million and grossed $45 million, inspiring the ultimate Hollywood seal of approval: a sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
“Fifty is the new thirty, and this group is a lot more active than previous generations have been, and they are a lot more involved in pop culture than previous generations have been,” says Brad Adgate, Senior Vice President of research at Horizon Media.
And so, in 2015, boomers are in the midst of a 21st-century revival of the entertainment that defined their youth: film, rock and roll, and TV. James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac, and the Rolling Stones tour regularly. Bruce Springsteen, 65, continues to release new albums about his experiences of getting older and his refusal to be pushed aside. Rolling Stone, whose editor-in-chief Jann Wenner is 70, continues to chronicle these rockers religiously.
“Bruce Springsteen, more than any boomer rocker, has managed to grow as an artist and age as an artist. That is something we haven’t seen in a rock star before, someone that has aged with his audience,” says Chris Kelly, Associate Professor of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “He is challenging his audience to embrace him as he is now.”
His album Wrecking Ball topped the charts, and Springsteen has earned $347 million on the album’s tour—topping tween idol Justin Bieber’s $209 million Believe tour. (Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters made nearly $460 million, and the Eagles made just over $250 million.)
Meanwhile, when television networks like CBS created more boomer-friendly content, their ratings shot up. “The median age of the broadcast television viewer is in their 50s, so they fish where the fish are,” says Adgate. “The people starring in TV shows are older […] Ten years ago networks were always looking for the next Friends. You are starting to see more people who the networks really wouldn’t have cast in a show 10, 15, or 20 years ago.”
We’re likely to only see these trends gain steam as boomers’ annual spending power of $7.1 trillion is estimated to hit $13.5 trillion by 2032. But for now—because supply tends to pace behind demand—industries from entertainment and technology to consumer goods and hospitality are still in transition mode as they wean themselves off of the traditionally dominant 18-49 demographic.
Until recently, the business community has generally ignored seniors, according to Thornhill. “Once you turn 55 you become invisible to marketers,” he says. “It is really hard to find marketers who are interested in someone over 55 unless they are trying to sell Geritol or a Cadillac, and that’s a mistake.”
New companies, such as the Ohio-based Link-Age, a research firm that also invests in companies catering to the aging marketplace, say their goal is to convince more marketers to take this population seriously.
“This idea of a massively aging population should be looked at as an opportunity rather than a liability,” says Link-Age CEO Scott Collins. “Much of the conversation is how are we going to address the needs of Medicare and Social Security, but there is a way to look at this as a vibrant force for economic growth.”
What we’re witnessing is a first-time shift in who controls the American economy, from parents to grandparents. And unlike their geriatric predecessors, baby boomers are not just using their savings on canes and denture cream—they’re using it to keep up the vibrant lifestyle of their younger years.
Baby boomers are increasingly active in their old age, traveling more and forcing transportation and urban planners to rethink the places we live. Already, cities like Arlington, Virginia, have remodeled themselves with updates like wider sidewalks to better accommodate the elderly and bus routes more tailored to have access to common senior needs, like pharmacies or medical centers. They’re also more likely to own homes and face different living needs in old age, so the way houses are designed will have to adjust accordingly.
Simply by living longer and healthier lives than any generation before them, boomers are reshaping the world around them so that they can enjoy it in their old age. Or, as Judi Dench says in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the sequel of which stars a 65-year-old Richard Gere as the heartthrob, “This is a new and different world, the challenge is to cope with it, and not just cope, but thrive.”