Some of the greatest minds in human history have sought to answer some of the most intriguing questions in history. Some of those questions have been answered: How fast does light travel? Is the moon really made of Swiss cheese? Who shot J.R.? Others haven’t been: Why are we here? Was there ever life on Mars? Who put the bop in the bop she bop she bop? Where’s Waldo?
To that litany of great questions of our time, add this: What’s a senior? How does one who calls himself a senior advisor define that market? It’s a tough question to answer, especially given the wide range of definitions available.
The U.S. Census Bureau uses age 65 to determine senior status. AARP uses age 50 as a threshold for membership. For many years, age 62 was considered retirement age and, therefore, the age at which one acquired senior status. MetLife conducted a national poll to find out what Americans consider old. A plurality, 32.3 percent, said 71-80 is old. But 14 percent of those in the 18-29 age group thought 41-50 was old; nobody older than 65 thought 41-50 was old.
Things really get hairy when the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary definition of senior citizen is parsed: an elderly or aged person, especially one who is retired or whose principal source of support is a pension or Social Security benefits. A quick look at the definition for elderly reveals this: somewhat old; near old age. Not much help. The definition of aged doesn’t help either. The people at Webster aren’t going to put a number on old or aged or elderly. The last part of the definition will really give a senior advisor pause: one whose principal source of support is a pension or Social Security benefits. As pensions increasingly go the way of record players and Social Security becomes less and less reliable, there – by definition – won’t be any seniors or senior citizens.
The realization many advisors have come to is that seniors, especially those in the coming baby boomer wave, won’t be defined by a number. Being a senior is more a state of mind or an accumulation of characteristics. It also can be a state of financial readiness for retirement, and that’s the state senior advisors like to see because they can work with someone who has achieved that level.
Mind over matter
Ann Vanderslice says being a senior has nothing to do with an age. She says it’s a state of mind. John Peplowski agrees. He has been in the senior market since 1975 and he says, “Seniors are not seniors like they used to be 20 or 30 years ago. People don’t think of themselves as seniors.” He attributes that fact to the longer life spans we see today.
Vanderslice, an independent advisor with her own Denver-based practice, works with many federal retirees, who tend to retire in the 55-60 age range. She says she sees her clients achieve senior status eight to 10 years after they retire.
“None of them have considered themselves seniors when they retired,” she says. “Those are the go-go years right after retirement. Then, later, they slow down. That seems to be when they become seniors, in their mid-retirement years.”
The senior market traditionally has been 62, Vanderslice acknowledges, but she thinks it is a function of how long people have been retired, which moves the senior tag back closer to 70. That makes the assumption that everyone is going to retire at a traditional age.
Peplowski, president of the Retirement Specialist Golden Years Financial & Insurance Services in Sacramento, Calif., sums up what many leading-edge boomers (who fit some definitions of senior) may feel. We were talking about what the definition of a senior is and he indicated he planned to work his whole life, never retiring. I asked him if he would avoid the senior label by doing so. His response, which gives serious weight to the argument that being a senior is more a state of mind than a number: “That may be what I’m trying to do.”
Vanderslice has a way of dealing with the people who don’t take kindly to the senior tag. She frames everything as a conversation about what happens 10 to 12 years into retirement, not about what clients want to do in their senior years. That strategy fits nicely into the “state of retirement planning readiness” definition of what it means to be a senior.
Ready, aim, retire
A person who has given a lot of thought to retirement and has started planning for it may not be a senior, but given the right circumstances, he’s a person a senior advisor can work with. Heck, people in their 50s and 60s sometimes aren’t as well-versed in retirement planning as people in the 40s. That’s why Al Landolph, an independent practice owner in Los Angeles, says he markets to people as young as their 40s.
“It’s a planning state of mind,” Landolph says. “There are people in their 40s who have that mentality.”