If baby boomers have one defining characteristic, it is how little their age has defined their interests, priorities and life objectives. So noted Matt Thornhill, a speaker at the Million Dollar Round Table’s Boomertirement Industry Summit, held here last month.

“It’s hard to know just by their age where boomers are in life,” said Thornhill, who is president and founder of The Boomer Project, a Richmond, Va.-based market research and consulting firm. “When talking to boomers, advisors need to take age out of the equation and determine what stage they’re at in life.”

Boomers, he said, are “stretching out” the definition of middle age. Unlike the GI generation that preceded them, most boomers do not lead “linear lives” (i.e., wherein one progresses methodically and predictably from schooling to marriage, then child-rearing or lifetime employment and, subsequently, retirement.)

“It used to be that if I knew how old you were, I knew where you were on life’s path,” said Thornhill. “Boomers are all over the map. Many have gone to school, gotten married, divorced, remarried, returned to school or started a business after a period of employment.

“When we asked boomers to define ‘over the hill,’ they’d say ‘what hill?’ or ‘it’s all relative’ or ‘it’s 15 or 20 years beyond my age,’” he added. “The leading edge of boomers is a long way from looking backwards. They still have things to do.”

Thornhill observed that many marketers err in assuming that boomers who look and feel younger than their years also maintain a more youthful perspective on a psychological level. In fact, boomers as a group are more “inner-directed” than they were in years past. To illustrate, Thornhill noted that a 26 year-old will buy a BMW as a badge of prestige to showcase to family, co-workers and friends. The 56-year boomer, by contrast, buys the vehicle not to impress others, but to reinforce an image one has of oneself.

Also distinguishing boomers from their parents, Thornhill said, is their greater desire for personal gratification. Whereas their parents tended to take a more conservative approach to money and finances because of the hardships they experienced during the Great Depression and the Second World War, boomers’ formative years were characterized by economic prosperity and an explosion in consumer buying. As a result, they feel a greater sense of entitlement and optimism than their elders, and they’re more driven to get ahead.

Yet, when asked in a Boomer Project survey whether they were financially ready for retirement, 73% of respondents disagreed or said they were unsure–a percentage representing 57 million people. And half of those polled who earn $100,000 or more annually in income are uncertain about their retirement readiness. Thornhill cited the lack of preparedness as a contributing factor to a related finding: most boomers “have no idea” when they will retire.

Thornhill cautioned against lumping all boomers together. He observed that, while much of the financial services community is now focused on the leading edge of boomers entering retirement, more than half of the post-World War II generation was born after 1957 and is only now turning 50.

To effectively market to older boomers (and seniors in general), Thornhill noted, advisors need to invoke emotionally compelling and positive imagery. Thus, a presentation that appeals to the client’s values and the objectives they hope to realize in retirement–traveling the world via cruise ship, working as a volunteer for a favorite charity or spending quality time with grandchildren–is more likely to influence prospects than the negative imagery of hardships that await those who haven’t prepared financially.

Advisors also need to frame conversations so as to appeal to the boomer client’s desire for control, he said. The advisor might point out, for example, that boomers can secure their retirement futures by investing in assets over which they have control (such as 401(k)s and IRAs) rather than depending on sources of income over which they have no control (i.e., Social Security or a company pension).

Insurance professionals must also personalize the presentation so as to make it relevant to the prospect and be mindful of what Thornhill described as “the golden rule.”

“What will drive boomer behavior over the next 40 years is not the quest for the fountain of youth, but the fountain of vitality,” said Thornhill. “People will spend time and money to live long and vitally in 5 key areas: financial vitality, physical vitality, mental vitality, social vitality and spiritual vitality.”

“Unlike their parents,” he added, “most boomers aren’t interested in retiring to Florida and abandoning their social networks.”