New York

If baby boomers have one defining characteristic, it is how little they have in common, says Matt Thornhill.

“It’s hard to know just by their age where boomers are in life,” said Thornhill, speaking at the Boomeretirement Road Show sponsored by the Partnership for Retirement Education and Planning here March 5. “When talking to boomers, advisors need to take age out of the equation and determine what stage they’re at in life.”

Boomers are “stretching out” the definition of middle age, said Thornhill, president and founder of a market research and consulting firm, The Boomer Project, Richmond, Va. “Unlike the GI generation that preceded them, most boomers do not lead ‘linear lives’,” (wherein one progresses methodically and predictably from schooling to marriage, to child-rearing or lifetime employment and, finally, to 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 said. “The leading edge of boomers is a long way from looking backwards. They still have things to do.”

Also distinguishing boomers from their parents is their greater desire for personal gratification, Thornhill said. Whereas their parents tended to take a more conservative approach to money and finances because of their hardships 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 did, and they’re more driven to get ahead.

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 market effectively to older boomers, and seniors generally, advisors need to invoke emotionally compelling and positive imagery, Thornhill said. 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, for instance, or working as a volunteer for a favorite charity or spending quality time with grandchildren-is more likely to influence them than the depressing imagery of hardships that await those who don’t prepare financially.

Advisors also need to need frame conversations 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).