Monday, May 16, 2011

Aging is not just for wine

By Don Klein

Who ever would have thought that we older members of society, like fine wine or aged cheese, would be of more commercial value than our juniors. It took the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s to do it.

It turns out that those grey-haired seniors you see on cruise ships, in downtown restaurants and driving flashy new cars are more solvent than the great majority of working stiffs in America. If you don’t believe it then why are those television marketers so high on the over 55 set.

During the soon to be announced “annual preview of the fall television season, network executives are planning to introduce shows created to have broad appeal, including to older viewers, and the ad dollars they represent,” The New York Times reported last week.

I used to feel sorry for seniors unlike myself who did not plan for their retirement well enough to enjoy the final years of their lifespan in comfort and freedom. Living in a resort town like Ocean City, Maryland, I never observed many financially troubled seniors. Maybe we were the lucky ones, I thought, but now just about any senior is better off than non-seniors.

Just look at the facts. Seniors, after decades of reasonable solid income and steady employment, have usually paid off their mortgage, own their automobile outright, are receiving Social Security checks monthly and are covered for health breakdowns by Medicare and continuing health coverage from former employers’ health insurance plans.

In addition, a good proportion of the older set have income from pensions, stock and other investments and annuities plus a fair accumulation of savings accounts. We all benefited from the good years of the American economy that followed World War II  and lasted until the disastrous final year of the Bush Administration.

Besides we no longer have to support a growing family and all their growing expenses. We no longer have to underwrite the cost of college nor pay for expensive weddings that at one time was the bane of our existence.

In other words, our overhead costs have leveled off. If any seniors who retired ten or fifteen or twenty years ago are still around there is little change in their standard of living. I am not talking about the wealthy two percent of Americans. Until last year pensions and Social Security kept pace with inflation. Most investments, until the crash in 2008, held up and paid dividends.

Today, if they did not panic and sell off holdings during the drop, their stocks have mostly recovered with a few exceptions. Although rising costs in food and transportation have caused discomfort to many, virtually no seniors today are without food or shelter like in the days of our grandparents.

Besides the good fortune to have lived in America during the extended boom of the last half of the Twentieth Century, today’s seniors can credit two massive government programs for their years of relative comfort and ease.

Everyone knows they are Social Security and Medicare.

The acid test of financial status in the country is advertising. Clients research markets and advertise to potential customers based on demographics. The over 55 group was all but ignored in the past because of the assumption that those with money to spend were more youthful.

Stephanie Pappas, a senior planner for the advertising giant BBDO NY, said there was now good reason for ad clients to seek the mature audience. “In some ways, they are the ideal consumer. They have money, they consume loads of media, and they remain optimistic,” she told The Times.

The bimonthly magazine for American Association of Retired People has been pushing to attract new advertisers, according to Patricia Lippe Davis, the vice president for marketing for AARP media. Recently, products previously thought of as youthful — brands like Jeep and Shape-ups by Skechers — have advertised in AARP The Magazine.

“The grandkids say I’m ‘really cool now’ but what they don’t know is I always was,” reads the text of the Jeep ad.

The picture of a retired individual sitting in his rocking chair on his front porch, smoking a pipe and sipping a cool drink is long gone. Today the retired crowd finds things to do. They play poker or bridge, they bowl, they go to the beach, they ride bikes, the women play Mah Jongg, they attend shows and concerts and dine out at fine restaurants several times a week.

Many have memberships at local gyms and find part time or seasonal work to keep themselves busy, but not too busy. They take up hobbies like carpentry and sculpting while others volunteer at hospitals, schools and libraries. They are an active, mobile group and live longer than previous generations.

And of course they attend every function open to them at their grandkids’ schools. These are the benefits of being solvent. It not just makes the oldster a happy, comparatively healthy, active person well beyond the years ever in the past. It also enriches the communities in which they live.

It would not be possible if not for Social Security and Medicare. We should all remember that. Any tampering with either of these programs by politicians in Washington will ultimately affect the quality of life not just for the retired but for the community as a whole.

A word of warning. Be happy about your personal status but don’t mention to others the reasons we seniors today are better off than most other age groups, because if you do, you might get stuck with the dinner check.