David Bowie has been a hero of mine for four decades. He was one of the early architects of the Boomer generation’s personality, and while we were on opposite ends of the generation's spectrum — he was born in 1947, the second year of the generation and I was born in 1963, the second-to-last — he represented several stereotypical Boomer ideals that guided the lives of millions of Boomers, including my own.
He valued self-belief, self-expression and self-fulfillment. He broke with convention and stretched boundaries. He insisted on having an influential voice, and he believed his efforts would ultimately lead to a better life for all.
Bowie left behind a rich legacy of music, film and fashion innovation that reflected perhaps his most important Boomer characteristic: a passion for life that would not quit.
In his youth, he was famously unafraid of experimenting with style, persona and even his sexuality, and aging did little to dim his enthusiasm for pushing boundaries. In fact, rather than slowing down, he used his advancing years as a catalyst for redefinition and self-expression.
Bowie became more philosophical about his own mortality in middle age. When the artist was 55, he told The New York Times, “As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I've got left?” His answer to those questions reflected a distinct change in his priorities: While staying creative was still important, an even higher priority was devoting time to his wife and family and staying largely out of the limelight.
He balanced those two priorities until the day he died. He released his last album, “Blackstar,” two days before his death on Jan. 10, at age 69. As The New York Times reported, although wracked with cancer and his trademark coif lost to chemotherapy, Bowie worked furiously in the last year of his life on both that album and his off-Broadway show, “Lazarus.” Both bore the marks of an artist summoning his creative powers to grapple with aging, mortality, regrets, social issues, and redemption. Even in the final weeks of his life, Bowie was working on a follow-up to “Blackstar.”
Such a late middle-age reassessment of priorities is not unusual among Boomers. They have redefined each of life’s stages and are now re-imagining what it means to be middle-aged. As the oldest members of the generation face 70, many have simplified their lives so that only the most important aspects are at the forefront of their daily pursuits. Not surprisingly, they are driven by their own limitless passion for life.
The upshot of this mindset is that Boomers are different from previous generations that have hit the same life stage. Rather than going gentle into that good night, this generation is drawing upon their resources to sustain vitality. This means more than just going to the gym and keeping up appearances, though. Boomers don’t buy into the idea that their story is coming to a close. Instead, they are still very much exploring their identities, pursuing new adventures, and remaining an influential societal force.
Brands marketing to this generation must keep in mind that Boomers are posing the same queries that Bowie did — how much time remains and what to do with it — but perhaps with a bit more urgency now. Within a month of Bowie’s death, three big-time Boomer cultural contributors (Natalie Cole, Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey) passed away. Their deaths undoubtedly are a wake-up call that the answer to the first question is, “no one knows,” and that the answer to the second question has never been more relevant.
Marketers can’t answer these questions, but they can support and celebrate Boomers’ desire to redefine their current life stage. That recasting chooses to see aging not as an inevitable decline, but as an opportunity to passionately pursue life’s real possibilities until the very end.