Behind The Wheel

Middle-age women are the driving force in our society - better get out of the way

Women are on the verge, so to speak. Females between the age of 45 and 64 are the largest demographic in the United States. That's right: There are more middle-age women in this country than anyone else. Nearly 40 million, in fact. And if you think that all they do is shuttle their kids and grandkids around in silver SUVs all day, you would be mistaken (although they do this as well).

Constituting 27 percent of the population, influencing 80 percent of purchasing decisions, spending a trillion dollars a year and controlling (over the coming decade) two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the United States, you might want to rethink those expletives the next time a Mercedes GL450 cuts you off. Whether or not they are actually bad drivers is up for debate, but the fact that they are a powerful, influential force in our society is a given.

Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., co-chair of FH Boom, a campaign launched by Fleishman-Hillard pr dedicated exclusively to the study of Baby Boomer men and women and co-author of Boom: Marketing to the Ultimate Power Consumer - the Baby Boomer Woman (and a Boomer herself, might we add) calls them "the largest and most economically, socially and politically powerful generation in the United States." They are the first generation of women to enter the work force in large numbers, and they are now in their peak earning years.

Rumble Strips

Empowered, successful, wealthy middle-age women are everywhere: politics, business and especially the media. Orsborn says the demo is a new phenomenon, and maybe the most radical shift brought on by the postwar birthing bonanza: "Raised self-aware of her power and potential, the Baby Boomer woman is not one who accepts invisibility or marginalization as an option. This mindset isn't changing, even as she enters the unmapped territory of her middle age, and just over the horizon, old age. The groundswell of growing awareness promises to be a sociological revolution."

Not that realizing their potential or defying expectations are anything new for women of this generation. They have been fighting their way into politics and business and athletics and media their whole lives. We are seeing women like Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice and Anna Wintour challenging men for media control and political power - a new sphere where they are flexing their muscle. We've seen Oprah mobilize the masses for Obama, and Hillary mobilize them for, well, Hillary.

So, there are a lot of them. Does it matter? Are they going to change the world? Will Ms. Rice bring peace to the Middle East? Will Hillary revolutionize health care? Will Laura Desmond land every new account possibly up for grabs? Has Martha's ambition and resilience changed the way we view corporate criminals? Will Oprah feed and educate all the orphans in Africa while simultaneously hand-selecting our politicians and every single best seller for the next 20 years?

"Those individuals who have managed to stay passionate about work will be taking their industries to new heights," says Orsborn, "Women at midlife and beyond are realizing that they are defying their own expectations regarding aging, and finding a second wind." And this "second wind" has already resulted in incredible change. As the group reaches its peak, their influence will only grow. And consider this: Given mortality statistics, they'll outnumber men by an even greater number as time passes. Better drink some wheatgrass, guys.

Media Mavens

While their influence is everywhere, the media with a big fat capital M is feeling its full force. Says Orsborn: "Older women's roles are changing in society . . . and the media is not only helping to create this shift, but reflecting it."

While struggling to capture nearly everyone else's attention, print seems to have no problem with Boomer women: They read. Books. With pages. Made of paper. According to Orsborn, "There has never before in history been a generation this large, this well educated, this vital and this healthy." How do you think Oprah's book clubs became so popular in the first place? Teenage boys? Businessmen? When was the last time you saw a guy in a suit on the LIRR with a Foster's in one hand and a copy of The Lipstick Jungle in the other? Boomer women are the ones putting sell in the best-seller list. Both because they are the ones writing the books and because they are the ones buying them.

No different than most members of their age group, these women are early adopters, taking to new media and gadgets with surprising alacrity. Yes, they're using GPS before everyone else, buying the first iPhones and blogging. Yet, even though eight in 10 Boomer women are online every day, they have not embraced the Internet as a substitute for printed material. Nor are they likely to: "Boomers are the last generation raised on the printed word - before DVDs, texting and the Internet," says Orsborn. "Educated and with lively minds that continue to seek enrichment, Boomers - women in particular - have fueled an explosion in reading groups." And on the other side of the publishing spectrum, who knows better what women want to read, than women themselves? "With the possible exception of pornography and hunting magazines, it is women who increasingly dominate the publishing world, both as editors and agents - and as consumers." When they aren't scouting the shelves for Barbara Kingsolver and Anna Quindlen, they are watching, producing and hosting shows like The View, and driving the ads and content for networks like we, Lifetime and HGTV.

And while they are creating and consuming media, they are also changing the face of it - literally. Advertisers are beginning to realize that as women age, they want authenticity. According to Dr. Orsborn, they want to see real older women with laugh lines selling them cosmetics, not some airbrushed teenagers. Take Dove's campaign for real beauty, for example, or Diane Keaton, wrinkled and smiling for L'Oreal Paris.

Boomin' Grannies

What is next for this aging super power? Spanning an 18-year period, Boomer women are in all walks of life. Some of them are still raising young children while others are taking care of aging parents. They are getting married, divorced, changing careers and going back to school. Because their demographic doesn't fit in a neat little box, the good doctor believes that they are going to be a dominating force for at least the next 18 years. "A lot of Boomers haven't realized how in demand they are going to be in our workplaces and the key role they will continue to play in our economy." Because Boomer women are living longer and retiring later, younger professionals are finding themselves bumping against a new "gray ceiling." Their competition is experienced, motivated, and fierce. Women are living longer, retiring later, and spending more money than ever before.

Once again these women are forging their own way and on their own terms, just as they did in their youth, and again, "They have few role models or historical precedents and no certainty about what the future may bring." They are, Orsborn asserts, "caring less about what others think and more about using their full power and potential... Still in the mainstream, they are continuing to explore new heights of human potential. I think we should tighten our seat belts."

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