Boomers in bad times.

They lived through Vietnam, the civil rights movement and Woodstock. But never anything like this. Boomers are used to charting their own courses and controlling their lives. Not anymore.

The economy is running roughshod over many boomers' plans, and there's nothing they can do about it. Protests, mass movements, love-ins and civil disobedience aren't going to fix things this time.

It's scary for people who always thought they could change the world to realize they can't change the economic crisis that's ravaging their savings and their retirement plans.

Boomers have been hardest hit by the meltdown because they had the most to lose. U.S. Census data show that net worth peaks at 60. Naturally. Boomers have been building up their 401k's over a working lifetime and are just ready to start drawing them down to finance their retirements.

Those retirements are going to be a bit more bare-bones than anticipated, since the stock market lost almost half its value over the last year. Folks who were planning on a villa in Tuscany may have to settle for an apartment in Topeka. Boomers just don't have enough income-earning years left to rebuild their badly depleted nest eggs.

Things are so bad that attitudes, outlooks and characteristics which have typified boomers since they began coming of age in the 1960s have undergone dramatic transformations.

Boomers were always optimistic, confident and secure. Now they're pessimistic, frightened and very insecure. According to a Focalyst study done in August and early September, 20% of boomers were uncertain about the future. That's double the rate of a year before. And the surveys were completed before the Wall Street meltdown.

Boomers were an incredibly lucky cohort. The first wave of them entered the workforce at the beginning of the 1966-1982 recession, so they never experienced the descent from more prosperous times. They came in at a bottom, and the economy grew virtually unchecked from then until the present meltdown. The downturns along the way were relatively short and shallow (except for the folks who put all of their assets into Silicon Valley stocks before that bubble burst).

Most boomers went to college and stepped into relatively well-paying and secure careers as soon as they graduated. Now they're barely scraping by. The Focalyst study found:

  • 70% of boomers report that they're struggling to make ends meet.
  • 58% said they have less disposable income than they did a year ago.
  • 77% are cutting back on expenses.
  • 41% are dipping into savings.

Boomers' retirement plans are changing. Sometimes they're being postponed or abandoned. An AARP study found that 27% of workers 45 and over and 32% of those 55-64 have pushed back their planned retirement date. And that survey was conducted in April, when the Dow Jones Index briefly touched 13,000. As this is being written, it's below 8,200.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 29% of people in their late 60s are working, but that number is going to shoot up as boomers continue aging into their 60s. The BLS projects that over the next decade the number of workers 55 and older will increase at five times the rate of the overall workforce.

How do you market to boomers when their world is crumbling?

Depends on what you're selling and which boomers you're selling to. The Focalyst study segmented boomers into three groups. We've renamed them and added some marketing observations:

Doing fine. These boomers have a high, stable income and feel accomplished and fortunate in life. They still have the optimism and confidence that used to characterize all boomers, and they're still spending on themselves. These boomers are 30% of the total. They're self-indulgent, perhaps a bit vain and very self-satisfied. If you're marketing luxury cars, upscale apparel or high-end consumer electronics, they're your best hope in today's economy. How to sell them?

  • Too bad the old L'OrĂ©al line is taken, because "I'm worth it" is the perfect approach for them.
  • Quality still counts. They feel they deserve the best. Let them know that your brand is the ne plus ultra.
  • Flatter their vanity. "You've always been special/hot/a leader. Still are."

Tough times. The boomer promise didn't work out for this 25% of the group. Their incomes are lower, they feel like failures and they're worried about making ends meet. They're buying necessities – and clipping coupons to do it. But if it's not essential, they're not in the market – 69% of this group reports cutting back on discretionary spending. There are three main aspects of selling to this group:

  • Price and value.
  • Promotion. As noted, they're clipping coupons. Make sure they have yours.
  • Reaffirm them. They're not living large, and some of their classmates are. Make them feel that it's OK. "Everybody is having a tough time these days. Here's how our brand can help," is one good way to go. Dennis Hopper in a Wal-Mart commercial would be perfect.

Squeaking by and loving it. This is the biggest chunk of boomers – 45% of the total. They're not affluent, but they're not too bothered by that. They've held on to their optimism and are still activists. They're also still idealists. This group is at the top of the Maslow pyramid: self-actualization. They're the most likely group to volunteer in community organizations. Market to them with appeals like:

  • You can help make the world better. And we're with you all the way.
  • Economic stability. They no longer believe they can become rich, but they're OK with that if they can achieve peace of mind and financial stability.
  • Environmental messages. Boomers are the age cohort most swayed by green appeals, and these are the greenest boomers.
  • Price/value appeals are also effective with this group. 60% have cut back on non-essential spending.

Tough times for boomers mean tough times for a lot of marketers, because boomers are – or, rather, were – one of the most cash-rich and acquisitive segments of the American population.

Boomers' purchase habits are changing fast during this downturn (at least the habits of "Tough times" and "Squeaking by and loving it" boomers are changing). They may very well revert to their older attitudes and outlooks when the economy rebounds, but that rebound may be a long time coming. In the meantime, it's important for marketers to get out in front of the present boomer mindset, and for agencies to tailor messages to today's boomer realities.

After all, although there's a lot less wealth in our society today than there was a year ago, boomers still control most of it.