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When They Grow Up

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Companies are quietly redesigning their products to accommodate the needs of (shh, don't say it aloud) aging baby boomers. So reports the Wall Street Journal: "The generation that sent diaper sales soaring in the 1960s, bought power suits in the 1980s and indulged in luxury cars in the 2000s is getting ready to retire: The oldest boomers turn 65 this year ... But there's a catch: Baby boomers, famously demanding and rebellious, don't want anyone suggesting they're old."

Marketers, always alert to the sensitivities of this most self-absorbed of cohorts, are developing products and shopping environments that will appeal to the needs of, let us say, ripening baby boomers without ever using the "o" word. "Surreptitiously, companies are making typefaces larger, lowering store shelves to make them more accessible and avoiding yellows and blues in packaging -- two colors that don't appear as sharply distinct to older eyes."

It may be autumn for the boomers, but it's springtime for the marketing euphemists. Bathroom fixture maker Kohler, the WSJ reports, set their wizards the task of renaming the "grab bar" -- a shower fixture for, shall we say, experienced bathers. They came up with "belay" (after the mountaineering term), and designed it to blend unobtrusively into the tile wall. Whether Kohler considered that mature eyes might not be able to find the subtle "belay" in an emergency, we don't know.

Maybe we should be grateful for euphemisms in a culture that is otherwise awash in vulgarity. But really -- "Low T"? You've seen the commercials, I'm sure. "Millions of men 45 and older just don't feel like they used to" it begins. "Remember when you had more energy for 18 holes with your buddies? More passion for the one you love?" Well, "don't blame it on aging" Abbott Laboratories advises. "Call your doctor," because what in other times and places was considered normal is now "a treatable condition called low testosterone or low T." If at 55 you don't feel 19, call your doctor and get a drug to fix it.

More tempered women present even greater challenges for marketers. Boomer women, a business website reminds readers, constitute 37 percent of those online, and women in general make 80 percent of household purchasing decisions. In order not to offend these potential customers, the site advises avoiding the words "senior," "older women," "silver surfers or silver anything," and particularly "grandma, grandmother, grandparents, grannies." Boomer gals, we learn, "are happy to lipo, pull, tighten, and do just about anything on earth to avoid being asked that dreaded question, 'Would you like the senior discount?'"

Maybe it's the plastic surgery, or maybe its just denial, but boomers seem a tad unrealistic about where they fit into the life cycle. "When casting for recent Depend ads," the Journal reports, "the brand looked for actors who appeared to be in their early 50s ... Despite concerns inside the company that the actors were too young to be believable, focus groups of boomers didn't mind a bit." Which may explain why the actors in denture commercials are all in their 50s, too.

For an entire cohort to go through life tagged as "babies" may have had some infantilizing effects over the years. An AARP commercial aimed at baby boomers uses the "What do you want to be when you grow up?" trope for people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. One says he wants to work with children, another that he wants to fix up old houses. She wants to run a marathon. He's going to start a band. AARP believes "you're never done growing."

Actually, yes you are. You're a grown up at 21. People continue to change and improve (some go in the other direction), but they are no longer "growing." Boomers need to get a grip -- or a belay -- on the facts of life. Run your marathon if you want to, but you've been grown up for decades!

On the other hand, why single out boomers? No one these days is encouraged to act his age. The Vermont Teddy Bear Company recommends sending stuffed animals to grown women for Valentine's Day. There are also ads for "hoodie/footie" pajamas for people who've haven't waited up for Santa in well over a decade. The sexual innuendo in the ads doesn't counteract the fact that they are peddling gifts more appropriate for 6-year-olds.

The styles that are marketed to "tween" girls -- those between 10 and 12 -- on the other hand, are all about premature sexuality. Why is it so hard to get this right?

Age matters. What's right at 20 is not right at 60 -- or 10. The only dignified way to navigate through life's stages is not to deny that.

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