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project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

Boomers and Beyond: Intergenerational Consumption and the Mature Imagination

Post-war baby boomers (born 1945–1954) have been at the forefront of social
change in Britain, notably in the area of consumption. They have come under
scrutiny, partly because of public perceptions that this large cohort will place
unprecedented pressure on public and financial services, partly because they
are perceived to be a liberal, radical generation who are changing every part
of society they come in contact with. This generation are often regarded as
the ‘first teenagers’ of a more aÆuent ‘consumer society’. But how much of
this perception is true? Our project examines whether baby boomers do exist
as a ‘generation’ and the degree to which they share consumption patterns,
ageing identities and patterns of work and retirement.

This project ran from February 2005 to March 2007

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image illustrating findings

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Project team
Rebecca Leach award holder
Simon Biggs
Chris Phillipson
Annemarie Money

Rebecca Leach
School of Social Relations
Keele University
Staffordshire, ST5 5BG

01782 583 359

Publications include

Biggs S., Phillipson C., Money A. M. and Leach R. ‘The Age- Shift: Observations on Social Policy, Ageism and the Dynamics of the Adult Lifecourse’, Journal of Social Work Practice, 20(3)(2006).

Biggs S., Phillipson C., Leach R. and Money A.M. ‘Baby Boomers and Adult Ageing in Public Policy: The Changing Relationship between Production and Consumption’. Cultures of Consumption Working Paper No.27 (2006). download as word doc >>

Biggs S., Phillipson C., Money A.M. and Leach R. ‘Baby Boomers and Adult Ageing: Issues for Social and Public Policy’, Quality in Ageing 8 (3) (2007).



Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal


This project studies the consumption practices and preferences of the first group of post war ‘baby boomers’ defined here as the 1945-55 birth cohort. The research focuses on intergenerational dimensions in the relationship between consumption and identity. It examines the extent to which consumption and the meaning attributed to it varies as people mature and move through the life course.

Baby Boomers are uniquely placed to comment on the continuities and discontinuities that arise through consumption patterns that are generationally located. Can they choose not to grow old by buying a way out of traditional expectations? Do they see themselves as essentially ‘young’ proponents of ‘my generation’? Or will they develop a more mature imagination that adapts to the changing priorities of midlife and beyond? Such questions raise important issues about how they spend their money; the benefits that accrue from the objects that are purchased; and the broader question of the relationship between consumption and adult identity. The outcomes of the decisions made will have a strong influence upon policy and services for succeeding generations.

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‘Baby Boomers’ are in a unique position in relation to the growth of twentieth century consumer society and intergenerational relations. They were the first to experience an explosion of consumer culture in the mid-twentieth century and the first affluent teenagers. Their place in history has put particular pressure on them to manage complex selves and lifestyles whilst maintaining a position of social engagement. Now this group, after having challenged established social roles and institutions are themselves growing older, yet they have had a characteristically ambivalent attitude to adult ageing and intergenerational relations. They often have high lifestyle expectations, but are facing the erosion of many of the policies that supported them in the past. The first teenagers are now becoming the first generation with the cultural wherewithal to radically challenge traditional notions of adult ageing. The above issues raise important questions about how the baby boom generation will spend their money and what value will be gained from different patterns of consumption. The research will provide new insights into this social phenomenon by combining the sociology of consumption and the study of adult ageing. We take as our starting point a simple idea: that the things we buy become meaningful because they help us express ourselves and our identities; then we add the dimensions of maturing values and life-course change. The study of younger adults’ consumption has been extensive, but this has been much less the case with older adults. The projected study will fill a significant gap in social research.

Data will be collected through a major qualitative study in Manchester, looking at consumption practices and biographical experiences. These reports will be compared with policy and media expectations, and data from longitudinal research such as the British Social Attitudes Survey. Through this mix of material the following issues will be examined: To what extent does consumption vary as people age, with a ‘mature imagination’ shaping values, habit and choice? What is the significance of generational values in shaping consumption patterns? How does the experience of difference types of consumption affect the daily lives of baby boomers?

The project will:

  • Develop a particular area of theory around the material cultures for midlife and generational patterns of consumption.
  • Collect a new body of information on continuity and discontinuity in consumption patterns across the lifecourse.
  • Contribute to the development of research methods comparing social discourse about mid-life with personal experience and biographical narrative.
  • Contribute to national and international policy debates about the scope of lifestyles in middle and later life.

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  • How do ‘baby boomers’ engage with consumer culture? What kinds of consumption practice and knowledge are taking shape?
  • How do patterns of consumption change over time?
  • How is personal practice and knowledge related to the public discourses in social policy and marketing, aimed at this age group?
  • Are new material cultures emerging, suited to the needs of maturing selves?

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Three main approaches will be used in the research: first, the study of marketing and consumer images about the baby-boomer generation; second, secondary analysis of relevant data sources; these approaches will contextualise the third, qualitative research using semi-structured interviews.

The first approach will provide a means of situating current perspectives on the baby boom generation. This will be addressed by analysing:

  • National and international policy documents and reports from think tanks, polling and opinion data, and academic studies.
  • The collation of media images, marketing material and discourses on consumer choice arising in the public domain, plus academic study.

These materials will be used to establish an understanding about the current public discourse regarding images of a maturing consumer.

The second approach will be used to provide a map of the social, economic and demographic characteristics of the first baby boom generation. This will be done in two ways. Data from the first report of the 2002 English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) will be used to explore dimensions such as social activity, variations in financial circumstances, health and work and retirement. More established surveys (Family Expenditure Survey (FES) and British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS)) will be used to examine differences between baby boomers, other mid-life cohorts and younger groups.

The third approach will comprise the collection and analysis of primary data exploring patterns of consumption and engagement with consumer culture among baby boomers. This would involve:

  • Structured interviews with 90 respondents aged 48-58 living in three contrasting areas in and around Manchester. This city has been chosen as representing a diverse urban culture from which communities with different types of cultural capital and class ‘habitus’ could be drawn.
  • In-depth semi-structured interviews with 30 respondents from the main sample.

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The project will show how consumers in this influential age cohort use material culture to maintain and develop new forms of identity in later life. It will indicate how patterns of consumption are developing and their wider import on social patterns and constructions.
Novel insights will be gained into the relationship between policy and media images, demographic trends and everyday consumption.


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