Professional Jeweler Archive: The Greatest Generation

February 2001


The Greatest Generation

Jewelers will miss 'em when they're gone

It’s not just surviving the Great Depression and helping to whip Hitler that makes America’s senior citizens the “Greatest Generation.” It’s the unabashed way they spend money and enjoy flaunting traditional symbols of wealth.

Appreciate them now, writes David Brooks in The New York Times Magazine. Once they’re gone, it may be a long time before jewelers and other luxury-goods retailers see another generation that enjoys consuming so conspicuously.

What’s that? Isn’t it Baby Boomers who lend new meaning to the term self-indulgence? Not.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey, the post-65 set increased its spending levels faster than any other group between 1987 and 1997. Claritas, a market-research company, breaks the population into niches based on buying patterns. The Gray Power group, college graduates over age 65, live partly off their savings, have annual incomes around $36,300 and make up 2% of all households. The six favorite cars of people in this group are the Cadillac DeVille, Lincoln Continental, Infiniti Q45, Mercury Grand Marquis, Lexus LS400 and Mercedes Benz (any Mercedes Benz).

They also are disproportionate consumers of saltwater fishing tours and subscribe to magazines such as House Beautiful and Travel & Leisure.

Tradition of Spending

Members of this group have always been this way, says Brooks. Back in the 1950s, their tastes in luxury goods ran to big air-conditioning units (installed in front windows for neighbors to see), gentry-like mahogany furniture, hunting prints and gold faucets (often in guest bathrooms where they could be seen).

“The big difference between their spending patterns [and succeeding generations’] is they take their materialism straight,” says Brooks. “When members of the World War II generation got rich, they wanted to look rich. They made their homes more formal, their jewelry more elegant and the furniture more upper-crust.”

Less-Conspicuous Consumers

Younger generations responded to affluence by making their homes more casual, their appliances more rugged and their furniture more primitive. “The richer they get, the more they want to look like Shakers,” Brooks says of the younger consumers.

Modern consumption comes wrapped in morality, he says. They want to show that wealth hasn’t made them pampered elitists. So a code of Extravagant Utility exists. “You can’t have a mere winter coat to protect you from normal American winters,” he says. “You’ve got to have a Himalayan-tested, Gore-Tex-Cordura-Polartec composite parka with microfilament hood design, polyurethane coat-welded seams and universal radial hinges, durable enough to keep you warm on your next trip to Pluto yet collapsible enough to fit in your backpack.”

We’ve passed this way before. In the 18th century, Marie Antoinette and her French court retired to a model farm near Versailles where they played at being rustics. In the 19th century, transcendentalism (and Thoreau) encouraged the literati to live simply – or at least pretend to live simply in their country get-away cottages.

Today’s seniors lived through some lean years early in their lives, says Brooks, so now they appreciate wealth without shame. The younger affluents know they’ve never suffered the seniors’ ordeals, and it makes them somehow feel ashamed. So confronted with their wealth, one group flaunts it while the other seeks ways to justify it.

– by Mark E. Dixon

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications