There are so many people over 50.

In the United States, there are now 78 million Baby Boomers–28 percent of the population–and the fastest growing demographic group in the country is the 50-64 group.They are massive–demographically–and massively influential in the marketplace: By some accounts, an estimated 40 percent of total consumer demand can be traced to Boomers, who control 70-75 percent of the total net worth of American households (we’re skeptical of this but it’s repeated all over the internet) and have more discretionary income than any other age group (estimated in 2005 at $1 trillion annually, a number we also doubt but it comes from U.S. News and World Report so we’ll accept it provisionally).

More evidence of Baby Boomers’ market clout:  The Wall Street Journal cites a study of “so-called Alpha Boomers, who are boomers ages 55 to 64,” by Alan Wurtzel, who heads research for NBC Universal. The research found that Alpha Boomers “are willing to change brands, spend on technology, use social networking sites and purchase online. They spend $1.8 trillion annually on food, cars, personal care and other products.” (Add in the folks who are 50 to 54 and everyone 65 and over, and you can see how the upper limit might approach $3 trillion, which is another figure that gets tossed around.)

OK, so there are a lot of well-off olds. Doing what? We thought most of them were mostly sitting around, maybe counting their money. We thought that very active people over 50 are like grizzly bears or moose: There aren’t many of them, statistically speaking, but if you stumble into their habitat they’re all over the place.

Now we’re not so sure that’s accurate. There might be more active seniors than we think. The first indications come from a 2009 study by the National Sporting Goods Association (highlighted in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2011).  Says here that people 45 and older purchase more than a quarter of all running/jogging shoes, 40 percent of all fitness shoes, and over 44 percent of home gyms. That seems consistent with claims that “masters runners and, in particular, those 60 and older are the fastest-growing group in the sport.”

Other research claims that the fastest-growing age group of skiers (as a percentage) is those over 55. (Other studies say that the fastest-growing group is those over 60, or 85—so we’re not sure. But clearly, the olds are well represented.) Ditto for marathons and even ultramarathons: we don’t have stats on the number of older participants, but we keep seeing articles and YouTube videos about them. At one time, these depictions might have fallen into the same category as stories about water-skiing squirrels and bowling nuns: “It’s noteworthy because it’s so unusual and adorable.”  Today, some of the geezers are smoking their younger counterparts, which makes them considerably less adorable.*

Why try to connect with them online? Because that’s where they are. In the U.S., 21 percent of internet users are over 56. In the U.K., a fourth of internet users are over 50.  We’re not sure about the rest of the world, but we’re betting that silver surfers make up a substantial percentage of the global online community. The Pew Research Center notes that 77 percent of adults 50-64 are online, and the majority (53 percent) of U.S. seniors 65 and older have gone digital. So it’s a big group, and one that’s growing quickly. (Here’s an indication: Pew studies have found that the use of social networking by internet users aged 65 and older grew by 150 percent between 2009 and 2011; as of February 2012, one third of those senior internet users were using Facebook and other social networking sites. Half of those 50-64 are on social sites.)

Pew may be low-balling participation. Forrester Research “found that 60% of U.S. seniors (aged 65 and up) are online.”  Figure an over 65 population of 36 million (based on 2003 U.S. Census data) and you have at least 22 million old people shuffling around cyberspace.

(Brief diversion: 30 percent of Boomers are single, which could explain why their use of internet dating sites is growing at twice the rate of other age groups. And 82 percent say they are happier now then when they were younger. And they don’t think a person qualifies as old until he or she hits 72.)

When they go online, Boomers go often: nine of ten use the internet every day in the UK, two-thirds of them more than once. In the U.S., 70 percent of over-65 internet users are online every day. And they stay online for a while:  estimates from March 2011 claim Boomers aged 56-65 spent 36.5 hours a month on the internet. Younger Boomers (47-55) spent 39.3 hours a month. Increasingly, it’s how we learn, communicate and have aimless fun. We also like to shop online, and when we do, we spend more than our progeny. (Actually, we spend more on technology, too: research by the Nielsen Co. found that so-called “golden boomers”—those aged 52 to 68–make up one-fourth of the U.S. population but account for 40 percent of all spending on technology.)

We’ll be collecting the facts and updating this portrait over time. Toward what end we aren’t sure…but it’s nice to know you have company.


*That said, Boomers could–and should–be a lot more active. They are America’s most overweight age group. According to a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 30 percent of all Americans between 50 and 69 are obese. Not heavy. Not needing to drop a few pounds. Obese. Their doctors, their families and their own bodies are telling them they need to get out more. (To be fair, 26.5 percent of Americans aged 30-39 are obese, so the olds are not the outliers one might think.) Today’s seniors are also less healthy than the generation before them, as we’ve pointed out: “Baby Boomers were more obese, had a higher rate of diabetes, and were more likely to have hypertension and high cholesterol. They were more than twice as likely to walk with a cane or walker. Oddly, they are in worse shape even though they are less likely to smoke and more likely to live longer in their diminished condition.”