Boomers vs. millennials: Mind the food generation gap
Editor's note: Joseph Clayton is CEO of the International Food Information Council and IFIC Foundation. He previously served as interim president of the American Frozen Food Institute, as executive vice president at Golin International and CEO of Widmeyer Communications. He also once worked on the legislative staff of former Illinois Senator Alan Dixon (D-IL).
With the public and media fixation on the millennial generation, baby boomers would be forgiven if they felt a need to belt out the defiant Stephen Sondheim anthem “I’m Still Here.”
Baby boomers — those between the ages of 52 to 70 — are far more than just here. They continue to hold an outsized influence over the broader population.
According to Nielsen and BoomAgers, boomers account for 49% of all spending on consumer packaged goods — $230 billion — and dominate across almost every CPG category. By 2017, half of Americans will be 50 or older, but are projected to account for 70 percent of total disposable income.
Although boomers are far older than their millennial counterparts (18- to 34-year-olds), the size of the two generations’ populations are almost equal, at about 75 million each.
After an economic swoon in 2009, the $5 trillion food retail and services sector resumed its upward trajectory. Because boomers’ pocketbooks powered that growth, their attitudes about food and nutrition are keys to understanding not only their purchasing behaviors, but also their health outcomes.
The 2016 Food and Health Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation reveals what makes boomers unique and the imperative to reach and influence them. The IFIC Foundation conducted a similar analysis of millennials’ attitudes and behaviors regarding food and nutrition last year.
What do baby boomers consider healthy foods and eating styles?
When it comes to healthy eating styles, boomers view nutrition more in terms of how much and what kinds of food they eat.
Boomers are more likely than the general population (32% versus 22%) to define a healthy eating style by moderation/serving size, and portions. They also are more likely than millennials (30% versus 17%) to define a healthy eating style as including certain foods personally defined as healthy.
Older and younger generations also have differing views about the healthfulness of individual food components. For instance, boomers are more likely than millennials to rate several things as healthy, including vitamin C (88% versus 77%), whole grains (80% versus 70%), protein from plant sources (75% versus 63%) and omega-3 fatty acids (71% versus 59%).
Conversely, boomers are less likely than millennials and the general population to rate animal protein as healthy. Only 36% of boomers would say that, as opposed to 45% of both millennials and the general population.
What health benefits are they looking for?
The 2016 Food and Health Survey points to differences in the types of foods generations purchase because of their perceived health benefits.
Almost half of boomers, 49%, are more interested than millennials in foods associated with health benefits beyond basic nutrition—also known as “functional foods”—such as those with fiber, carotenoids, probiotics or vitamin fortification.
Boomers are more likely than millennials and the general population to want foods associated with healthy aging and bone health. Boomers also are more likely than millennials to find out about foods associated with weight management, cardiovascular health and digestive health.
They're less likely than millennials to be interested in the mental health, muscle health and immunity health benefits associated with foods.
Who do they trust?
Young boomers in the ’60s held to the mantra of “don’t trust anyone over 30.” Today their trusted sources of food information continue to vary from those of other generations.
Boomers are more likely than millennials to trust registered dietitians or nutritionists (75% versus 65%) and personal healthcare professionals (73% versus 58%). The general population is less likely to trust dietitians (67%) and personal healthcare professionals (61%).
Boomers are less likely than millennials to trust fitness professionals (16% versus 27%), farmers (11% versus 21%) and bloggers (8% versus 18%). Among the general population, 26% trust fitness professionals, 9% trust farmers, and 15% trust bloggers.
Finding common ground
Communication approaches to different age groups doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game. There are several commonalities between boomers and millennials. They are heavy consumers of online media, willing to adopt new technologies, place a high priority on taste and price when making food purchase decisions, and they rely on friends and families to help shape their opinions about food.
Good communication strategies will seek out areas of common ground while also being sensitive to more distinct groups of consumers.
As the population ages, the entire food system — from product manufacturers, marketers and retailers to health professionals, communicators, and policymakers — would do well to heed the new realities of what some are calling the “longevity economy.”
Those who cater primarily or exclusively to youth do so at their own peril. Far from being put out to pasture, the baby boomers are still running the farm.