As American women age, they start feeling invisible and undervalued. This was true for our mothers, their mothers and beyond, in life and in death: In fifth-century England, older women were buried with much less treasure than everybody else.
Enter the Gen X woman: In 1984, Twisted Sister seared “we’re not gonna take it” into her developing brain, and, today, she’s forcing brands and retailers to pay attention to her.
Born between 1965 and 1980, Gen X makes up 19.8 percent of the U.S. population — just a few percentage points less than Boomers (21.1 percent), Millennials (21.7 percent) and Gen Z (20.6 percent).
Their numbers may be smaller, but Gen X significantly outspends all other generations — 44 percent more than Boomers and 18 percent more than Gen Z, according to SmartAsset. Gen X, as a group, saw their net worth increase by 50 percent during the pandemic, more than any other generation. “We are healthier and wealthier than any generation at this age before us,” said stylist, fashion consultant and author Stacy London, who recently launched State of Menopause, a content platform and product brand geared toward menopause.
“There’s a feeling of yes, I’m aging, and that’s OK. Along with aging, I’m looking pretty good,” said Kelly Vanasse, chief communications officer at P&G Beauty, Grooming and Health, who also worked on the development side of the brand, See Me. “Wellness is really important. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been — I’m healthier than my kids’ twentysomething friends.
“I’m Gen X, and I’m experiencing firsthand what we’ve seen reflected in our research on this consumer,” she continued. “I’m living my best life. We’re living our best lives right now.”
“Everyone is a multihyphenate,” said London, as she points to a gold “and” charm dangling at her neck. “We are Generation And.” This multiplicity can be seen across all aspects of a Gen X woman’s life. At home, this former latch-key kid is now mothering the generations above and below her. She takes care of her Boomer parents, while she raises her late-in-life Gen Alpha kids and financially supports her Millennial offspring. (Sixty-four percent of Millennials receive financial support from their parents.)
“And” also sums up her media consumption: She’s listened to her favorite song on vinyl, on cassette, on CD, on minidisc, on iTunes, on Spotify and on TikTok. Obsolescence bites and, somewhere after iTunes but before Spotify, she became tired of being an early-adopter. Today, she onboards new tech only once it has proven itself. This is why many assume that she’s not tech-savvy. “It’s not as if she has the fear of missing out,” said Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail. “She has a much more experienced view, looking for what makes a difference in her life and what can enhance her life, versus just one more piece of tech that she may absorb or may not.”
Gen X is equally comfortable shopping online or in store, ordering her prescriptions via an app or in person at a pharmacy, seeing her doctor virtually or in office. “Their breadth of touchpoints in beauty, in health and in shopping in general is so much broader than the tech-driven younger populations or the less tech older generation,” Liebmann said. “The fact that Gen X lives in such a broad world where they are so discriminating about their choices means that you have a lot of ways to reach them, but you really have to know them well.”
Understanding the mores of Gen X is crucial, because women over 50 hold the country’s purse strings, with a spending power of $15 trillion. Yet fewer than 5 percent of marketing targets them. “The Gen X woman has so much buying power, but marketers and retailers don’t cater to her,” said Sally Mueller, cofounder and CEO of the wellness menopause line, Womaness. “Marketers are intimidated by how to reach her. People think that it’s hard, and expensive, to reach this woman.”
One marketing executive from a big-three beauty company who asked to remain anonymous shared that brands have traditionally courted younger consumers in hopes of future-proofing their brand. “The thinking is that Gen X has already been bombarded by marketing for so many years, plus they have fewer shopping years ahead of them. Compare this to Millennials and Gen Z — they are blank slates with more years of shopping ahead of them. Blank slates are easier and cheaper to sell to,” the source said.
Be that as it may, youth does not breed loyalty. “Gen X is the last generation with brand loyalty. Like, I still brush with Crest,” said Kim France, cohost of Gen X-beloved podcast Everything Is Fine and the founding editor of Lucky magazine. “I remember someone explaining this to me in a research meeting while I was at Lucky, and it was one of those lightbulb moments. Oh my God, this magazine is going to die someday, and that someday is sooner than later, because the next generation has no brand loyalty.”
France said Gen X has been “flying blind” for awhile, inured to the lack of nuanced representation in media. “Marketers and advertisers are very literal. They’re either showing somebody who’s young and beautiful, or they’re showing somebody who is quote, unquote, older. Gen X doesn’t get represented because it’s sort of neither here nor there,” she said. “Gen X is used to finding and responding to marketing that isn’t meant for them.”
Frumpy, frail, forgotten?
At 40, Dutch-based fashion photographer Denise Boomkens had her first child and, after “one or two years of breastfeeding and sleepless nights,” she was ready to start working again. “How am I going to do this? How should I be doing my 40s? What should I expect in my 50s?” Boomkens recalled thinking.
“So I went online. I bought every magazine. And I thought, ‘Where are these women?’ There were no Instagram influencers over the age of 40. Where is everyone?” she said. The wrinkle-free, preternaturally glowing women above 40 whom Boomkens did see in the media didn’t resonate with her. “I would look at them, and then look at myself in the mirror. I thought, ‘I don’t look like that. What’s wrong with me?’”
According to a 2021 Nielsen report, women over the age of 50 comprise just 8 percent of onscreen television roles, with the majority of these roles as ancillary mother/matriarch figures. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s 2020 “Frail, Frumpy, Forgotten” report analyzed 2019’s top films from the U.S., U.K., France and Germany, and found that women over 50 are portrayed as senile or physically frail four times more often than men over 50. They are four times more likely to be dressed in ill-fitting, unfashionable clothes. Almost half of all movies showed their 50-plus female characters in a negative, stereotypical role, while 29 percent of movies had no 50-plus women at all. When women were shown, they were predominately white and always cisgender. “Lesbians and transwomen over 50 are completely erased in the films in this study,” the report said.
“Really, just shame on everybody,” Liebmann said. “Gen X just disappeared into the woodwork. Gen X is out there now saying ‘I will not be ignored.’ Whether it’s about menopause or sexual wellness or skin care or hair care, these things are the things that I want. And we’ve got lots of entrepreneurs who are out there rattling cages of brands and retailers and saying, ‘This is what we want, you don’t deliver it, I’m going to do it for you.’”
As London notes, when Gen X sees a problem, they solve it. “Gen X is doing something about menopause because we’re in it. And we’re met with confusion, stigma, shame, fear around a topic? We won’t stand for it! Nobody’s having that.”
In 2018, Boomkens launched AndBloom, a “digital happy place” dedicated to women over 40. “I wanted to show real women. I wanted to show the wrinkles. I wanted to show the gray hair that isn’t that perfect smooth gray hair,” she said. “My mission every day is to show people that they can wear whatever they want — whether that is red lipstick or yellow, it doesn’t matter. Makeup doesn’t have to be invisible. We don’t have to be invisible.”
She started photographing friends and family, applying all of the same tools — modern, vibrant makeup, oh-so-cool styling — that she had used on celebrities and models when she shot for fashion magazines. She published each fashion shoot with a thoughtful, in-depth interview. “I needed inspiration. Everyone needs inspiration,” Boomkens said. “So I decided to create it for myself.”
Within its first year, AndBloom became a global success, with a fan club of “Bloomers” hailing from more than 100 countries. “When a Gen Xer sees cool women in their 40s, 50s and beyond, she’s like ‘Wow, let’s take note of this. What’s going on here?’ Because she’s just so surprised and excited to finally see Gen X just is portrayed in a cool way.” Mueller said.
The same goes for when she sees products that reasonate with her.
Benefit’s Benetint. Clinique’s Black Honey. Estée Lauder’s Double Wear. While Gen Z fell in love with Gen X oldie-but-goodies via TikTok, Gen X relies on search when shopping for new products. “Search is huge for this consumer,” Vanasse said. “The research that we’ve done shows that women are very well aware that they’re not being marketed to, and because of that, she needs to search and search to find solutions to her needs.”
The path to purchase, for the average Gen X consumer, starts with these unmet needs: “I see a problem with my hair or my skin or my body. I try to do as much research as I can. That’s my discovery process,” Vanasse said. In 2021, P&G Beauty launched Hair Biology, a line of SEO-friendly, problem-solution products developed by a team of female 50-plus scientists to meet the most-searched concerns of the 50-plus consumer.
“There’s an earnestness in how we approach her. It’s very much problem-solution,” Vanasse said. “Yes, this is what is happening with your hair. Here’s why your hair is thinning, and how the volumizing solution helps. The formulas change depending on the need and types of hair.”
Optimistic skeptics, Gen X simply wants results — products that deliver on promises. “We’ve had so many things thrown at us. So many cheesy beauty products marketed to us when we were young. Remember Sun-In, which turned your hair orange, not beachy or blonde at all? There were a lot of beauty disappointments. And now, there are too many miracle ingredients, too many claims.” France said.
Once Gen X discovers a possible solution, she validates her findings: “She looks for who is saying what about a product,” Vanasse said. “She looks for content authored by the founders of the product line. She looks to her community. She looks for reviews. At this stage, she isn’t that different from other age groups.”
Science sells. “Because of their skepticism, when you are marketing to Gen Xers, you better be delivering on the science, with a level of transparency that says, ‘OK, this is why this is different and better than what you might be using today,’” Vanasse said.
Gen X trusts sci-com influencers — dermatologists and cosmetic chemists — to help her navigate product claims. According to Vanasse, “print is still important, but only the long-form science-based articles that are really going to inform.”
Oh, magazines. Gen X does miss her magazines. “We used to trust magazines. If I read something worked in Allure, I knew it would work for me,” France said. “Gen X is really looking for itself, as far as influencers go. I hear a lot from women who are desperate to find someone who they can follow. Someone who inspires them.”
If you ask London, the Gen X woman can find that someone right in the mirror. When London was a fashion editor at Mademoiselle magazine, her front-of-book “How To” pages always tested highest in reader surveys. “Gen X was really that ‘how-to’ generation. How to dress, how to style your home — all of the things that were really the golden era of reality tv,” London said. “Today, we’re not necessarily looking for external experts, but instead reestablishing our own authority, as experts in terms of days lived on the planet. Shared, lived experience takes precedence over any type of expertise.”
Custom communities are the new custom content, with brands like State of Menopause, Womaness, Trinny London, Beginning Is Now and Hair Biology creating passionate communities where Gen X women can connect to talk about “anything and everything,” London said. “I’m hoping chat rooms will make a comeback. The more ways we all can connect, the better.”
At a recent event, London spoke about the “crisis of confidence” she experienced with menopause. “A woman came up to me and said, ‘You may have had a crisis of confidence, but now you are confidently vulnerable.’ And that’s where Gen X is at. We’re confident in our vulnerability. And that’s just so powerful.”