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It's Time To Kill The Mistaken Stereotype Of The Mid-life Male

by Alf Nucifora

When did it begin to go bad for the mid-fifties male? These once proud Boomer men, 38 million of them between the ages of 41-59, and Masters of the Universe all, have seen their image gradually reduced to that of a lesser man, part doofus, part failure, an almost cartoonish figure with diminished power, performance and luster. Middle-aged men don't show well, particularly in the media where they're portrayed as self-centered and self-absorbed. Bill Clinton still carries the baggage of the unzipped philanderer. George W. Bush will never escape the doubts associated with his intelligence, or alleged lack thereof. In television advertising featuring mature males, the never-gets-it father of the brighter teenage pack and the randy sufferer of erectile dysfunction are but two examples of the stereotype at work.

The truth about the mid-life male

It starts with physiology. Scientists and neurologists now inform us that that there are distinct differences between the male and female brains which manifest themselves in perception, judgment and behavior. Add to that the ability of the male to reproduce later in life, and the implications, libido-wise, make for a sub-conscious male mind-set that is more nuanced than the simplified version ascribed to most aging males by society at large. To cap it off, the hormonal balance changes with age, with dropping testosterone levels in males offset by rising estrogen levels…the exact opposite as occurs with aging females. To quote Jed Diamond, author of The Irritable Male Syndrome & Male Menopause, "Men become more esty, while women become more testy."

It's on the psychological front, however, that the behavioral shifts present the greatest challenge for the marketer. The traditional male role has been changing gradually yet significantly. The hierarchical model, with male as head of household, sole income producer, and ultimate family arbiter has given way to a less autocratic, more centrarchical mode now that females comprise 40% of the work force in the industrialized world. As Diamond notes "males are not needed today." This diminishment in the traditional male role is off-set by an angst borne of fear, anger and inadequacy (hence the belligerence and vituperation evidenced in most talk radio where the targeted demographic is the aging white male carrying an enormous chip on the shoulder). Bear in mind that much of the behavior is understandable. Male self esteem has always been driven by the job. Yet recent employment trends, including downsizing, plant closings, loss of manufacturing jobs to the Far East (and now outsourcing of service jobs to India) and forced retrenchment within middle-management ranks in corporate America have contributed to a savage erosion of that self esteem.

It all augers badly for the mid-fifties male. Fear and anger lead to health problems… depression, weight gain, diabetes, heart attacks and suicide (where the rate for males is four times that of females in the 50-60 age group).

With understanding, come the answers

Brent Green, author of Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers advises marketers to "really understand what they (Boomer males) want." Green suggests that "aging males want to be recognized as equals, to be seen as valuable and important." For example, given that males can reproduce later in life, their subconscious need is to be appreciated for their sexuality, and less for their ability to produce erections on command. Levitra gets it; Viagra doesn't.

For the marketer, there must be a realization that the mid-life male seeks something different in life, as the striving for success gives way to the seeking of significance and the pursuit of higher ideals. For many men, notes Diamond, "It's a move from career to calling." For the aging guy, it is now permissible to reveal the sensitive side of one's personality, in sharp contrast to the showcasing of the competitive edge that has been commonly demanded of successful males. The message is "we can relax and not have to be the hunters any more," a logical point of view, given that men in their later years are no longer at the peak of their earning capacity. This need to nurture later in life, suggests that the mid-life male should be presented positively by marketers, particularly with respect to family and kids.

While the marketplace is still at an early stage in gender/age-specific marketing, there is early evidence that a few categories are getting the message…from nutraceutical manufacturers who package and promote saw palmetto for the prostate, to Boomer male apparel marketers who design for the aging, spreading male body.

In the final analysis, marketers must understand what it means to be a middle-aged male. This realization demands a determination not to play to the stereotype and, as Diamond advises, "to represent them properly and appreciate that their goals at this time of life are now different."

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