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How Confident are Boomer Consumers?

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Wall Street is closely monitoring the consumer heartbeat after the Consumer Confidence Index dipped unexpectedly in September and continued to deteriorate in October according to the latest results released today. One of the key demographics on the examination table are the men and women of the Boomer generation whose faith in Wall Street has been deemed essential for economic recovery.

As both a member and expert on this largest, wealthiest generation in history, I would suggest that when it comes to Boomers, Wall Street worry less about our level of consumer confidence and more about our degree of consumer denial. Despite our accumulation of unprecedented resources, Boomers have never fully trusted institutions of any kind--financial or otherwise. And yet, we've looked the other way for decades, dutifully funding our 401k's and taking orders from our financial advisors. But what will happen if due to our continuing job losses, the hits our retirement funds have taken, and our concerns about the future of Medicare and Social Security, our denial finally breaks?

Some worry about the mass defection of Boomers from financial institutions. But in fact, the Boomer generation represents a long, rich history of working and investing even while simultaneously suffering from increasing degrees of disenfranchisement. Before our generation's high-functioning denial set down its roots in American soil, confidence was a much less complex affair. From founding fathers and pioneers to industrialists, immigrants and war heroes, pre-Boomer America epitomized the belief that hard work would be rewarded, and that the good life was attainable in our lifetime.

Kennedy's Camelot was as close as our generation was to come to this non-paradoxical version of reality. The triple blow of the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, followed hard on the heels by the betrayal of Watergate, shook our generation definitively loose from faith that our institutions had either the power or will to protect us, and left us with the persistent feeling that we were largely on our own. Those of us with a spiritual bent feasted at the table of eastern philosophy, Oprah and Chopra, just in time to reassure us not to worry so much, since everything is an illusion. Those of us who went on to higher education busily put ourselves to work deconstructing reality, while watching the Wizard of Oz exposed as a fraud year after year alongside our kids and grandkids.

As the years unfolded, we didn't so much ignore the advice to "drop out" as we gamely learned to live on multiple levels simultaneously. And always, tucked in the back of our minds, was the suspicion that the same generation that was taught that ducking under one's school desk would protect us from the atom bomb, was, in the end, going to be had.

So does that mean Wall Street needs to worry? In this, the age of post-modernism, existentially, perhaps. But after our generation's lifetime of playing a game we were never fully invested in any way, what's new?

While the Boomers I know are gradually returning, albeit cautiously, to mainstream investing, I would argue that the level of the Consumer Confidence Index is truly more a measure of our capacity for consumer denial. For when haven't Boomers, regardless of what we've suffered, come back for yet another round? Add to this the fact that with our impaired retirement savings, we're going to be working longer, accumulating more contributions to our 401k's, than any generation in history--and there may even be cause for Wall Street to celebrate.

At any rate, this is the opinion of one generational expert who not only writes about the demographic, but belongs to it. But then again, take all this with a big grain of salt. It is entirely possible, after all, that I am in denial.