The first wave of Gen-Xers has rounded 40, and they are changing the face of what it means to be middle-aged. Women of this generation — think Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie — are pushing waifish teens off magazine covers, starring in movies, inspiring cosmetics and fragrances, wearing bikinis at the beach and minis to the mall.
"It's a very different world," says More magazine editor in chief Lesley Jane Seymour.
When More launched in 1998, it reached out to women older than 40 — baby boomers at the time – who she says were more homogenous as a group than the magazine's current target audience of women 35 and older.
"You know, 13 years ago women were not having babies at 40," she says by way of illustration. Now she hears from many readers who are just starting families at that age, while others are preparing for an empty nest. She cites the celebrity example of Kyra Sedgwick, who at 46 has two college-age children, and Julie Bowen, who at 41 has twin toddlers.
"Gen X is not a homogenous group," she says. "They are doing their own things at their own time. You can no longer pull women out by age breaks."
For marketers, this is an opportunity and a challenge.
"I think it's more … of a psychographic than a demographic," says Ann Mack, who did a marketing study on the cohort for global advertising giant JWT. "What are your interests rather than, specifically, you are a 30- to 40-year-old female." She echoes Seymour's mom example: Because first-time mothers can be in their early 20s or in their early 40s, marketing to moms will resonate with both age groups. "It's kind of like, what stage of life are you in?"
Up until now, Gen X has been considered to be the overlooked "sandwich generation," Mack says. With 46 million Americans in Generation X (born in 1965 to about 1979), the Xers are stuck between the 78 million baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964, and 76 million people in Generation Y (born from about 1980 to the mid- to late 1990s). "We're kind of stuck in what I call the middle or the muddle in this really funky space," Mack said in a telephone interview. "But while we're not as numerous, we can still be a very lucrative market."
Mack's study identifies Generation X as, in general, "unprotected" latchkey kids raised in an era of soaring divorce rates who in adolescence and young adulthood were dubbed as slackers and cynical individualists. But as adults they matured into technologically savvy, adventurous pragmatists.
The generation that lived through blue eye shadow, "Flash Dance" leg warmers, New Wave, grunge, Goth, hip-hop, brown lipstick, bicycle shorts, DayGlo, maxi skirts, baby barrettes, "The Cosby Show," "I Want It That Way," "Smells Like Teen Spirit" "Baby Got Back," "Friends," "Sex and the City," Iran-Contragate, several stock market crashes, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dot-com/technology explosion, 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama is now making decisions for their children and aging parents.
Gen X is also hitting its peak earning years. And studies have shown that although they appreciate value, the wealthy among them spend more on luxury items than did their predecessors — especially when it equates to superior service or convenience.
Put it all together and marketers see a prime consumer demographic — reflected in age-appropriate celebrities helming cosmetic ad campaigns, such as Halle Berry for Revlon, Julianna Margulies for L'Oreal.
Midlife happening later
Psychologist Vivian Diller, author of "Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change," credits increased life expectancy with part of the change in the way "midlife" is perceived.
"It's amazing … midlife just recently could mean as soon as your early 30s.... But I'm sure in the next 10 years or so as life expectancy reaches the 90s…I think midlife will be somewhere in your 50s…and even then we're still living active and vital lives," Diller says. "When you look at Julianne Moore [who turns 51 in December] you don't think of someone in a rocking chair with her grandchildren … you think of her as having 30 or 40 more really vital years."
When it comes to beauty, Gen X women generally face a different kind of pressure than boomers. "Baby boomers were really working very hard to make sure that looks were not the way we were defined," says Diller, herself a boomer at age 58. "We tried to devalue or put as a lesser goal looking attractive and sexy because we felt that we had something to prove."
Gen X women seem to feel freer to play up their femininity. Thus the man-shoulders in women's suits in the 1980s have given way to softer silhouettes today, including the return of the ladylike "Mad Men" look that's popular now.
"You guys [Gen X] feel that that this look is not antithetical to being good in your profession ... we [baby boomers] assumed that to be feminine and be attractive was at odds with that," Diller says.
Seymour has also noticed this generational change. "I don't think that there are very many women out there who now believe that they have to be ugly to be smart. Or that if you use anti-aging products, hair color or care about what you look like, it means that you don't have brains … that was really the old message: That you couldn't be attractive and smart — that you had to give up one for the other."
Diller and Seymour talk about the pressure Generations X and Y feel to live up to airbrushed, celebrity-driven impossible beauty standards — even if that means a full face of makeup at the gym. "At the gym, we wore sweat pants," Diller says. "Going to bed we wore funny-looking pajamas. You guys have Victoria's Secret now, and waxing. The baby boomer generation had places where we could just let it go. Now there's so much pressure."
Perceptions of middle age
The new attitude translates to the group's beauty habits. Gen-Xers rely on preventive anti-aging beauty regimens to a greater extent than boomers do, according to the Mack's JWT study. A report from the Symphony IRI National Consumer Panel says that Gen X spent $5.3 billion on beauty products in the 12-month period that ended June 26, which represented 28% of all beauty spending.
As they enter their 40s, Generation X women tend to look younger than their mothers and grandmothers did at this age. Less cigarette smoking, more sunscreen use and a greater awareness about nutrition and beauty industry advances help. The media are taking note of the younger looks and greater purchasing power of the generation as women 35 and older frequently grace magazine covers once reserved for teen or twentysomething models. Jennifer Lopez, born in 1969, was named People magazine's 2011 Most Beautiful Person of the Year just a few months before her 42nd birthday. Covers of Allure magazine, just to name one, recently have featured Generation X and older women including Lopez, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julianne Moore, Eva Mendez, Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Aniston and Eva Longoria.
"You know what's funny about this," says Allure's editor in chief Linda Wells (who is a boomer). "I'm not even conscious of the fact that they're over 35 or over 40 because to me they're just really interesting women who are great-looking, who have great careers, who have something to say and that's why they're on the cover because they have all of those magic combination of qualities."
In an Allure survey last November, 93% of female and 84% of male respondents said there is greater pressure to look younger today than there's ever been before. But on the positive side, "middle-age" women were seen as more attractive today than they were in a survey Allure took 20 years ago. And younger men are most likely to see the demographic as "hot."
Like baby boomers, Wells says, Gen-Xers have grown up not accepting the status quo. That can translate to wearing long hair even past a certain age, eschewing "mom jeans" and participating in music, sports and other interests once reserved for "younger women."
Molly Ringwald, 43, is a prime example. Ringwald has been heralded as a generational touchstone, starring in the John Hughes classics "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club" and "Pretty in Pink." Most recently she's known as the mother of a teen in the television show "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." She also wrote the book "Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family and Finding the Perfect Lipstick."
Ringwald, who had her children later in life, says that turning 40 is a milestone that people deal with in different ways. "Looking back at pictures of my mother and grandmother, 40 just seemed so old," she notes. "Some people get depressed. Some people get inspired. I would say it was a combination for me. Leading up to it, I was sort of a little nervous because it seems like such a big deal." But 40 ended up being a positive turning point that kicked her life into high gear. Today she is a mom who acts, sings jazz and writes.
To stay beautiful she believes in trainer workouts and terrific skin care and one secret ingredient.
"It sounds really corny, but I really do think that the most important thing that you can do is make happiness a priority," she says. "Because I think that is the main thing that seems to keep me looking good, giving me the shine and giving me the glow that no other beauty product, no surgery, nothing can … if you're not happy, figure out how to get happy. It will change your entire life, and it will make you look 10 years younger."