Gen X women, young for their age
Much has been made this year about the behemoth baby boom generation reaching retirement age. But another significant milestone is slipping past a bit more quietly yet with noticeable impact.

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.

Thanks to advances in the beauty industry, more knowledge about healthy lifestyles, increased life expectancy and freer attitudes, middle-age doesn't look the way it used to. And that's changing the look of the beauty industry.

"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.