Boomers: The New Geek Squad

During some very last-minute Christmas shopping, an interesting scene unfolded at a New York mall, as a 50-something man grilled a young store clerk with questions about a product he intended to buy.

From the man's anguished look — and the kid's nervous grin — it was clear the buyer's questions went beyond the salesperson's knowledge of the product. It was a sight you might expect to see during an exchange about an innocuous, assembly-line product, such as a vacuum cleaner or a foot massager.

But instead it was about a top-of-the-line, 42-inch, flat-screen high-definition television at a Best Buy store. The customer wanted to know such things as whether the TV was formatted to accept a 1080i HD signal, or how many HDMI connections it could accommodate.

Poking around the store, I noticed quite a few baby boomers studying some of the best and most technically advanced toys on the market: video iPods, TiVo boxes, HD-enhanced digital video cameras — even Xbox 360 video-game consoles and accessories.

Now, it's very possible many of them were preparing to purchase these high-tech toys as gifts for their children or grandchildren. But, as recent studies on baby boomer behavior point out, it's more likely that today's 50-to-65-year-olds are eyeing such products for their own pleasure.

The first true post-World War II generation is embracing new technology more readily than any prior group. Just ride the New York City subway for the proof: You're as likely to see those famous white iPod ear buds protruding from a grandmother's head as from a tween's.

TV Land senior vice president of research and planning Tanya Giles isn't surprised. She said the boomer generation is the first to grow up in a technology-dominated world. Thus, boomers are not as technophobic as many people may believe.

“This is a group that grew up with television, which was the first big technology created for them,” Giles said. “It makes them crave emerging entertainment products and services that enhance their viewing experience.”

TV Land's new study, appropriately called The Joy of Tech, bears that point out. The study reveals that more than 65% of boomers have tried a new technology, such as a digital video recorder or a high-definition television, in the last three years.

Forrester Research's State of Consumers and Technology survey reports that 16% of boomers have DVRs, compared to 18% of Gen Yers and 21% of Gen Xers.

And Forrester found the mean age of HDTV owners to be a surprisingly mature 46 years old. Baby boomers also comprise one-third of the 195 million people with Internet connections, according to Jupiter Research. Within that group, over 80% watch short-form content, including online trailers, sports highlights and news clips, while one quarter watch full-length TV shows or movies, according to TV Land.

The network also reported that boomers are prepared to spend $88 per month on technologies like digital cable, video-on-demand and digital recorders that enhance their home viewing experience, compared to the $64 a month for adults 18 to 39.

With many boomers preparing to retire, their purchase and use of HDTVs, DVRs, computers and other home-targeted media will only increase, as many convert their homes into their primary entertainment outlet.

Which brings me to my favorite research spot: my parents' house. While not quite at retirement age, my mom is already watching TiVo time-shifted episodes of Oprah on a 42-inch HDTV set, while my dad is using a high-speed broadband connection to download classic Barry White, Gladys Knight, Dinah Washington and George Benson songs to burn to CDs.

With boomers now numbering 78 million and with a buying power of $2.3 trillion annually, according to TV Land, Giles said the group has both the population and financial pull to influence the future of the new media technology sector.

They have the means to purchase the high-ticket products, but they're also wise enough not to jump at the first product off the assembly line. Giles says boomers make very informed purchase decisions and explore all options before plunking down their cash or credit cards.

Ironically, in a world obsessed with attracting and appealing to youths, the next time I'm in a Best Buy, I'm seeking advice from the grandfatherly guy walking down the same aisle as me. Not Joe Whippersnapper Salesperson.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.