February 1, 2001
Talkin' 'Bout Their Generation
The mighty AARP has rolled out My Generation, a focus group grab bag of a
bimonthly for baby boomers
by William Powers
My Generation, the humongous new magazine for baby boomers, arrived this
week. The launch event for newsies featured a blue-neon peace sign, a lava
lamp, cutouts of Captain Kirk and JFK, "All You Need Is Love" cranking from
speakers, and a lot of talk about ... plastic surgery. Even if you weren't
in the mag's target demographic, Americans around age 50, or the leading
edge of the generation that "refuses to grow up," as the press release put
it, the launch was a mesmerizing little moment in media evolution.
And after rifling through the bag of period party favors they gave out (a
purple tie-dyed bandanna, a pair of red-tinted granny glasses, a tiny disco
mirror ball), it was easy to spot the event's more salient
We now know where the children of the '60s, the Dionysian
anti-establishmentarians who gamboled naked at Woodstock, finally wound up:
in the embrace of one of the Establishment's biggest and wealthiest
lobbying outfits, AARP, the magazine's publisher. The hardball interest
group that makes elected officials quake will send the bimonthly to members
between ages 50 and 55, meaning an instant circulation of more than 3
million. Unlike its sister publication Modern Maturity, which will still go
to the 55-plus crowd (poor wretched souls, they never rocked nude to
Country Joe and the Fish), My Gen will also be sold on newsstands.
Then there's the way the magazine was designed, which was by focus group.
Editor Betsy Carter told The New York Times' Alex Kuczynski that the name
of the magazine, which most people under
50 would associate with a song by the Who, didn't come from pop
music at all (understandable, when you recall that the lyrics included the
prayer, "I hope I die before I get old"). It came from the way boomers
referred to themselves in focus groups.
There's nothing new about focus-grouped magazines, and good reason to
expect that this latest product of that revered process might succeed. A
little of this, a bit of that, a touch of the other, and pretty soon you're
pleasing practically everyone. Those boomers will be reading it hungrily,
renewing their annual memberships, and helping AARP sell the ads that pay
Or will they? The people behind My Generation are pros, and they came up
with some impressive stuff. There's a nicely written piece by Judith Levine
on having a father with Alzheimer's; a well-reported story by Annie Cheney
about a judge who tried, at age 50, to start a second career as a New York
City public schoolteacher; and an amusing Bruce McCall illustration of the
ideal doctor's waiting room, complete with bar and strolling violinist.
But the mag is jammed with much other stuff, too, celeb profiles, personal
finance, fashion, memoirs, advice columns, gadgets, travel, so jammed that
you can almost hear the grabby focus groupers demanding it all. A piece
about cosmetic surgery, based on a survey of popular attitudes toward
face-lifts, eye jobs, and other enhancements, is overtly framed to respond
to the boomers' fears about their drooping looks. (This must have come up a
lot in the demo research, because AARP devoted most of the launch event to
the subject. The coming plastic surgery boom will be way bigger than love
beads and bell-bottoms ever were.)
When a magazine strives this hard to please everyone, it's easy for the
reader to feel a little lost. What's remarkable, and a little puzzling, is
that My Generation chose not to imitate the most successful magazines of
our time, which use a simple device to make their content hang together: a
famous person. First there was Martha Stewart's magazine, a phenomenal
success. Then Oprah's magazine, more phenomenal. Rosie O'Donnell has one in
the works, and there's talk of a Tiger Woods magazine that would draw male
The success of such magazines is based on the cardinal principle of boomer
culture, celebrity sells. It's especially good at selling magazines,
because a beloved person is a terrific organizing principle. When you open
O magazine, it's like entering the mind of Oprah herself, and for her many
readers, that's a very good place to be.
Oprah, Martha, and Tiger are not just names and faces. Each is a movement,
a secular religion, and an extremely powerful way of getting people to buy
So while wishing My Generation all the best, I'd suggest that if things
don't work out with this version, if the readers don't come running, a
solution is near at hand. There's a gigantic boomer celebrity who would
make a fabulous magazine. He's more beloved than Oprah, and his fan club
dwarfs Martha Stewart's. He's the chief fascination of our time,
inspiration for countless biographies, novels, movies and TV shows. He's a
historical drama, a crime show, a tearjerker, and a porn flick in one. Best
of all, he's not simply the right age, he's the epitome of the boomer
personality in all its beauty and horror. And now he's facing the same
challenge as his generational cohorts: a sudden sense of self-doubt and
purposelessness, a fear that the world is leaving you behind.
Forget the focus groups. Bill Clinton, the magazine, is aching to be born.
You might not even need his permission, the man's a public figure. But
somehow, one imagines he'd be up for it.
---- William Powers is media columnist for National Journal. He recently spent three months in Japan as a Japan Society Fellow, studying the role of reading in Japanese life. This column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.
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