Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2017

It Is Always About the Demographics

I am an avid reader of “AARP: The Magazine.” There are two versions—one designed for individuals in their fifties and early sixties, the other for old farts like me. I emailed AARP asking to be sent the first version based on the principle that if one thinks young, he/she is young. I was betrayed by the organization’s database. The old fart edition remains “my” AARP magazine.

A number of my Republican friends dropped their AARP membership, arguing that its governance directives, editorial policy, and membership leans to the left politically and socially. It does. I encouraged them to continue their membership based on the principle that knowing how the enemy thinks is essential to survival.

Editorializing aside, I find the “AARP: The Magazine” a wonderful source of ideas for “Rinker on Collectible” columns. The aging trends discussed in the magazine often provide crossover insights into what is happening in the antiques and collectible trade. The trade does not operate in isolation.

The December 2016/January 2017 issue contains a one-column story entitled “Why Advertisers Ignore You.” The article begins: “It’s simple math. Millennials today even outnumber the boomers. But the most populous generation is actually the youngest. While there aren’t official generational definitions or names, experts mostly agree on these six.” This is followed by this data (I have added the percentages):

Generation                           Age           Population      Percentage
Greatest Generation        89 and Older       3 Million          0.009%
Silent Generation               71-88             26.2 Million       0.081%
Boomers                           52-70             72.9 Million       0.226%
Generation X                      36-51             65.9 Million       0.204%
Millennials                         19-35             75.5 Million       0.234%
Generation Z                  18 and younger   77.9 Million       0.246%

If you are 52 or older, these numbers are frightening. The members of the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, and Boomers represent only 0.316 % of the population. Add in the members of Generation X and the percentage climbs to 0.51 %.

I can hear the counterarguments mounting. These are “population” numbers. They do not reflect the distribution of wealth, the majority of which is in the hands of the three older generations. Philip Longman’s 2015 article entitled “Wealth and Generations” in “Washington Monthly” [see: http://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/junejulyaug-2015/wealth-and-generations/], notes wealth accumulation is up for individuals aged 65-74, down for the 55-65, 45-54, and 35-44 age groups, and steady for those under 36. The question is not where the wealth resides but how it is being spent and by whom.

What do these population numbers mean for the antiques and collectibles industry? First, traditional collectors, individuals who collected antiques before there was a mid-twentieth century collectibles market, now represent less than 10 % of the overall population. The first members of the Baby Boomers did not turn 21 until 1966. Less than half collected the traditional collecting categories. The majority focused on 1950s and 1960s collectibles, the objects of their childhood. In some cases, Baby Boomer filled in sets of dinnerware, flatware, and stemware inherited from their parents or grandparents. Individuals born in the first half of the Baby Boomer era had World War II parents and were exposed to the hand-me down tradition of the pre-WWII era.

Like wealth, the majority of the remaining traditional collections reside with the Greatest, Silent, and a small majority of the Baby Boomer generations. These traditional collectors found the passion of collecting irresistible and benefited from the prestige associated with their collecting prowess. The sale of collections to support collectors in retirement was unstated but always lingered in the background. Their predecessors witnessed a slow but steady rise in values in the 50 years prior.

The traditional collectors quickly became set in their ways. They picked one or more collecting categories and made it/them the focus of their collecting career. They interacted with their peers via collectors’ clubs and informal exchanges.

As traditional collectors grew older, they faced a stark reality in the 1990s. The value of their collections was decreasing rather than increasing. Normally relatively safe no matter what the collecting category, even high-end pieces fell in select collecting categories. Many traditional collectors made the decision to die with their collections rather than face the reality of economic loss. I have lost count of the emails from traditional collectors who sold their collections and recovered less than 30% of the purchase cost.

Second, businesses do not focus their advertising dollars on members of the Greatest, Silent, Boomer, and Generation X generations because of their fixed and unwavering preferences. They are brand loyal, happy and content to pay a premium for the brands they trust. I continue to have trouble buying store brands versus name brands even though I know that the store brand is identical to and manufactured by the same company that made the name brand. My Dad was a Ford man. It broke his heart when I bought my first Volkswagen, a loyalty I maintained for several decades before going independent.

Businesses depend on brand loyalty. This is why their advertising focuses on the Millennials and Generation Z. These generations identify with their peer group and are digitally savvy. They are not set in their ways. They are brand and trend responsive. Loyalty can be altered. Business knows these generations are critical to their future. The antiques and collectibles industry does not.

Collecting is the unifying brand of the antiques and collectibles industry. Yet, within the industry, there is no common voice or focused effort to promote the concept of collecting. Everyone assumes Mikey will do it.

[Author’s Aside: This is another example of why my Davenport University students often have a blank look on their faces when I make analogies. First aired in 1972 and running for 12 years, Quaker Oats did a series of television commercials for its Life cereal featuring Little Mikey, a fictional boy (played by John Gilchrist). Mikey sits at a table with his two brothers. In front of each is a bowl of Life cereal. Mikey’s two brothers are reluctant to eat this healthy cereal alternative. Both decided to let Mikey try it.]

Rather than branding collecting as a general concept, collectors prefer to brand their favorite specific collecting category. Category loyalty is the heart and soul of collecting. This approach works so long as members within each collecting category continue to attract younger and equally enthusiastic new members. The traditional collectors saw no problem with this approach. After all, this was the route they followed to become collectors.

This approach began to fail in the 1990s. Millennial and Generation Z individuals have minds of their own. They have no intention of allowing previous generations to dictate their mindset, especially in the area of what and what not to collect/save. Further, traditional antiques and collectibles did not fit their lifestyle. Collections became clutter and not indications of good taste or social achievement

Millennial and Generation Z have not rejected collecting. The concept survives in spite of a minimal effort on the part of the collecting community to, as Jean-Luc Picard so aptly said, “make it so.” What and how they collect differs from the methodology of the traditional collector.

Understanding the Millennials and Generation Zs is the challenge. If the antiques and collectibles industry is to have a future, it needs to consider how to convince the Millennial and Generation Z generations to collect what the older generations collected while, at the same time, being flexible and taking a positive approach to encouraging any type of collecting. The time for action is now. Waiting will prove disastrous.

I am open to suggestions and willing to pass them along in future “Rinker on Collectibles” columns. Email your ideas to harrylrinker@aol.com.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.


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