American Consumers Newsletter

by Cheryl Russell, Editorial Director, New Strategist Press
June 2005

The Middle-Age Bubble




Among the nation’s 44 million homeowners with mortgages, only 9 percent have an outstanding balance on a home equity loan, owing a median of $19,266.


The Middle-Age Bubble

Everyone is fretting about the housing bubble. Even Alan Greenspan is muttering about the froth. But there is a much bigger bubble wreaking havoc on our nation: the middle-age bubble. It is a demographic phenomenon that occurs when tens of millions of Americans crowd into the humorless years of childrearing and moneymaking. The consequence is a collective mental illness to be endured until the bubble bursts.

The middle-age bubble has been growing for decades, and it has never been bigger than it is today. From a low of 21 percent in 1980, the proportion of the population in middle age (35 to 54) has ballooned to a 30 percent peak this year. The last time the nation experienced a middle-age bubble, during the 1940s and 1950s, we got the Cold War and McCarthyism. This time there is the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. In both eras, the age group most besieged by obligation and most beset with psychological problems has been in control of the nation’s mindset. No other age group is as mean spirited and unforgiving as the middle-aged as they steer children and teenagers through the treacherous channels of popular culture. No other age group is as materialistic and competitive as they engage in a deadly serious game of musical chairs for the prize of getting ahead.

Middle age has not been kind to boomers, and middle-aged boomers have not been kind. This might explain why the 56 percent majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States, according to the June 16-19 Gallup poll. Behind the dissatisfaction is the record number of Americans in middle age.

It is not easy being middle-aged, and the difficulties show up in the statistics. The proportion of people reporting mental health problems in the past 30 days peaks among 45-to-54-year-olds at 5.7 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In a federal government study of the prevalence of mental health conditions among adults, the middle-aged are more likely to suffer from a variety of problems than those younger or older. They are more likely to report feeling sad, hopeless, worthless, and nervous. The proportions of the middle-aged who feel this way are not trivial. Six percent say they feel worthless at least some of the time, 7 percent feel hopeless, 12 percent sad, and 16 percent nervous. Thirteen percent of the middle-aged say they feel like everything is an effort.

For the middle-aged, everything is an effort. No only do they spend more time at work than anyone else, but they also spend more time taking care of children and elderly parents. This overload leaves them less time to take care of themselves–less time for sleep, leisure activities, and socializing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Time Use Survey. This sleep-deprived, overworked, overwhelmed age group now dominates our country’s political, financial, and social institutions. The middle-aged are all work and no play. Their anger and frustration shout on talk radio. Their moral certitude lectures from the pulpits. The middle-age mindset explains political polarization and religious fervor. It is behind tax cuts, educational testing, mandatory sentencing, and tougher bankruptcy laws. In their quest for the best, the middle-aged dedicate entire days, weekends, and seasons to children’s sports events. They squander small fortunes on SAT prep courses, elite schools, and lavish weddings. They flaunt McMansions. They parade SUVs. They are pumped.

But they are about to pop. This swollen balloon of middle-age madness will feel the first pinprick on July 1, when the oldest boomers–at age 59 1/2–become eligible to withdraw money from their IRAs without penalty. The second poke will occur a few months later, on January 1, 2006, when the oldest turn 60. The middle-aged share of the population will begin to fall. The incredible hulks will morph into aging humans, and an old-age bubble will begin to grow. Lucky for us, the prevalence of many mental health problems is lowest among the old.

By Cheryl Russell, editorial director, New Strategist Publications

For more about the generations and their impact on the United States, see the new fifth edition of American Generations: Who They Are and How They Live, now available as a download or in hardcopy from

If you have any questions or comments about the above editorial, e-mail New Strategist at


The average American devotes 5.1 hours a day to leisure activities, half of it in front of the TV.


Q: How political are young adults?

A: Young adults are not as political as they once were, but more political than they used to be. According to the annual American Freshmen survey of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), a growing proportion of students believe keeping up to date with political affairs is a “very important” or “essential” life goal. The figure stood at 34 percent in 2004, up from the all-time low of 28 percent in 2000, and was the highest since 1994. But students, like older adults, have become increasingly polarized. The proportion of college freshmen identifying themselves as “middle-of-the-road” is at the lowest point since the 1970s (46 percent), HERI reports. And record numbers of students identify themselves as “far left” (3 percent) and “far right” (2 percent).

There is other evidence that today’s young adults are awakening from political slumber.

Voting rates in the 2004 presidential election increased the most among 18-to-24-year-olds, according to the Census Bureau. Forty-two percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted in 2004, up a substantial 10 percentage points from the 32 percent who voted in 2000. While not a record (43 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected), this substantial bump-up in voting is encouraging. Among the total voting-age population, 58 percent reported voting in the 2004 election, up from 55 percent in 2000.

For more on the attitudes of college freshmen, see The American Freshmen: National Norms for 2004, available in hardcopy from the Higher Education Research Institute at american_freshman.html. For more on voting trends, the Census Bureau’s data are available at http://



Among Americans without health insurance, the 53 percent majority say cost is the reason for their lack of coverage. Another 30 percent blame job loss.


To keep up-to-date on ever-changing American demographics and lifestyles, check out these useful web sites:


Keeping up with rapidly evolving Internet use can be difficult, but the PEW Internet and American Life Project makes it easy. Not only does PEW analyze specific aspects of Internet use (with its recently released report on the use of web cams, for example), it also regularly probes the American population to determine what it does online. The information it collects is available at this site. Just click on the link “Usage Over Time” to download a large Excel spreadsheet that reveals the demographics of Internet use from March 2000 through January 2005. One tidbit from the January survey: 73 percent of Internet users aged 18 or older get news online, and 31 percent did so yesterday.


One in eight people living in the United States was born in another country. Among 30-to-34- year-olds, the proportion is one in five. Because of the growing importance of the foreign-born population to the United States, the Census Bureau collects and publishes a detailed look at the foreign-born each year. The 2004 data are available at this site, with an examination of the characteristics of the U.S. population by citizenship status, the characteristics of the foreign-born by year of entry and world region of birth, and a look at first, second, and third-or-higher generations of foreign-born. databook2005.htm

At this site you can download the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ recently released publication Women in the Labor Force: A Databook. With 59 percent of the nation’s women in the workforce, including more than 70 percent of those aged 20 to 54, a comprehensive guide to women’s evolving employment situation comes in handy. The information in the data book is current through 2004 and includes everything from labor force participation rates by age, race, and marital status, to women’s occupations and weekly earnings. Here is one of the many interesting facts from the data book, which is available as a pdf download: Among dual-earner married couples, working wives contribute 35 percent of the family income.



Eighteen percent of U.S. residents aged 5 or older speak a language other than English at home. The 55 percent majority of them speak English “very well.”


Affording you quick and easy access to the facts you need is the goal of four new titles that are now available from New Strategist. Order online at,call toll free at 800/848-0842, or fax your order to 607/277-5009.

THE AMERICAN MARKETPLACE: Demographics and Spending Patterns, 7th ed. The Wall Street Journal said it best when it wrote, “The American Marketplace should be on your bookshelf.” Designed for easy use, The American Marketplace gives you a population profile of the United States in one handy volume. New to this edition are the latest Census Bureau population projections; a first look at spending by Asian households; new data on spending by households with incomes of $150,000 or more; and interesting new numbers on the demographics of retirement savings and 401(k)s. (544 pgs., hardcover, ISBN 1-885070-60-8) $89.95

AMERICAN GENERATIONS: Who They Are and How They Live, 5th ed. American Generations is a superior resource for anyone who wants to quickly and easily compare and contrast the five living generations–Millennial, Generation X, Baby Boom, Swing, and World War II. Among the many new tables in the book are proprietary estimates by New Strategist on the education, incomes, living arrangements, and labor force status of each generation. (520 pgs., hardcover, ISBN 1-88507069-1) $89.95

AMERICAN HEALTH: Demographics and Spending of Health Care Consumers. American Health focuses on health care consumers rather than industry statistics and reveals future market and policy needs. Presenting more than twice as many tables as contained in the popular “Health, United States,” American Health‘s 14 chapters examine addictions, aging, alternative medicine, attitudes toward health care, births, health care coverage and cost, deaths, disability, diseases and conditions, health care visits, hospital care, mental health, sexual attitudes and behavior, and weight and exercise–the whole gamut of our physical and mental well-being. (520 pgs., hardcover, ISBN 1-885070-74-8) $89.95

AMERICANS AND THEIR HOMES: Demographics of Homeownership, 2nd ed. Americans and Their Homes, the first edition of which was published in 1998, is back in an expanded second edition to give you a detailed look at the demographics of who owns their home and what those homes are like. You will discover who homeowners are by such useful demographic characteristics as age, income, household type, race, Hispanic origin, and geographical residence. You will also learn about their homes–heating, cooling, kitchen and laundry equipment, purchase price and value, housing costs, and much, much more. (424 pgs., hardcover, ISBN 1-885070-86-1) $89.95

Go to to see detailed tables of contents and to order downloads or hardcopy.



Thirty percent of homeowners have a college degree. Among mobile-home owners, only 6 percent are college graduates.


The Who’s Buying series of reports, which are based on the ninth edition of Household Spending: Who Spends How Much on What, bring you even more detail about how much Americans spend by the demographics that count–age, income, household type, race and Hispanic origin, region of residence, and education. To round out the picture, each report also presents who-are-the-best-customers analyses of the data, showing at a glance the demographics of household spending product by product.

The Who’s Buying series includes:

    • Who’s Buying Alcoholic and Nonalcoholic Beverages


    • Who’s Buying at Restaurants and Carry-Outs, 2nd ed.


    • Who’s Buying Entertainment


    • Who’s Buying for Pets, 2nd ed.


    • Who’s Buying for Travel


    • Who’s Buying Groceries, 2nd ed.


    • Who’s Buying Health Care


    • Who’s Buying Household Furnishings, Services, and Supplies, 2nd ed.


    • Who’s Buying Information Products and Services


  • Who’s Buying Transportation

If you need the big picture for items ranging from wine to cell phones, from pet food to sofas, go to to see detailed tables of contents and to order downloads or hardcopy.



Sixty percent of teen girls say they would be “very upset” if they got pregnant.