baby boomers

Facebook club: meet the Baby Boomers

January 2021

If you want to guess the age of someone without ever having met them, ask them which social platform they use. If they say Facebook, stalk them to see how they use it – the language they use, the content they post. If you’re eagle-eyed, there’s a good chance you will soon begin to spot the traits of a Baby Boomer.

According to the statistics, Baby Boomers love Facebook. Pew Research’s findings show that 72% of 50- to 64-year-olds use it. So any brand wanting to reach this demographic (usually defined as someone born between 1946 and 1964), then Facebook is a good place to start.

Facebook is, if you know how to spot them, awash with the tell-tale signs. There’s even a Facebook group where Millennials (another Facebook-loving generation) poke fun at their elders by pretending to be Baby Boomers, posting things that only Baby Boomers post. (Apparently, this includes lots of Minions gifs and news about their cat’s ‘passing’.) 

To find out for ourselves how Boomers use Facebook, we interviewed some of them. Of course, it’s impossible to paint an entire generation with the same brush – they’re all individuals with different lives and hobbies and professions and opinions. Some of our interviewees adopted Facebook in its early days – the earliest was 2005 – while some came to it later, and some are tech-savvy while others are less so. But some interesting commonalities emerged.

“The fact that it allowed me to reconnect with my former students and create a circle of friends and followers, based on my activities and interests, intrigued me. It all started small but it quickly expanded.”

Hansuli, creative director, Switzerland

It’s all about belonging

Regardless of age group, there is a fundamental need that all humans have: to feel that we belong. Just as TikTok offers Gen Zers a space for socialising and meeting like-minded people, so Facebook seems to be particularly good at fulfilling the Baby Boomer’s need for community.

This has been especially true during the Covid-19 pandemic, when so many of us have been grounded in our own homes – older age groups more than anyone. Social media has been a godsend in helping people stay connected, and there has been an uptick in the numbers engaging with Facebook groups in particular. Clubs and groups that existed in the physical realm have had to move online, and new groups have been set up – including Covid support groups.

Most of our interviewees said they had joined a Facebook group, whether it was based on their professional or personal interests, or their family or old friends.

“I have connections with fine artists from around the globe. I find it wonderful and inspirational to have a platform that brings us together, where we can have exchanges, receive and give commentaries on our posts.”

Hansuli, creative director, Switzerland

“One of my first experiences of social media was Friends Reunited. When I moved on from that to Facebook, I used it for a similar reason – to find people I went to school with. Mostly girls I used to fancy!”

Andrew, university lecturer, London

The Friends Reunited generation

For Baby Boomers, the initial reason for joining Facebook was to connect with family and friends and re-connect with old acquaintances, rather than to make new ones. Many of our interviewees use it to stay in touch with family who live abroad, and many have delighted in finding old school friends or former students.

One interviewee, Hansuli, a creative director from Switzerland, joined the platform after receiving an email from Facebook to say they’d been tagged in a photo. Curiosity awoken, they opened an account purely to see the post. “As it turned out, the post was from one of my graduating seniors, a Chinese student. It didn’t take long until I received friend requests from Kansas City students I hadn’t heard from since 1969. I very much enjoyed having these contacts again and most of them continue to follow me as I follow them.”

The features that they use the most are also about staying in touch – the calendar so they don’t forget the nephew’s birthday, and Messenger to communicate directly with friends and family – and to track down more friends. Andrew, a lecturer from London, says he managed to connect with some long-lost university friends by messaging a mutual acquaintance to ask about them.

“I personally think Facebook can enrich your life if you use it properly. My partner for example is now 72 and not so mobile anymore and she can keep up with the world and the news of the world through Facebook.”

Barbara, activist and journalist, Vienna

“I use Facebook to share and support ideas and facts among friends, take a stand on news and defend values”

Joaquim, teacher, Portugal

Let’s get political

While their motivation for joining Facebook might be to connect with people they already know, most of the Baby Boomers we spoke to talk about how it has widened their horizons once they are there.

And the most striking thing that emerged is that almost all of them use Facebook to engage with politics and social issues. They air their own views, comment on other’s opinions, share articles and debate ideas, and even use it as a platform for activism in the real world. Barbara, a journalist and activist from Vienna, has used it to organise demos at short notice, for example, and finds it useful when it’s important to react to something immediately.

The serious Facebook

But what is also striking is that when it comes to posting content, it is not something that Baby Boomers do lightly. For a start, they are less likely to post any content at all, on any platform, than their younger counterparts. According to Pew Research, 32% of adults aged 50-64 never post on social media, whereas 15% of people aged 16-35 (Gen Z and Millennials) say they never post on social media. And they are much more likely to share posts than create their own.

While they do sometimes post holiday snaps (“especially the ones that make me look slimmer and more stylish than I really am” (Andrew, university lecturer) and photos of their cat and funny memes, mostly, they keep their public posts for serious stuff.  One respondent uses Facebook to post short stories they have written. And almost all of them, when they do post, write about politics, the environment, culture or current affairs.

But they think carefully about it before they do so – perhaps because this is a generation for whom the word ‘media’ still means print publishing. Maybe, whatever they post or share, they do so in the belief that it will be out there in the world for posterity.

I do not post superficially, so if I write something, then I have thought about it, and it's nice when people react to it.”

Barbara, activist and journalist, Vienna

“Occasionally I may share something I read or I post statements from other friends and colleagues. Whatever it is, it has to have substance, be thought provoking or inspiring.”

Hansuli, creative director, Switzerland

The downside of Facebook

The Baby Boomers we spoke to are very aware of the negative aspects of Facebook and social media in general. They know that, by its very nature, an online community can become an echo chamber when it comes to values and opinions.

They are also aware that social media is not always the best tool for nuanced, rational debate and that, as Joaquim from Portugal puts it, “Facebook is a means to expose your visibility and, above all, your vanities.”

“You tend to get to your opinions reflected back to you. And you start to post things with the aim of getting liked, so it’s not an honest dialogue.”

Andrew, university lecturer, London

Our group of Baby Boomers are also far from naïve when it comes to the thorny issue of data privacy. When asked about the negative side of Facebook, many of them mentioned this. They know that once you are online, you can be tracked.

Some see this as an unacceptable loss of control of personal data. “Is it a force for good? No, due the cost to pay, the loss of control of the data that we provide to companies ‘una pescadilla que se muerde la cola*’” says Manolo from Barcelona. But most seem to be fairly sanguine about it – they know that it happens, but that’s just life and it’s the price you pay for the benefits you get from social media.

*A whiting that bites its tail

I think children might be in danger, because they might not know how to control themselves and the use of the whole thing. But for myself, what kind of danger should I be faced with? They use my data? So what? Big deal.”

Evi, English teacher, Athens

Related links

https://www.pewresearch.org/