Boomers need love, too
You’ve read the statistics. There are more than 76 million American baby boomers—individuals born between 1946 and 1964—who currently are between 48- and 66- years old. Boomers account for between 40 to 50 percent of all consumer spending, and they control approximately 70 percent of the nation’s assets. On January 1, 2011, the nation’s oldest baby boomers began turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 a day, with the number of Americans over 65 expected to outnumber those under 20 before the end of this decade. And, according to the National Association of Baby Boomer Women, by 2030 women will comprise 54 percent of boomers.
So, why aren’t there more romances geared toward readers 45 and older?
AARP’s 2009 “Sex, Romance and Relationships” survey of nearly 1,700 Americans age 45 and older indicate there is definitely interest in romance the subject. Respondents most satisfied said they needed: a sexual partner, regular intercourse (once a week or more—but not necessarily daily), both partners in good health, low levels of stress and no financial worries. They also discussed what was necessary to keep romance alive. The most recent readership survey conducted by Romance Writers of America (RWA) in 2011, states women between 45 and 54 make up the bulk of the romance-buying public.
However, romance novel heroines are generally in their 20s and 30s and female characters “of a certain age,” when they exist, have been relegated to secondary roles—as the wicked stepmother or mother-in-law or as the kindly neighbor or relative who offered sage advice or babysitting services when needed. Romance heroines tend to be motherless for a variety of reasons and when they did exist, they nagged the heroine to get married and provide grandchildren. Notable exceptions such as Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Chicago Stars series feature satisfying secondary romances between characters who are over 50.
As baby boomers—both authors and readers—matured, many storylines began to reflect the changing demographic. Felicia Mason’s 1995 Body and Soul is a December-May romance between a 47-year-old woman with five grown children and a successful 30-something lawyer. (Mason’s romance was published prior to Terry McMillan’s 1996 novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back and the current cougar craze.)
The late Leslie Esdaile’s Through the Storm is a romance about two divorced people whose mothers live with them who try to find the time and a place to develop a relationship. Other titles include several Rochelle Alers’s novels and novellas such as “Far From Home,” “Stand-In Bride,” and “From the Heart.” Layle Giusto’s Silver Love; the late Monica Jackson’s Never Too Late for Love; and Janice Sims’s A Second Chance at Love are other examples. Gay G. Gunn’s Everlastin’ Love has a slightly different appeal as a romance set in the late 60’s that deals with the impact of the Vietnam war.
Author Evelyn Palfrey writes books she calls “romantic suspense for the marvelously mature.” Palfrey, a second-generation romance reader enjoyed the genre, her pleasure enhanced by the launch of the Afrocentric Arabesque imprint. However, she realized “some of the main characters [in romance novels] were the same age as my children and I had already come through some of the problems they faced. Her novels include Three Perfect Men, The Price of Passion, Dangerous Dilemmas, Everything in Its Place, and Going Home. Subplots in Palfrey’s romances have touched upon divorce, menopause, second-chance romances, Hurricane Katrina, and grandparents raising grandchildren.
Romance novels have even played supporting roles in the subplots of two multi-generational romances. Sandwiched by Jennifer Archer, and Dancing on the Edge of the Roof by Sheila Williams.
Other noteworthy books include Ellyn Bache’s Over 50’s Singles Night, a romantic comedy about two Jewish widowed sisters; Jeanne Ray’s Julie and Romeo and its sequel Julie and Romeo Get Lucky, a comedic take on the Shakespearean classic; Thief of Words, a second-chance romance by the husband-wife team John Jaffe; and Hank Phillipi Ryan’s Charlotte McNally series.
In June 2005, Harlequin surveyed nearly 800 women 35 and older for a new imprint aimed at that segment called NEXT. In a press release NEXT’s editorial director Tara Gavin said, “NEXT is entertainment for women in what may be the best stage of their lives. “We pride ourselves on knowing what women want. We know that life isn’t always about what you had planned. It’s about what comes next.” The following month, Harlequin launched its NEXT imprint with the catch phrase “Every life has more than one chapter.” When the imprint was cancelled in January 2008, many blamed the publisher’s chick-lit covers, four-book- per-month subscription packages, the 45-day category romance shelf life for NEXT’s demise.
Several books and authors of the now defunct NEXT imprint are finding new audiences via e-books. According to RWA data, the average age for those who purchase romances as e-books is 42 as compared with 49 for hard-copy romances. The affordability of books and devices, ease in downloading, lack of clinch covers, adjustable typefaces and portability have made e-readers popular with boomers who comprise a large percentage of the market for the devices. Romances are also available as audiobooks in cassette, CD, MP3CD and downloadable formats. In 2005, Harlequin and Audible.com entered in to an exclusive agreement to produce Harlequin titles on audio. A handful of NEXT titles, such as Sandwiched have been produced as part of the agreement.
What draws women of a certain age to romances featuring older characters? Many readers cite the maturity of characters and plausible storylines that mirror real life issues from blended families to boomerang kids to economic downsizing to the search for companionship.
Gwendolyn E. Osborne is a Chicago-based freelancer who writes about romance and mystery fiction as well as hard copy, audio, and e-books. She is the author of "'Women Who Look Like Me': Cultural Identity and Reader Responses to African American Romance Novels" in Race/Gender/Media: Considering Diversity Across Audiences, Content, and Producers, Ed. Rebecca Ann Lind, Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2009.